Friday, 3 November 2017

The North East in Twelve Favourite Places 8: Durham Cathedral

I've been a bit remiss about posting articles I've written about some of my favourite places in the North East for the Haydon News, our village magazine.

When I began this series, I said I wanted to explore some less well-known places in the North East. So why have we come to Durham? I don’t suppose there is anyone reading this who hasn’t been to its mighty Cathedral, probably many times. It’s famous the world over as one of the greatest of all Romanesque buildings. It’s often been voted Britain’s favourite cathedral. Bill Bryson called it “the best cathedral on Planet Earth”. Having been Dean there, and lived in its shadow for nearly 13 years, who am I to disagree?
 
But even if you’ve been to the Cathedral, there may be things you have missed. It would take a lifetime to get to know it in every detail and unearth all its secrets. So here are some corners of the place and its surroundings you may not have taken in. And if you have, let this reawaken enjoyable memories.
 
1 The Sanctuary Knocker
This fierce monster greets you as you approach the main door. In the middle ages, if you had committed certain crimes such as unintended manslaughter, you could save yourself from the rough justice of the mob by fleeing to the Cathedral and grasping hold of the knocker. One of the monks keeping watch from the room above would let you inside the church where you would be kept safe for thirty-seven days. This would give you time to choose whether to give yourself up to the authorities and face the consequences, or choose permanent exile, in which case you would be escorted to Hartlepool and placed on a ship, never to return. (What you see is a copy of the original twelfth  century knocker which is kept safe from corrosion or vandalism in the Cathedral’s collections.)
 
2  The Shrine of St Cuthbert
How can you go to Durham Cathedral and not take in the shrine that is the very reason the Cathedral exists? Well, quite easily as it happens. I did it myself on my first ever visit as a schoolboy in the 1960s. If you don’t know it is there, you might miss the stone stairs up to the “feretory”, as it’s called, where the remains of St Cuthbert are buried. Since our churches at Haydon Bridge are dedicated to him, I don’t need to tell how his remains were taken on a long journey around the North (passing through what is now our parish, we believe) until they ended up on the peninsula and the Cathedral was built around them. On the wall outside the shrine, you will see the red Banner of St Cuthbert, a replica of the one that hung there to welcome vast crowds of pilgrims in the middle ages.
 
3  The Neville Screen
The great screen behind the high altar is one of the jewels of the Cathedral. It was given by the Neville family of County Durham in gratitude for the English victory against the Scots at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. Unlike the rough sandstone the Cathedral is built from, the screen is made of a beautiful white limestone from Caen in France. If you have field-glasses with you, look at the intricate detailing of the pinnacles, and the marvellous carvings of angels and animals above the canopies on each side. Once, the niches contained sculptures of the saints. These were taken down and hidden for safety just before the Dissolution in the 1530s. No-one knows where they are to this day though that doesn’t stop the choristers from guessing.
 
4  The Transfiguration Window
If you haven’t been to Durham since 2010, you won’t have seen this magnificent new window near Cuthbert’s shrine. It was installed in memory of Archbishop Michael Ramsey who had been both a canon and a bishop of Durham and who is still remembered with huge affection there. The design is by Tom Denney. It shows the Transfiguration of Jesus, one of Michael Ramsey’s favourite New Testament stories. Light pours down on Jesus on the mountain top, accompanied by the disciples Peter, James and John. Nearby the lonely figure of St Cuthbert stands by the sea saying his prayers, and you’ll also notice the Cathedral itself bathed in light. The window with its rich textures casts a radiant golden light when the sun is high in the middle of the day.  
 


5  The Cloister
Here’s another part of the Cathedral I missed when I first came as a boy. On the opposite side from the main (north) door, you come out into the cloister. In the middle ages, this would have been the hub of the monastery’s life, because it connected the principal buildings where monastic activity was focused: the church itself, the chapter house, dormitory, refectory, treasury and the kitchen. All these buildings survive and are still in use, making Durham Cathedral the most complete surviving monastic site in England.
 
6  The Monks’ Dormitory and Great Kitchen
You reach these splendid buildings from the cloister. The size of the dormitory tells you how large the monastery was in its heyday. This majestic room has one of the most remarkable timber roofs in England. The nearby octagonal kitchen is another precious survival from the medieval Cathedral with its remarkable stone vault. Both these spaces now form part of the Cathedral’s new exhibition Open Treasure which tells the story of Christian faith in the North East from Roman times to the present day. The Great Kitchen now houses artefacts associated with St Cuthbert including his famous pectoral cross, his wooden coffin and his portable altar.
 
 
7  The River BanksToo many visitors rush away without taking time to appreciate the Cathedral in its gorgeous setting. When you walk alongside the river, you appreciate what a remarkable site the Cathedral occupies, perched unassailable on its acropolis high above a great loop in the River Wear. The gorge was carefully landscaped in the eighteenth century to show the buildings to best advantage above the abundant tree canopy. It is beautiful at all times of year, but I especially love it on winter afternoons when the Cathedral glows through the bare trees by the light of the setting sun. And when you’ve enjoyed the walk, where better to reward yourself with a cup of tea and a cake than in the Cathedral restaurant off the cloister?
 
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Space doesn’t allow me to write about the font canopy, the Daily Bread Window, The Venerable Bede, the mysterious line in the floor, a mason’s mistake in one of the piers, the Durham Light Infantry Chapel, Frosterley Marble and much else. Maybe another time…

1 comment:

  1. Greetings from Chester. I enjoyed reading. God bless you.

    Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

    ReplyDelete