Scale and splendour and…oppression?!
Durham, Tyne & Wear
If you visit Durham, it’s a must-do, really, isn’t it? The origins of Durham are entirely bound up in religion and pilgrimage, so it felt right to visit the Cathedral whilst we were there, if only for a quick look.
Durham Cathedral overlooks Durham from the rocky hill-top that sits the heart of the city, surrounded on three sides by the River Wear. The Cathedral makes a fantastic backdrop to the city; it is the first thing you’ll see when you emerge from the station at Durham and head to the viewpoint across the road. The scale of this Norman build is a little hard to take on board - both from a distance and up close.
I was in Durham with my sister, Bernadine, a half-sister on my mother’s side. She and I grew up on different continents, in different family units and with very different religious upbringings and legacies but we both love history, architecture and reflection - and Durham Cathedral is a truly awe-inspiring place for all three,
We were staying at the Marriott Royal County Hotel so we arrived at the Cathedral from the Elvet Bridge side, walking along the Bailey and taking in the view across the Palace Green. It’s a fabulous setting: the Cathedral is at the top end of a quadrangle that is edged, left and right, with mostly-medieval buildings and, behind, with the 11th Century Castle that once housed the Bishops of Durham. (Since 1840 it’s been home to students of the University of Durham - in fact, a school friend’s daughter just moved in there!)
(Did you know? A Cathedra is a Bishop’s throne; a Cathedral gets its name from the fact that it houses the Bishop’s throne. And the Bishop of Durham is 4th in the Church of England’s hierarchy of Bishops. Canterbury is number 1, but do you know 2 and 3?*)
Because we were there in late April, the spring cherry blossoms were out, which added a little warmth and colour on an otherwise cloudy and cool day.
The central tower of the Cathedral, which is around 200 feet high, was under repair and covered in scaffolding and white screening, so it almost disappeared against the white sky, effectively masking the true height of the building. However, even with this illusion, the scale of the Cathedral is properly awe-inspiring, as was intended. Recognised, along with the Castle, as a World Heritage Site in 1986, UNESCO described Durham Cathedral as “the largest and most perfect monument of ‘Norman’ style architecture in England “; for Bill Bryson it is simply, “the best Cathedral on Planet Earth”!
The weathered stone around the front door attests to the Cathedral’s great age, There has been a religious site here since the 7th Century AD and the relics of St Cuthbert arrived in 995 AD, but the Cathedral you can see today was begun during the Norman era, in 1093. Much of it was completed within just 40 years!
Durham Cathedral houses the relics of St Cuthbert and the tomb of the Venerable Bede. St Cuthbert was a monk, a bishop and, eventually, a hermit on Lindisfarne, Holy Island. He was made a saint in 698 AD. Bede was a monk and 7th Century Anglo-Saxon scholar who created the first ever written history of England, making him the ‘Father of English History’. Both St Cuthbert and Bede are now commemorated in such splendid surroundings that I’m quite sure neither would have believed possible.
Apart from the vaulted ceilings and arches, the most impressive feature of the Cathedral for me is the Rose Window. However, a combination of interior activity and exterior gloom meant I couldn’t get a good shot of it (and photography is not encouraged (!) inside, as you’ll see from the disgruntled comments on TripAdvisor. However, my favourite photo from my visit turned out to be the one below, I didn’t know it at the time, but this is known as the Galilee or Lady Chapel. Why Lady? (No, not Mary,) During the monastic era, which lasted from the Cathedral’s consecration until 1539, this was the only place where women were permitted to worship inside. It’s a very beautiful space, and it’s where Bede’s tomb is located, hence the very lovely golden script on the wall. The day we visited, the ladies of the Cathedral’s Flower Arranging Club were busy.
Apparently, Durham Cathedral appeared as a backdrop in the Harry Potter movies. If you’re a huge Harry Potter fan, I expect you know this already. The cloisters became the snow-covered quadrangle, where Harry sets the owl flying in the first film and is the scene of Ron’s slug vomiting in the Chamber of Secrets. The chapter house is the setting for Professor McGonagall’s class when he teaches the young wizards to turn animals into water goblets (Source).
Muggles are very much a part of the team at Durham Cathedral. As well as the Clergy that are employed by the Church of England, more than 700 volunteers work there. They are involved in everything from flower-arranging to bell-ringing, marketing, catering and retail, as well as managing the more than 750,000 visitors who visit each year. Not all of them love it - 48 people on TripAdvisor rated it ‘terrible’ and complained about things like access (or lack of), crowds, oppression (missing the point? Wasn’t that the purpose of the grandeur?), no photography, too obtrusive catering and too unobtrusive toilets. I think a lot of this is to do with the timing of your visit but the Cathedral is very much a tourist attraction as well as a church, bringing with it all that that entails. However, the Cathedral’s stated vision is:
With daily services, eight choir performances each week and a full programme of events including history walks, ten-minute talks, theatre and story-telling as well as commemorative and special services, Durham Cathedral certainly remains very much at the heart of and is serving its community - as it has for almost a thousand years. I found it an impressive, though not particularly moving, place and I loved looking round the Cathedral with Bernadine. I would recommend it as a must-see if you are in the area.
Where do you go for an awe-inspiring view or experience? Inside or out? I think the most beautiful and affecting religious place I have visited to date is Oman’s Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Muscat but, like the Romantic writers, I tend to find spiritualism most readily in nature. Victoria Falls? The endless view from Hilltop Camp at Hluhluwe? A cloud-free day on Table Mountain? (Oh look - they are all in Africa…) Yours?
The Tripographer’s notes
Unslumping level? 7/10
Would I go again? Only with someone who hasn’t been
Best time to go? When there isn’t a service on - unless you wish to attend a service!
Best for? Looking up, feeling small, choral music
Top tip? Allow at least an hour and go early or late on a weekday to avoid crowds.
*The hierarchy of bishops (Lords Spiritual) in the Church of England: