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Durham Cathedral

Updated on March 10, 2011

The small city of Durham in the north east of England is dominated by an enormous cathedral which towers over the relatively small old-town area of the city from its position high on a promontory above the River Wear.  Described as ‘one of the great architectural experiences of Europe’ it is a shining example of the Romanesque architecture pioneered by the Normans who ruled over England at the time.

Perhaps what I find most astonishing about Durham Cathedral is just its sheer size, beauty and the fact it was built almost a thousand years ago.  Although there had been a diocese in Durham since 645AD, construction began on the cathedral we see today just 27 years after the Norman invasion of England in 1093 and was largely complete within 40 years in 1130.  This, at a time with barely any technology in construction techniques is quite a feat in itself. Particularly when bearing in mind that the length of the cathedral is 500 feet (around 150 metres) and the central tower rises to a height of 217 feet (66 metres).  

The Norman invaders had already dealt with the problem of the unruly northern English heathens with the construction of Durham Castle immediately after the conquest in 1066.  The castle is now perhaps the coolest and most historic student halls on the planet; having been used as digs for students of Durham University since its conversion in 1840! With the locals fighting spirit crushed, it was time to stamp out any thoughts of paganism that might still exist within the population.  It was thought that a nice show of Christian power might help the process and so the cathedral was commissioned by William the Conqueror for his new Prince-Bishop of Durham, William of Calais. Quite how the average citizen could resist being bowled over by the magnificence of God when visiting such a building such as this is unclear. At a time when people principally lived in wood and mud houses, such a building must have seemed truly godly.

Durham Castle

Fortunately, the cathedral survived the reformation in the 16th century when Henry VIII demanded that the monastery on the site be dissolved and its money given to the crown.  Cromwell also used the cathedral. During the English Civil War it was used as a prison for Scottish prisoners; 3000 of whom were interred within its walls (an estimated 1700 died due to the unsanitary conditions).

Today the cathedral remains as the seat of the Bishop of Durham, although this position involves less bloody murdering of pagans today than it once did.  UNESCO awarded the cathedral (and neighbouring castle) World Heritage Status in 1986 and it now attracts visitors from the UK and overseas. It was voted in the top four buildings in Britain by a recent BBC documentary and is also one of two locations used for the filming of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School – the other being the nearby Alnwick Castle.

The cathedral and castle

If you’re ever in the north of England I cannot recommend Durham highly enough. The cathedral is attraction enough, but throw in the castle, the old town, the city walls and the beautiful position on a meander in the River Wear and it becomes an absolute must-visit.  The city has innumerable restaurants, cafes, pubs and shopping opportunities and is absolutely beautiful.       


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