Nature calls time on Titanic bath-time


What lies on the bottom of the sea and shivers? A nervous wreck.

I expect you fell out of your cradle laughing at that one. Nonetheless, there’s one famous wreck that currently has every reason to feel anxious. The Titanic, one of the most celebrated of all pieces of maritime debris, is falling apart and, we’re warned, will cease to exist thirty years from now. 

Sunk after hitting an iceberg in 1912, the ship was found in 1985, split in two and lying in nearly 4,000m of water. Since then she has been much explored, notwithstanding the colossal pressure at that depth, and many artefacts have been recovered and distributed around museums. A popular landmark in the wreck remains the captain’s cabin, split open on one side, allowing the captain’s bath to be seen.

But not for much longer. Enzymes are eating into the metal: according to news reports, micro-organisms will see to it that the Titanic crumbles completely away, and at an alarming rate.

I don’t get all what the fuss is about. Is it really deteriorating that fast? I mean, it’s been there 107 years, which I wouldn’t term a rapid decline. More than that, I can’t help feeling that its final demise will actually be a good thing. What’s gained by a few people, encased in mind-bogglingly expensive specialist equipment, looking at the relic through a reinforced glass bubble and poking around with powerful mechanical grabbers to retrieve a monogrammed spoon?

The wreck of the once-proud ship should surely be designated the grave of the 1,000 who went down with her

Besides, I’d have guessed it would be designated a grave, as sunken warships generally are. Over 1,000 souls were still on board as she went down: do they not deserve some respect? Thanks to the natural process, they and the grand old ship will soon be left alone, because there won’t be anything left for nosy deep-sea tourists left to see. RIP.

After all, we always leave the dead in peace, don’t we? Only up to a point. 

Not if they’re a saint, we don’t. The early and medieval Catholic Church, in particular, was obsessed with getting hold of the body parts of holy men and women. They sometimes boiled them up after death, so that they could get the flesh off and save the saint’s bones as precious relics which would be revered in churches great and small – and, with the right saint (best of all, a martyr), earn the lucky cathedral or abbey a fortune in pilgrims’ donations. All it took was a miracle or two.

Here in the North-East we’re as guilty as any of such superstitious disturbance of the dead. When the great Northumbrian Saint Cuthbert died in 687, he was buried on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Eleven years later his coffin was opened, and his body was found to be uncorrupted. Hailed as a miracle, this helped to fuel the cult that grew up around the saint. 

Cuthbert’s body was lugged around the NE for more than a century: this celebrated commemorative carving, in Lindisfarne’s parish church, is by Fenwick Lawson

When the Danes sacked Lindisfarne in 875, the monks fled, carrying Cuthbert’s coffin with them. It was carted around the North-East for more than a century, on some occasions being opened up, the body venerated and even kissed by bishops and kings, at other times allegedly carried as a Christian standard into battle against the heathen Danes, along with the head of the holy King Oswald (check out Bernard Cornwell’s excellently-researched Last Kingdom novels). 

Yes, that was the power of sacred relics. Eventually, as every North-Easterner knows, Cuthbert was laid to rest in Durham Cathedral, and has only been exhumed a couple of times since.

Is some kind of pattern beginning to emerge here? Does the ancestor-worship of early humans still manifest itself in the obsession with holy relics still evident among some religious? And similarly in the preoccupation of many more with such celebrated wrecks as that of the Titanic?

One thing’s for sure. Rocked in the cradle of the deep (as the song goes), the captain’s bath and the rest of that great ship will soon be no more than marine dust. At that point it can truly rest in peace. Honestly, I think that will be better for it, and for the rest of us.


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