Exploring the Top Attractions of Durham Cathedral
Whether approached from the quaint cobbled streets of the Old City or from the banks of the River Wear, Durham Cathedral never fails to impress. Completed in 1133, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has been a huge draw for visitors to Northeast England for centuries, many of whom stopover in Durham for extended stays in order to explore County Durham and Yorkshire's numerous attractions.
The College, Durham
1 Stolen Relics in The Galilee Chapel
When entering Durham Cathedral from the building's northwest door, feel free to inspect the replica of the famous knocker (once used by fugitives seeking sanctuary) before heading to the Galilee Chapel. The graceful columns and arches of this Late Romanesque-Norman masterpiece are reminiscent of Moorish architecture, and the 12th century paintings on the east wall depict saints Cuthbert and Oswald. The chapel also contains the tomb of the Venerable Bede (died 735 AD). Originally interred in Jarrow, his remains were stolen and brought here in 1022 in order to enhance Durham's collection of relics and, of course, attract more visitors.
2 Men Only in the Norman Nave
Durham Cathedral's Norman Nave easily impresses with its massive piers and columns supporting one of the earliest vaulted ceilings in England. In addition to its stunning size - it's 200 ft long, 40 ft wide and 72 ft high - the nave's other impressive features include the zigzag molding of its arches, and the spiral decoration of the columns. The ornamentation of the columns echo the twisted pillars of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which were also copied for the Altar Tabernacle of St Peter's in Rome. Also of interest is the black marble cross in the floor of the second bay marking the point beyond which women weren't allowed to pass.
3 The Treasury Museum: A Trove of Coffins and Silver
The Treasury Museum has relics representing over 900 years of cathedral history. Its oldest exhibits are the 7th century wooden coffin of St Cuthbert, some silver plate that once belonged to the Prince Bishops of Durham, ancient books, and the Conyer's Falchion, an ancient sword used by Sir John Conyers to kill the legendary Sockburn Worm. These days, the only action the sword sees is when it's presented to each new Bishop of Durham upon entering the diocese at Croft Bridge for the first time. The museum also houses the original knocker used by sanctuary seekers in medieval times, a replica of which now graces the cathedral's main door.
4 The Miners' Memorial
In the south aisle of the nave is the Miners' Memorial, added to the cathedral in 1947 and associated with the 17th century Frieze of the Passion. It commemorates the many men who toiled in the area's once plentiful coal mines.
5 The Warlord in the Neville Chantry
The more easterly of the grave effigies in the Neville Chantry is that of Ralph Neville (died 1367), victor of the Battle of Neville Cross (1346) where he fought and captured Scotland's King David II. As a result of his heroics, the Nevilles became the first laypersons to be interred in the cathedral.
6 The Barrington Tomb
At the corner of the aisle and south transept stands a statue of Bishop Barrington (1734-1826), penultimate holder of the title of Prince-Bishop. An enlightened man, he not only patronized the arts but also founded a co-operative society and fostered improvements in agriculture. While there, check out the great tower over the crossing with its beautiful ribbed vaulting.
7 Timely: The Prior Castell's Clock
On the end wall of the south transept is the lovely 16th century Prior Castell's Clock, a fascinating 15th century astronomical timepiece placed in the cathedral during the time of Prior Thomas Castell. While you're checking out this 500-year-old timepiece, take a look at the 17th century Choir Stalls in the Chancery.
8 The Bishop's Throne
The 14th century Bishop's Throne, "the highest in Christendom", is ensconced above the memorial and tomb of Bishop Hatfield (1345-81), founder of Durham and Trinity Colleges, Oxford.
9 The Case of the Missing Saint: St Cuthbert's Shrine
The Chapel of the Nine Altars, a 13th century Gothic replacement of the original Norman apse, contains the Shrine of Saint Cuthbert (died 687). Cuthbert's reputation as a saint quickly grew when his body was found to be in the same condition 10 years after his burial as the day he died. Consequently, his popularity was not topped until Thomas Becket's murder in Canterbury in 1170. Over the years the whereabouts of his remains were lost, although legend has it the true location is known to a select group of monks (although no one seems to know just who these monks are!).
10 Let Sleeping Monks Lie: Cathedral Monastic Buildings
The 15th century Cloisters are entered via the Late Norman Prior's Doorway. On the west side, the Monks' Dormitory (1398) houses a superb collection of early manuscripts (8th century onwards), Saxon crosses, Roman altars, relics from St Cuthbert's tomb, and fragments of the oldest examples of fabric and clothing found in England. The Refectory on the south side was converted into a library in 1648, and the octagonal kitchen with its fine vaulting dates from 1366, remaining in use until 1940.
Touring Durham Cathedral
Guided tours of Durham Cathedral are offered daily, and take 1.25 hours (cost £5). The cathedral also has an excellent adult learning program for visitors wanting to know more about the area's history and includes lectures, workshops and tours of the surrounding woods and riverbanks. The Cathedral Library and Archive is also available to those interested in specific aspects of the cathedral's history.
Tips and Tactics: How to Get the Most out of Your Durham Cathedral Visit
The following tips and tactics will help ensure you get the most out of your cathedral visit:
- Shopping: The Cathedral Shop offers locally made gifts as well as books on theology and the local history.
- Food and Drink: The excellent Undercroft Restaurant (daily, 10am-4:30pm) serves lunches and snacks using local produce and ingredients.
- Staff: Chaplains are usually on duty, and a priest is always available.
- What's On: Durham Cathedral is an active place of worship and on occasion may restrict access, although visitors may attend services. To find out more or to learn about events that may be of interest during the time of your visit, visit the cathedral's events page.
Getting To Durham Cathedral
- By train: Durham Station is on the East Coast main line with regular services from London and other cities such as York. A special Cathedral Bus operates regularly from the bus and train stations.
- By coach: National Express operates regular services from London Victoria Coach Station.
- By road: Durham is easily accessible via the A1(M) from London, as well as from other major cities.
- Parking: There's no parking at the cathedral, but Durham County Council operates a Park and Ride program, and there are many city center car parks.
- Worship and private prayer: Mon-Sat, 7:30am and 9:30am; Sun, 7:45am and 12:30pm
- Public access: Mon-Sat, 7:30-6pm; Sun, 7:45-5:30pm
- Free, although donations are greatly appreciated
There are many things to see and do in and around lovely Durham in addition to touring its lovely cathedral. Afterwards, be sure to explore the city's wonderful old medieval streets and architecture, taking in the banks of the River Wear and having a picnic after you've explored the Corn Mill and the Fulling Mill. Numerous footpaths provide pedestrian routes through the city as well as to lovely green spaces, including Durham University's beautiful Botanic Garden. Other city tourist highlights include Durham Castle and the Museum of Archeology.
Once outside the city, head to Beamish, The Living Museum of the North, an excellent museum set in 300 acres of beautiful countryside just 10 mi outside Durham. This attraction tells the amazing story of how the Industrial Revolution transformed the region, with many buildings relocated here from across the county.