Discovering Durham Castle and Cathedral

Durham cathedral from flickr user gaco79I used to live just down the road from the lovely northern city of Durham in England, and visiting both the Cathedral and Castle were always high up on the to-do list, particularly when friends were over. Today’s featured post on visiting these two iconic old buildings was written by David Elliot for us, and gives you some ideas for your visit. Over to David for his thoughts!

With the economic situation worldwide being somewhat uncertain at the moment, it’s worth considering short breaks in the UK next time you’re stuck for somewhere to go. There’s little point in jetting off to remote and exotic parts of the world when there’s such a wealth of interest just on your own doorstep, and northern England is particularly rich in history and culture. The city of Durham is a case in point, as you’ll quickly discover when you come here.

The great castle and cathedral are the main focus of interest in Durham, as they have been since the 11th century, and they’re the first things visitors see on their approach to this historic city. They sit on a high outcrop of rock overlooking the River Wear and together constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Durham castle flickr user Leuan Jenkins

The castle was started in 1072, shortly after the Norman Conquest when William I was consolidating his new turf. From then onwards it was the seat of the Prince Bishops who ruled over the Palatinate of Durham, a region of northern England that was strategically important as a first line of defence against the unruly Scots.

The last Prince Bishop, Bishop Van Mildert, founded the University of Durham in 1837 and donated the castle to the first students there. University College is based in the castle and still houses undergraduates. It’s the oldest of the 14 university colleges here, and the lucky youngsters get to live in the keep and dine in the oak-panelled splendour of the Great Hall - very Harry Potter.

Just across the nearby Palace Green is the Cathedral Church of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin, which just happens to be the finest example of Norman architecture in the whole of England. To anyone with the least bit of interest in history, Durham is a magical city positively stuffed with treasures. It also, incidentally, has a great Oxfam secondhand bookshop just down the narrow cobbled road that leads up to the cathedral.

One of the big tourist attractions in Durham is the cathedral’s famous sanctuary door knocker, a reminder of the days when fugitives from justice could seek refuge and protection from arrest (and typically horrible medieval punishment) by banging on it and gaining sanctuary within - at least for a while. The Right of Sanctuary went back to Old Testament days, but it became so abused that it was eventually abolished in 1540.

The Cloisters of Durham Cathedral

The cathedral building itself was recently officially designated the most beautiful building in Europe, and is a fine example of soaring Romanesque architecture. On the north and south aisles of the choir, the ribbed vaulting is the earliest of its kind in Europe.

Don’t miss seeing the famous Carilef Bible in the cathedral’s library, an illuminated masterpiece in two volumes created in the 11th century by St Carilef, Bishop of Durham. It was he who founded the cathedral and its magnificent library and turned what was a nondescript little settlement into the fabulous city we know and love today.

David Elliott is a freelance writer who loves to travel, especially in Europe and Turkey. He’s spent most of his adult life in a state of restless excitement but recently decided to settle in North London. He gets away whenever he can to immerse himself in foreign cultures and lap up the history of great cities.

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