The handsome city of DURHAM is best known for its beautiful Norman cathedral – there’s a tremendous view of it as you approach the city by train from the south – and its flourishing university, founded in 1832. Together, these form a little island of privilege in what’s otherwise a moderately sized, working-class city. It’s worth visiting for a couple of days – there are plenty of attractions, but it’s more the overall atmosphere that captivates, enhanced by the omnipresent golden stone, slender bridges and glint of the river. The heart of the city is the marketplace, flanked by the Guildhall and St Nicholas Church. The cathedral and church sit on a wooded peninsula to the west, while southwards stretch narrow streets lined with shops and cafés.
Durham’s history revolves around its cathedral. Completed in just forty years, the cathedral was founded in 1093 to house the shrine of St Cuthbert, arguably the Northeast’s most important and venerated saint. Soon after Cuthbert was laid to rest here, the bishops of Durham were granted extensive powers to control the troublesome northern marches of the Kingdom – a rabble of invading Picts from Scotland and revolting Norman earls – ruling as semi-independent Prince Bishops, with their own army, mint and courts of law. At the peak of their power in the fourteenth century, the office went into decline – especially in the wake of the Reformation – yet clung to the vestiges of their authority until 1836, when they ceded them to the Crown. They abandoned Durham Castle for their palace in Bishop Auckland and transferred their old home to the fledgling Durham University, England’s third-oldest seat of learning after Oxford and Cambridge.Read More
Durham CathedralFrom the marketplace, it’s a five-minute walk up Saddler Street to Durham Cathedral, considered a supreme example of the Norman-Romanesque style. The awe-inspiring nave used pointed arches for the first time in England, raising the vaulted ceiling to new and dizzying heights. The weight of the stone is borne by massive pillars, their heaviness relieved by striking Moorish-influenced geometric patterns. A door on the western side gives access to the tower, from where there are beautiful views. Separated from the nave by a Victorian marble screen is the choir, where the dark Restoration stalls are overshadowed by the 13ft-high bishop’s throne. Beyond, the Chapel of the Nine Altars dates from the thirteenth century. Here, and around the Shrine of St Cuthbert, much of the stonework is of local Weardale marble, each dark shaft bearing its own pattern of fossils. Cuthbert himself lies beneath a plain marble slab, his shrine having gained a reputation over the centuries for its curative powers. The legend was given credence in 1104, when the saint’s body was exhumed in Chester-le-Street for reburial here, and was found to be completely uncorrupted, more than four hundred years after his death on Lindisfarne. Almost certainly, this was the result of his fellow monks having (unintentionally) preserved the body by laying it in sand containing salt crystals.
Back near the entrance, at the west end of the church is the Galilee Chapel; begun in the 1170s, its light and exotic decoration is in imitation of the Great Mosque of Córdoba. The chapel contains the simple tombstone of the Venerable Bede, the Northumbrian monk credited with being England’s first historian. Bede died at the monastery of Jarrow in 735, and his remains were first transferred to the cathedral in 1020.
The Monks’ Dormitory and Treasures of St Cuthbert
A large wooden doorway opposite the cathedral’s main entrance leads into the spacious cloisters, flanked by what remains of the monastic buildings. On the right of the passage lies the Monks’ Dormitory with its original twelfth-century oak roof – it now houses the cathedral library. At the end of the passage, in the undercroft, the Treasures of St Cuthbert exhibition displays some striking relics, including the cathedral’s original twelfth-century lion-head Sanctuary Knocker (the one on the main door is a replica), and a splendid facsimile copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels (the originals are in the British Library in London). A couple of interesting audiovisual displays detail the history of the cathedral, too.
Born in North Northumbria in 653, Cuthbert spent most of his youth in Melrose Abbey in Scotland, from where he moved briefly to Lindisfarne Island, which was at that time a well-known centre of religious endeavour. Preferring the peace and rugged solitude of the Farne Islands, he lived on Inner Farne for thirty years. News of his piety spread, however, and he was head-hunted to become Bishop of Lindisfarne, a position he accepted reluctantly. Uncomfortable in the limelight, he soon returned to Inner Farne, and when he died his remains were moved to Lindisfarne before being carted off to Durham Cathedral which soon became a pilgrimage site.