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Durham Cathedral: The awe-inspiring historic monument

5 September 2022

The sheer size of Durham Cathedral is what is most remarkable at first sight. There isn’t a place in the city where the cathedral is not standing against the skyline, towering over the cobbled streets.

Rarely has a city, particularly one so historical, been quite so in thrall to one monument. This is despite having a Norman castle and one of the oldest and most complete libraries in Britain less than a stone’s throw away.

The earliest evidence of a religious building on the site of the cathedral dates back to approximately 995 AD. Monks, fleeing Lindisfarne and the invading Vikings, carried the relics of Saint Cuthbert. According to legend they placed his bones where they found a dun cow. Around this the monks built a wooden church, eventually replaced by a stone building called ‘White Church’. Durham had already gained a reputation of a holy city by then and pilgrims would visit the relics of the northern saint.

The Normans had started work on the present cathedral less than thirty years after their invasion. It was finished by 1133. Between then and now it has been a place of worship, power, a prison, a filming location in both Marvel and Harry Potter films as well as an important communal hub for Durham University and the wider community.

Upon entry, which is free, you will be directed by one of the many helpful orderlies through the Galilee chapel. This is where the body of the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholar, the Venerable Bede, lies.

The altar space dominates the cathedral, the high vaulted ceilings and stonework illuminated through stained glass panels. These windows illustrate scenes both Biblical and more recent, such as when a thick fog protected Durham from German bombers during the Second World War.

The cloisters provide an open space, their green lawns and benches offering a place of respite, these are what you might recognise from the Harry Potter films. Further on is a small café, providing everything from refreshments to substantial meals and the cathedral’s shop. In the outside area there are also toilets and a picnic area.

Throughout the building, you can find signs explaining the historical and present importance of life within and around the cathedral. This takes its most sobering turn in the Chapel of the Durham Light

Infantry and the constant reminders around the cathedral of lost miners, memorials to local people who lost their lives in service of their community and country. Perhaps this might push you towards lighting a candle in memory, to them or someone personal to you, and a moment of reflection in one of the world’s great religious buildings.

Services are conducted throughout the day, normally at 8.30am, 12.30pm and 17.30, although this can vary. The highlight event of the year might very well be the Christmas Carols in which the entire building sings traditional Christmas songs and fills the cathedral with noise and life.

The cathedral itself is filled with fascinating spots. Every nook and cranny has a story and an element of historical significance. The huge, and instantly recognisable, Norman columns, the tombs, the relics and art, present the incredible building, one that has been central to Christianity in the UK for almost a millennium.

Around the cathedral itself, there is access to other fascinating places. As stated above, the Norman castle is just opposite (although entry is paid), and in the right weather, the Palace Green lawn is often used for picnics. Palace Green Cafe is another place where you can sit and admire the cathedral in the sun.

With a legacy stretching back almost a thousand years, Durham Cathedral is one of the most symbolic and historic buildings in the north of England. It is a chance to feel connected with the legacy of those who have come before you, and to bring their feelings about the cathedral into the present.