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Durham Cathedral Review
A Norman masterpiece in the heart of the city, the cathedral is an amazing vision of solidity and strength, a far cry from the airy lightness of later Gothic cathedrals. Construction began about 1090, and the main body was finished about 1150. The round arches of the nave and the deep zigzag patterns carved into them typify the heavy, gaunt style of Norman, or Romanesque, building. The technology of Durham, however, was revolutionary. This was the first European cathedral to be given a stone, rather than a wooden, roof. When you consider the means of construction available to its builders—the stones that form the ribs of the roof had to be hoisted by hand and set on a wooden structure, which was then knocked away—the achievement seems staggering.
The origins of the cathedral go back to the 10th century. In 995 monks brought to this site the remains of St. Cuthbert, which had been removed from the monastery at Lindisfarne after a Viking raid in 875. Soon the wealth attracted by Cuthbert's shrine paid for the construction of a cathedral. The bishop's throne here was claimed to be the loftiest in medieval Christendom; the miter of the bishop is the only one to be encircled by a coronet, and his coat of arms is the only one to be crossed with a sword as well as a crosier.
Upon entering the cathedral, it's impossible not to notice the enormous bronze Sanctuary Knocker, shaped like the head of a ferocious mythological beast, mounted on the massive northwestern door. By grasping the ring clenched in the animal's mouth, medieval felons could claim sanctuary; cathedral records show that 331 criminals sought this protection between 1464 and 1524. An unobtrusive tomb at the west end of the cathedral, in the Moorish-influenced Galilee Chapel, is the final resting place of the Venerable Bede, an 8th-century Northumbrian monk whose contemporary account of the English people made him the country's first reliable historian—and one of the most important figures in Early English literature. In good weather you can climb the tower, which has spectacular views out across Durham. There's also a decent restaurant and a lovely shop.
The cathedral's excellent museum, the Treasures of St. Cuthburt, has illuminated manuscripts and the saint's original coffin. At this writing it was closed pending relocation. Whether the whole collection stays at the cathedral remains to be seen; if so, there's more than enough to justify the extra few pounds for admission. There's a choral evensong service Tuesday to Saturday at 5:15, Sunday at 3:30.
- Address: Palace Green, Durham, DH1 3EH | Map It
- Phone: 0191/386-4266
- Cost: £5 donation requested; tower £5; guided tours £4
- Hours: Cathedral mid-July--Aug., daily 7:30 am--8 pm; Sept.--mid-July, Mon.--Sat. 7:30--6, Sun. 7:45--5:30. Tower Apr.--Sept., Mon.--Sat. 10--4; Oct.--Mar., Mon.--Sat. 10--3. Guided tours Apr.--Oct., daily at 10:30, 11, and 2
- Website: www.durhamcathedral.co.uk
- Location: Durham
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