Durham has England’s 3rd-oldest university, a medieval atmosphere, and, reputedly, England’s best Norman (Romanesque) cathedral. The cathedral is spectacular indeed.
We passed through Durham on our way north, so our visit was very brief; we would love to go back again. It’s a charming little place, built along a tight curve of the river that has protected it on 3 sides for hundreds of years; it also occupies some seriously steep hills.
Its Market Place square was designed about 1100 AD; in order to maximize the number of
shops that could occupy this prime real estate, the Market was marked off in long, narrow plots only 25 feet wide. Now, 900 years later, most of the store fronts on the Square still appear to be that narrow, although many of them are actually multiples of that original
width on the inside. Pretty quaint.
On the left is an example of a town building that is not on the Market Square. The building, which houses The Shakespeare Pub, dates back to 1109. It was an inn (the Ostler & Groom) in 1468. Obviously it has seen a lot of modernization, but I love the preserved lineage of the buildings in Europe! The connection with a past is palpable.
Now off to the Cathedral! It was built to house the bones of the revered St. Cuthbert, who was instrumental in returning Christianity to the UK after it had drifted back to paganism. St. Cuthbert was bishop of the Lindisfarne (now Holy Island) monastery in the mid 600’s, and was buried there. Eleven years later his body was exhumed (building project) and found to be perfectly and miraculously preserved, enhancing his fame and attracting even more pilgrims to the site. When the Lindisfarne monks fled the island in 875 to escape Viking raids, they carried his body and the famous illustrated Lindisfarne Gospels with them. After 120 years of roaming, the monks finally settled in Durham and built the “White Church” to house St. Cuthbert’s relics. A hundred years later construction began on a monastic Cathedral to replace the White Church; and what a Cathedral it is!! A renowned masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, it is the only cathedral in England to retain almost all of its Norman craftsmanship, and one of only a few preserving the unity of its original design. The nave, choir and transepts are all Norman; the nave contains what is thought to be the world’s first structural pointed arch. There have been some updates; the Galilee Chapel is late Norman 11oo’s; the chapel at the opposite end is 1200’s in the Gothic style. The western towers are from the 1100’s and 1200’s, and the central tower is from the 1400’s with Gothic detailing. Picky details, it’s all pretty darn old! You might have noticed that it’s also immense – nearly 500 feet in length. Unfortunately, my pictures couldn’t capture its magnificence.
Before we head inside, take a look at pictures of the cloister, below. While it was begun at the same time as the Cathedral, much work was done on it from the 1400’s on.
The true beauty of the Cathedral is inside, but, alas, photography was forbidden. I found some pictures on the internet that I will share here. The nave is particularly striking; built in only 40 years (started 1093), it is harmoniously textbook Norman. You may have noticed that other aspects of the Cathedral, such as the transept windows shown on the exterior pictures, are proto-Gothic – built by French masons and architects familiar with Europe’s latest innovations. The Cathedral is just amazingly beautiful, as you’ll see in the borrowed pictures below.
One interesting aspect of the Cathedral’s history is the big lion-faced knocker on its door. In the Middle Ages the Cathedral provided a refuge for fugitives. Anyone who was accused of a serious crime could claim sanctuary by knocking on this door. Fugitives were given 37 days to organize their affairs and decide whether to stand trial or (safely) leave the country by the nearest port.
Next stop – Hadrian’s Wall. Getting closer to Scotland!