Those of us fortunate enough to have visited Paris will all have our own memories of our first sight of its great cathedral of Notre-Dame as it was before yesterday's fire. My first visit was when I was twelve; my most recent was almost exactly two years ago, when these photos were taken. For me, and for many others I suspect, it is that external view of Notre Dame which is the most memorable, the structure rising like a great ship sailing majestically along the Seine.
Yet, it is not just the grandeur of the building but also the detail of its stonework which attracts the eye. The sculptures around the doorways, looking quite dour in these rainy day pictures, would have drawn the largely illiterate, congregation in, for they told the stories of their shared faith. In earlier times the colour and gold leaf with which much of the stonework was covered would have dazzled the eye.
Used as we are to the light and space of the great English cathedrals, the interiors of their continental equivalents can take a bit of getting used to. We forget that our own cathedrals were knocked around by Cromwell, losing their frescoes and statues. They would probably look quite empty nowadays to sixteenth century worshippers.
To my eyes, the baroque extravaganzas of southern German and Austrian churches appear quite alien, while French cathedrals can appear dark and cluttered. I was brought up on the cathedrals and minsters of Lincoln, York, Durham and Wells with their creamy white stone pillars and soaring arches. They are what I know and love. Yet, Notre-Dame has its sombre beauty too.
Like our own cathedrals, Notre-Dame has weathered a lot since its foundation, back in the twelfth century. It may be the national church now, but it was badly damaged during the Revolution representing as it did the status quo. It was used as a warehouse and its statues beheaded. Over the last few years, by all accounts, France has begrudged the funds which would have addressed the most pressing priorities for restoration, secured its future and - dare one say it - perhaps prevented yesterday's fire.
However, Notre-Dame is not just a building. It is difficult for those of us who are Protestant by upbringing to appreciate the significance of some of the artefacts which people risked their lives to save, the Crown of Thorns for example. However, it is what these relics mean to people that matters rather than their often dubious historical provenance. For me it is other aspects - the great roof, the organs, the mediaeval stained glass of its rose windows, the ancient painted wooden panels - which surely matter most. Astonishingly, many of these features have survived.
Terrible fires, earthquakes, floods and warfare are inevitably among the hazards which ancient buildings face. Structures rise and fall. York Minister, Coventry Cathedral, Windsor Castle have all experienced partial or total destruction. The Great Fire of London destroyed almost all of the mediaeval city, a horrifying experience for its inhabitants. The cities of Europe were devastated during the Second World War. Paris survived because France capitulated, thus saving its architectural treasures.
For this reason, the extent to which Paris and other French cities have retained their old buildings can seem remarkable to those familiar with the hodge podge of London, where ancient architecture often sits awkwardly beside more modern structures built on erstwhile bombsites. Dresden, Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: all experienced deliberate destruction, their populations waking up - if they were lucky enough to do so - to see all their familiar landmarks and vistas destroyed.
German cities rebuilt most of their devastated architectural treasures. London did not. There is no way in which Britain could have funded restoration, or justified it given the needs of its people at the time. At the end of the day, the choice is always going to be between spending precious resources on the building itself or on the lives of the people who live in its shadow. The last time I saw Notre-Dame, an asylum seeker family were huddled by a nearby wall begging, in the pouring rain. When considering the 'value' of a national treasure like our great cathedrals, whether in Britain or France, we always need to also weigh against them the value of a human life. And not just human. I have also read a couple of articles over the last couple of days reflecting on the continuing extinction of other forms of life on our planet and our reluctance to support their survival.
Fortunately, no one lost his or her physical life in the Notre-Dame fire. This surely is the most important outcome. Yet, the psychological impact on the French people is clearly significant. For Parisians, for whom Notre-Dame has been a constant presence in the landscape, the fire is heartbreaking. The cathedral is a national symbol, more national perhaps than religious for the fiercely secular French.
Despite England's own glorious cathedrals, my feeling is that none of them, not even Westminster Abbey or St Paul's has the same status as a national symbol as Notre-Dame. The same is true of Scotland, whose rather more modest cathedrals have retained their status as religious rather than political or national monuments. If St Paul's, Westminster Abbey or St Giles burnt down, would the citizens of London or Edinburgh gather outside and sing? Somehow I doubt it.
Why is that? The historical, national or political symbolism of such buildings is not enough. It is the stunning location of Notre-Dame at the centre of the city, on an island, which is so striking. The combination of all the architectural elements of the cathedral takes one's breath away: the way the church rises from the river, the two solid towers with the delicate spire behind, and the leaping buttresses holding it altogether.
As we now know, one should never presume to attach a word like 'forever' to a monument like Notre-Dame. Buildings only last if we make determined efforts to ensure their survival. The French will probably try a little bit harder today and tomorrow than they did the day before yesterday. And in Britain too, clerks of works and facilities managers will be having sleepless nights thinking of the risks attached to the monuments for which they are responsible.
If we want national symbols, we need to pay for and nurture them, while also considering their cost in human lives. Permanence cannot be presumed.