England // The Northeast //

Durham Cathedral

From 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.