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 story of the Cathedral actually goes back 200 years before the first stones were laid. After a Viking raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne in 875, a group of monks smuggled away the remains of St. Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria.
The remains were eventually interred in a shrine on this spot, which became a hugely popular destination for pilgrims. The wealth this brought the town was more than enough to pay for the building of the cathedral. Today Cuthbert's shrine is a relatively humble marble slab, although the enormous painting suspended from the ceiling is what the spectacular medieval coffin covering is thought to have looked like.
Note 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 western 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. In good weather you can climb the tower, which has spectacular views of Durham. From April to October, guided tours of the cathedral are offered two or three times daily; call ahead for times.
At this writing, the cathedral had completed the first phase of a long-running project to open up more of the cathedral to public view. When finished, Open Treasure will allow visitors to see the hitherto closed-off Monks Dormitory and Great Kitchen. The development, which should be complete by 2016, will include new exhibition spaces for the Cathedral's collection of art and artifacts, including its beautiful illuminated manuscripts. Check the website for the latest updates on progress.
Seventy-five-minute guided tours of the Cathedral generally take place two or three times a day. Start times vary; call ahead for the daily schedule. A choral evensong service takes place Tuesday to Saturday at 5:15 and Sunday at 3:30.