Durham Cathedral sits high on the peninsula above the city and dominates the skyline, regardless of which direction you approach. However, my advice, is to arrive in Durham by train. The reason for this is the railway station also sits high on a hill, there are many hills in the city, and provides a spectacular view from the train whether you are planning to alight or simply passing through.
As the saying goes, “all roads lead to Rome”, well in the city of Durham, all roads draw towards the magnificence of the cathedral, now well over 1,000 years old.
The climb up Saddler Street and Owengate, leads you on to Palace Green, where the sheer scale of the cathedral hits you for the first time. The 496 feet long building encloses the entire south side of Palace Green, whilst the central tower of the cathedral reaches up 218 feet towards the heavens in its 15th Century gothic style.
Entry to the cathedral is gained from the south west corner of the green and on approaching the main door, you are greeted by the fearsome sight of the 12th Century Sanctuary Knocker. (Although this is replica, the original knocker is housed in the Treasures of St Cuthbert exhibition inside.) In centuries gone by, those who found themselves at odds with the law, could run to the cathedral avoiding the authorities en route. Once there, they had to bang on the huge wooden door with the knocker shouting their claim for “sanctuary”. Once inside the cathedral, they were beyond the reach of the law for a period of thirty seven days. This time was granted to allow them to get their affairs in order, to elect to stand trial and face their accusers, or to leave the country via the nearest sea-port. Granting sanctuary within, continued as part of the everyday life of the cathedral until the right of sanctuary was abolished in 1623.
Having past through the main doors, you immediately find yourself in The Nave. This huge cavernous space is lined with pews for worshippers to your left, though looking down the central aisle you will be presented with what I think is the most inspiring view of the Rose Window high in the Chapel of the Nine Altars at the far end of the building. Sadly, photography is prohibited in the main body of the Cathedral, in order to maintain a suitable environment for what today remains, an active place of worship.
To your right is the entrance to the Galilee Chapel. On walking towards the entrance, you may notice a line of black marble on the floor, just near the font. This marked the limit of where women were allowed to go, reflecting the time when the church was home to an all-male Benedictine community. Unstable foundations thwarted an attempt to build a chapel for women however Bishop Pudsey started the construction of the Galilee Chapel in 1170 to provide such a space. However, one thing remains in the mind long after their visit of everyone who enters the chapel. This is the resting place of the Venerable Bede. Bede was born around 673 and is largely responsible for the amount of knowledge retained through his writing, of the Christian church in England. A leading scholar of his time, he spent most of his life in the monastery at Jarrow where he died in 735. However around 1022, his remains were taken by a monk from Durham and brought to the Cathedral.
Whilst visiting the cathedral, I noticed a number of people walking the building, solemnly, heads bowed. My tip to you is to keep looking up. The collection of stained glass windows around the building tell a story of the history of the building, as well as religious teachings. Plus on a really sunny day, they provide a Technicolor stream of light that is truly heart-lifting.
Leaving the Galilee Chapel, continue dow the south aisle, then turn right. It feels as though you leaving the church and in fact you are. You are now entering the cloisters area, a place where the monks could exercise,take in the air and wash, however originally all the arches around the central square had glass panes fitted. You can consider the central junction of their life as it connects the working buildings of daily life, to the monks’ place of worship. Today it is also home to the Treasures of St Cuthbert exhibition. This provides a detailed insight of the Christian History of the North East of England with original relics, including the Sanctuary Knocker. Atmospherically lit, to protect the relics, it is well worth taking your time to walk around this exhibit.
But who was St Cuthbert you ask? He was a monk, born in 634 and died in 687. He lived in the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, off the north east coast of England and about eighty miles to the north. He became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 684 albeit reluctantly and it wasn’t until a large group of people, including the King of Northumbria petitioned him person, did he accept the role handed to him by God. In 875, the Danes attacked and overran the monastery at Lindisfarne. In their panic, the monks fled, taking the remains of Cuthbert with them as they retreated from the marauding Danes. His body was moved several times by his devotees to keep him safe, eventually ending up at the White Church, the predecessor of the Cathedral, as we know it today. During the violent dissolution of the monasteries, Cuthbert’s shrine was destroyed, however his relics survived. St Cuthbert finally found peace in the cathedral and at the east end of the building you will find the Shrine of St Cuthbert today.
There are several chapels within the cathedral, but the special one for me, being from Durham, is that of the Durham Light Infantry, DLI. The DLI chapel is in the south trancept. More than 12,500 men from Durham perished in the First World War serving with the Durham Light Infantry. A figure that ensured barely a family living in the county was not affected by death. As the country recovered, the Officers of the Regiment and the Chapter of the Cathedral (The governing body if you like) decided in 1922 to create a memorial chapel in the regiment’s honour. The large lectern displays two books of remembrance, one each for the two world wars, whose pages are turned each day in order for each casualty to be remembered. Glancing up, you will also see the final resting place of the colours of the regiment, each bearing the battle honours from the Peninsular War to Korea. There is no more fitting testimony to the regiment than the words of Field Marshall Montgomery of Alamein “There may be some Regiments as good, but I know of none better.” This chapel holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Durham.
I have hardly scratched the surface of what you can hope to see and experience on a visit to Durham Cathedral and have only been able to mention things special to me.
For imagery and photographs of the interior, please visit the official website of Durham Cathedral.