I had several reasons for stopping in Cologne: first, I needed to break the journey towards Bavaria, or it was going to be a very long day. Second, I wanted to take the rail line down the Rhine, which was marked on the map as scenic, and third, I wanted to go and visit the shrine of St Ursula, my namesake saint, who is the patron saint of Cologne. This was a bit of a quixotic quest: I’m not Catholic, and I’m not named after her. I suppose I was just curious. Fourth, and very much last, I thought it would be nice to see the Cathedral.
My first impression wasn’t good. The train station itself was large and very busy, and very central, since I immediately came out of the door and found myself right under the Cathedral, in a sort of 1960s concrete plaza. But there were loads of ‘beware pickpockets’ signs, and police hanging around, questioning anyone who looked shifty. There were plenty of people who looked shifty.
I needed to get the right train times to go down the Rhine, so I ducked back inside and waited in the ticket office for 20 minutes. While I was waiting, I could see, out through the office window, the police questioning a shabby-looking couple. I finally got to the front of the queue and explained my plans. The lady was very helpful and explained that I’d need to get a train one stop in the morning, and get on a long-distance train at another station.
Armed with train times, I went back out the other side of the station – it really was massive – and alongside a big road to find the youth hostel, which was only five minutes away. It was so close to the station, and sort of a level below it, that you could see up into the canopy of the station, and the trains coming and going. Outside the entrance of the hostel, a six-lane dual carriageway, full of cars coughing fumes, vanished into a pavementless underpass below the railway tracks.
The woman at the hostel desk was helpful in a very brisk and bossy way, explaining where I should go, and how to get to St Ursula’s church, which, it transpired, was less than ten minutes away.
I dumped my stuff in the dorm, which was clean but depressing. An open window gave out onto the enormous travel exchanges outside. There only seemed to be one other inhabitant, who was clearly out, but had left a large and rather threatening pair of Doc Martens (or whatever the German equivalent is) at the foot of the ladder to the bunk bed, as if to warn off potential intruders. It was much warmer than in Belgium, so I changed and went out again.
It really was only a ten minute walk, five of which were detouring around the dual carriageway, past the nightclub on the far side which was offering cabaret with ‘Real Thai Ladyboys’. After this I was immediately into a residential area so unremarkable I was unconvinced I would find anything of interest. From outside, the Basilica of St Ursula looked like a rather dumpy and provincial Catholic Church, and didn’t even show any signs of being open. It was open, however, and I went in. Inside the church was much larger than it seemed from outside, and older. There was hardly anyone there, and I wandered a bit aimlessly, until I saw an elderly couple who had come in behind me chatting to someone who seemed like a volunteer, or churchwarden. I went up, and said I wanted to see the Room of Bones. A minute of mutual incomprehension ensued before I was rescued by the elderly couple, who turned out to be Dutch, and to speak both fluent German and English. Anyway they were also going into the Room of Bones. I was informed that it was usually locked, and cost €3 to get in, so I coughed up my three Euros.
The Room of Bones is one of the most startling things I have ever seen. You go into a side chapel, which is square and seems older than the main part of the church, and the walls are surrounded by rows and rows of carved, gilded saints heads, inside which are actual skulls and bones. Under a vaulted ceiling, painted blue with gold stars, the higher walls are entirely covered with human bones, laid out into patterns. The arrangement of the bones itself is from the 11th Century, and the bones were old when they were discovered and laid out like that. And yet weirdly, the effect is not even slightly creepy. It was warm and quiet in there, and the medieval saints look out at you with peaceful, enigmatic smiles. The place had an odd atmosphere, not of death but of sanctuary, and of secrets joyfully held, as if the moment the room was locked again, the saints would resume their uninterrupted and age-long business of being amongst friends.
St Ursula herself, where she was pointed out to me on the wall, had a quill pen and an arrow, and an expression as if to say, well, what? Like a librarian, interrupted. I was quite besotted with her, immediately. In fact I was absolutely entranced by the entire thing, and if there had not been anyone hanging around waiting to lock up again, would have stayed there all day.
I remember when I first realised there was a Saint Ursula, asking my mother who she was and why she was a saint. My mother, who went to a Catholic school, said vaguely that she was some Christian martyr who’d died rather than marry a pagan. Even at an early age I thought Pagans sounded much more exciting than Christians, so I was really disappointed by this, and for years assumed it was some tedious Catholic anti-sex tale about a woman so pure she’d rather die than have sex.
However, the Saint Ursula in Cologne is much better than that. The actual legend is that she was the King of Cornwall's daughter, engaged to be married to the Pagan Governor of Armorica, and she insisted on going on pilgrimage to Rome before the marriage took place. This is is in the 4th or 5th century, just as Roman Europe falls apart, and the dark ages begin. Saint Ursula took 11 (or 11,000, as it turned into later) maidens with her on the trip to Rome, and once there, determined to visit Cologne, which at the time was being besieged by the Pagan Huns. She was killed there, possibly in battle.
The really interesting thing about this story is that it seems to me actually quite plausible. Cornwall was one of the few British provinces to retain a technical independence in Roman Britain. It was exceedingly rich, due to the preponderance of tin, copper and other valuable minerals, and it sat across the sea route from France/Roman Gaul to unconquered, gold-rich Ireland. Ireland at the time was a hotbed of development of early Christianity, and largely free from the incursions which were beginning to break up the Roman Empire. The early Irish Christians crossed the sea to Cornwall, and started converting the locals. Early Irish Christianity wasn’t the state-sponsored thing that was adopted in Rome, and which later turned into the Catholic Church. It was a wild, just-me-and-god, ascetic and revolutionary thing. So if the King’s daughter in 5th Century Cornwall was a convert, she would have been both a marriage catch, and probably, a wealthy and high-status woman who could demand to go galumphing around Europe, indulging her religious passions prior to a diplomatically arranged marriage.
In the main church, which has foundations as a Roman Temple, are eleven stone coffin-tombs, the same kind as you’ll find in very old churchyards in Cornwall, on the Saint’s Way where the early Christians walked from coast to coast.
But I don’t think that the carved woman in the Room of Bones is this Cornish Ursula. I think, since she is carrying a pen and an arrow, that she is a version of Athena, who doesn’t come from Cornwall, but from Greece, or maybe somewhere else before that. Athena carries a spear and a scroll (or an owl, the symbol of knowledge), like St Ursula carries an arrow and a pen. Somehow, somewhere, an already ancient goddess got sucked into the new religion, and maybe confused with a real woman, a high-status convert who died in a religious war, on the very edge of the dark ages.
Either way, the church, almost empty, and almost silent, swelled and breathed with secrets. It was keeping them, too. I stepped outside again into the motorised, six-lane, postwar concreteness of Cologne. The thing inside the church sealed itself up again, like the entrance to platform 9¾ disappearing into the wall. There was nothing outside, no Catholic kitschiness or souvenirs, no tickets or coffee shop, just some boring blocks of flats, the distant roaring and juddering of trains and the cars in the underpass, below.