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Kerry McLean: How my tour of Notre Dame's bell tower and roof left the teenage me a shivering wreck

Notre Dame
Notre Dame
The cathedral in flames this week
Kerry McLean

By Kerry McLean

I have a lot to thank my granny for, but one lasting passion I can lay entirely at her door is my love for classic films. In the days before streaming or downloading were even thought of, you had to rely on the TV planners to pick a good one for you.

In my granny's opinion, the best films were the old ones shown on the telly in the afternoons. Each day, she'd collect my sister and I from the school gates before rushing back to her house, getting the spuds peeled and in the pot before the matinee would start.

While the dinner bubbled away and the steam on the windows built up, she'd settle us on the sofa and we'd get ready to watch a black and white masterpiece or a technicolor classic together. I loved the leading men of Hollywood's golden era, stars like James Stewart, Cary Grant and Kirk Douglas and I wanted to be just like the glamorous leading ladies, Maureen O'Hara in particular. For me, she stood out from other actresses because of the roles she picked, portraying characters who were generally feisty, ready to take on anyone who disagreed with them and all without so much as a smudge of lipstick or a curl out of place.

I was only 10 years old when I first watched her as Esmeralda in the 1939 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The storyline had everything - cruelty and injustice, love and passion, a great big dollop of dodgy dancing and some impressive bell ringing and rope climbing.

It was a film that came to mind just a few short years later when I went to visit Paris for the first time with my mum and dad. When they asked where we'd like to visit, I, still heavily under the influence of Victor Hugo's imagination, suggested Notre Dame. Off we trotted to the Ile de la Cite, and, as we passed through the massive doors, under the famous stained glass rose window and into the cavernous cathedral, the rest of my family grew quiet, transfixed by the sheer size of the place and the ancient artefacts all around us.

But all 13-year-old me could think of was Quasimodo and, having spotted a sign advertising a tour of the bell tower and rooftop, I began pestering my parents to fork out the extra cash and accompany me upwards. Mum had the sense to say no but my dad, who always found it much harder to refuse his offspring's requests, eventually gave in.

Now, from the outside, the roof didn't seem overly high but as we ascended the rickety, spiral staircase, it started to feel like a very great distance back down to the ground. Halfway up I was beginning to question my decision but, as anyone who's taken the tour knows, it works like a one way system - up the north tower, across a walkway on the roof and down the south tower. Turning back wasn't an option.

I looked at my dad for some reassurance, but he had turned whiter than the plasterwork gargoyles around us and the grimace etched on his face, more pronounced. When we reached the start of the narrow walkway, our guide helpfully announced that we shouldn't worry about falling over the balustrade because a wire net would catch us before we hit the ground. Of course, when anyone tells you not to worry about something, that's exactly what you start to do.

By the time I reached the south tower and the way back down, my legs had turned to jelly and couldn't be trusted to carry me. I had to descend all 387 steps of that spiral staircase on my bottom, while my poor dad apologised to the ever increasing number of people being held up behind us.

Terrifying at the time, it was a memory we laughed at many times over the years and seeing that same roof go up in flames this week was heartbreaking.

President Macron has vowed the cathedral will be rebuilt within five years and I hope he's correct.

I would love to return to Paris and show that beautiful building to my own children in the future, but next time my feet will be staying firmly planted on the ground floor.

Belfast Telegraph


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