Lulled into complacency by four weeks of glorious weather (guaranteed in September once the children are back in school), we had planned a
somewhat ambitious itinerary: Durham Cathedral;
the Holy Isle;
Alnwick Castle where some
Harry Potter sequences had been filmed; and the fabulous
Alas, we arrived in Durham on the eve of what the local paper would call "The Day of the Deluge" - twenty-four hours of torrential rain. The police
advise to stay off the roads and so, like characters from a
Joanna Trollope novel, we hunker down and enjoy the warmth of Aga stove in the below-stairs kitchen of our Victorian terrace.
The following day, my sister and I venture into the city centre across the picturesque medieval
Framwellgate Bridge, pausing to join the locals who are transfixed by the spectacle of the swirling waters of the
River Wear which has burst its banks. We climb the steep, cobbled streets towards the Cathedral and are not disappointed. Even though the skies are overcast, the Anglo-Romanesque cathedral is magnificent. It dominates the Durham skyline, a monument to ecclesiastical and political might, built as a place of worship and to house the bones of St. Cuthbert, but also designed as a colossal, intimidating, sandstone fortress.
We pop into Durham's World Heritage Site Visitor Centre (housed in a refurbished 19th century almshouse on Palace Green) and get a quick overview of the city's historic and contemporary significance.
Within the Cathedral, we take time to sit in the awe-inspiring nave. Roofed with soaring stone-ribbed vaulting and dominated by huge carved pillars, it is at once both humbling and uplifting. Fortunately for us, since the mid-sixteenth century, women no longer have to stay behind the long, narrow slab of black "marble" set in the floor!
Behind the High Altar we pause for quiet reflection in the shrine of
St. Cuthbert (the greatest saint of the North). An important centre of pilgrimage during the Middle Ages but stripped of its glorious marble, jewels and semi-precious stones during the Reformation, the tomb is marked today by a simple marble slab. Interred with St. Cuthbert is the head of
St. Oswald of Northumbria, "slain in battle by the heathen."
A third place we linger at is the beautiful Galilee or Lady Chapel that was the only place during monastic times where women could worship. It contains the tomb of the Venerable Bede, an 8th century Northumbrian monk and famous scholar who wrote the first history of England,
The History of the English Church and People.
Somewhat ironically (given the lack of sunshine), the richly colored images of the contemporary stained glass windows compel our attention: the Daily Bread Window (1984), an abstract representation of the Last Supper, and the Millenium (1995) and Transfiguration (2010) Windows which combine traditional and modern themes and symbols.
We feel welcome in the Cathedral. The vergers are friendly; the self-guided leaflets informative. Admission is free although visitors are discreetly encouraged to donate to support the ongoing costs of upkeep and renovation. The modest charge for guided tours is well worth the money as the knowledgeable volunteers pepper their narratives with interesting details and colorful stories from the site's 900-year history. There is also a charge for access to the Cathedral Tower that, on a clear day, provides fabulous views of the City of Durham, the River Wear and beyond. However, there are 325 steps and visitors are warned that the climb is strenuous and not for the faint of heart or body!
After browsing the Cathedral Shop, and buying some biblically themed Holy Socks for son Daniel, we enjoy an excellent lunch in the Undercroft Restaurant.
The Cathedral is currently reorganizing and developing new exhibition spaces as part of the Open Treasure project. I believe a return visit will be warranted to the church that in 2011 readers of The Guardian voted "Britain's Best Building" and that anglophile author
Bill Bryson claims is "the best cathedral on planet Earth."
Born and raised in England, Nora Quinn is a recently retired English and Media Studies teacher from St. Catharines, Ontario. This was her second visit to Durham, the first having taken place two years earlier on a sunny day in July. Like Bill Bryson, author of Notes from a Small Planet, her first view of the incredible medieval cathedral and castle complex had been from the window of the train from York.