#35 – Visit all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in England: Durham Castle and Cathedral and CHALLENGE COMPLETE

Durham Castle and Cathedral perches atop a rocky promontory around which the city of Durham has grown up.  Listed as a World Heritage Site for its outstanding Norman architecture, which is considered as among the best in Europe, it is also believed to be one of the country’s greatest monuments to the Norman Conquest.  The site comprises Durham Cathedral built from 1093 to house the remains of St Cuthbert (former Bishop of Lindisfarne), Durham Castle and the buildings around the square which encloses these two buildings, known as Castle Green.  Unfortunately the Castle now belongs to the University of Durham and part of it is used as Halls of Residence so opportunities to visit are very limited, although Castle Green and of course the Cathedral itself are accessible.  The role of Durham’s Prince Bishops, unique in the medieval church hierarchy, is interesting but not central to the World Heritage listing – see my note below for more information.

First view of Durham Castle and Cathedral, high above

First view of Durham Castle and Cathedral, high above

Norman Arches in Durham Cathedral

Norman Arches in Durham Cathedral

I took a tour of the Cathedral, which talked not only about the founding and history of Durham Cathedral, but also the architectural features and its famous inhabitants.  In addition to housing the shrine of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral is also the burial place of the Venerable Bede, known as the father of English History.  Whilst there, I also visited the new ‘Open Treasures’ exhibition which shows off the Cathedral’s surviving monastic buildings.  Sadly at the time of my visit it didn’t showcase the St Cuthbert relics, but it will do so at some point during 2017, which I’m sure will be fascinating.

Here’s a photo to prove that I did pay a visit:

Me at Durham Cathedral

Me at Durham Cathedral

The Cathedral itself was built to house the remains of St Cuthbert with legend telling that that particular spot was chosen because a delegation of monks carrying St Cuthbert’s coffin said that it became so heavy when it reached Durham that the monks assumed that was where the saint wished to rest.  The coffin was allegedly set down and a Cathedral built around it.  Certainly the cathedral was built ‘backwards’ as it were.  The construction of the shrine predates the construction of the main part of the Cathedral.

For me, one of the most striking features was that the interior of Durham Cathedral is markedly darker than most Cathedrals I have visited.  This is due to the Norman architectural style, which used small, rounded window arches rising in tiers.  In construction terms, the windows are the weak points in the walls and the rounded Norman arches could not support great weight, meaning that windows had to be relatively small.  As Cathedral building developed, it was realised that pointed arches could take greater weight, hence the move towards pointed Gothic arches and larger windows, to let more light into Cathedrals; light being associated with God and ‘goodness’.

Durham Cathedral's pillars, with geometric designs

Durham Cathedral’s pillars, with geometric designs

Walking into most Cathedrals, your eye is drawn immediately upwards due to their perpendicular architectural style, but this is not the case with Durham.  The most distinctive feature of Durham cathedral, for me, was the pillars decorated with geometric patterns.  This is not something I recall seeing elsewhere and is apparently a feature of Norman Cathedral design.

As I was walking around Durham Cathedral I was reminded of the brilliant ‘Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett, which I read as part of the BBC 100 Books Challenge, telling the story of Europe’s Cathedral builders and how they constantly tried to improve their building techniques because what they were building were temples to the glory of God so they were constantly striving to make them even more glorious.  The contrast between the slightly squat Norman architecture and the Gothic style which followed it is well illustrated by comparing Durham with other Cathedrals.

This tour of the furthest north of the English UNESCO World Heritage sites wrapped up my trips to these sites.  So that’s Challenge number 35 completed, and thirty six of my 40 before 40 ticked off.  In my lifetime, I have now visited all seventeen of the English UNESCO World Heritage sites, seen some amazing things and learnt so much.  My favourites were the places which meant learning from my school days suddenly made much more sense – the Derwent Valley Mills, Ironbridge Gorge and the Jurassic Coast.  Maritime Greenwich was a fabulous day out and I fell in love with the grand architecture and fascinating history of Liverpool.  Many of these places I wouldn’t have visited were it not for this challenge, and I’m really glad I included this one in The List.  With all the foreign travel I do, it’s brilliant to appreciate what I’ve got at home too.

A Note about Durham’s Prince Bishops:

Durham’s Prince Bishops played a highly unusual role in medieval society.  The role was created essentially because the Kings of England (from William the Conqueror onwards) needed to ensure that Northumbria remained loyal to the crown in order to protect the northernmost reaches of the English kingdom from invasion by the Scots.  Consequently appointments to the see of Durham were initially given to those who favoured the King and the Bishops developed a close relationship with the local earls of Bamburgh to ensure the area was well defended.  From the late 1080s, Northumbria was divided and the area south of the Tyne became the County Palatine of Durham, now known as County Durham.  The role of Earl and Bishop was combined and from that point on the Bishop of Durham effectively ruled in this area, having many of the powers of the King including being able to mint coins, grant charters, levy taxes and even hold his own parliament.  This is a role which was unique in the country and marked the strategic importance of Durham in maintaining English sovereignty.


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