First, and most importantly, Durham Cathedral.

Each morning I woke in Myton-on-Swale, the sky was already light. But clouds covered everything. I would think “Oh, it’s going to rain” and turnover to go back to sleep. But by 8:30 or 9 am, the grey had burned off. Sunny day followed sunny day.

I did indeed do nothing the first full day I was in Myton. I washed clothes, wrote, took a walk, slept some more, wrote some more, found some interesting books to read, made it to the grocery store and back (a half hour drive to nearby Boroughbridge). But once recovered, and having had a day to myself, I was ready to venture forth. First foray out into the wider world? North to Durham.

I spent many semesters in architectural history classes during my college years. Just a handful of buildings stayed with me as truly iconic for one reason or another. The Pantheon, in Rome, was one. I never thought I’d actually experience being there. Then, in 2006? 2007? Well, a few years ago, I was lucky enough to accompany my mom on a trip to Italy. Sure enough, we visited the Pantheon. It was far more a pilgrimage for me than the Vatican, at which we’d just spent hours and hours. The Pantheon, constructed by the Romans, is one of the earliest examples of a great interior space – made possible by their ingenious use of a coffered concrete dome. So very old. An amazing accomplishment at that time. And still extant. We were walking back to our hotel from the time at the Vatican and BOOM! we came out of an alley into a plaza and there it was. Our group went in together and gathered around our guide, hearing about the building. But I unplugged from the conversation in order to sit by myself, experiencing the place as I wanted to experience it. I sat in the very center of the place. I looked at every wall, every inch of that amazing ceiling. I spent as long as I could looking up at the central oculus (a circular hole at the apex of the dome). The blue of the sky against the white concrete vibrated with color. Just as I was about to bring my gaze back down to see what everyone was doing, I caught a movement across the blue at the top of the room – a bird flying by.

That was a religious experience for me.

Another building that stands among the architectural giants in my mind is Durham Cathedral. Sure, we studied lots of churches from every country, every time period, every style from Byzantine to Modern and beyond. But for some reason, this cathedral always held a particular fascination for me. So I was determined to go there even though it was not specifically something on the agenda for me to visit on behalf of Rowan Tree Travel.

I gathered some snacks, a water bottle, my backpack and keys and headed out the door. The GPS system told me how to get to the Park ‘n’ Ride at the edge of Durham. One thing I’d already figured out: the less inner city driving I had to do, the better. I headed out.

The drive was actually quite long – about an hour and a half. Not long by US standards, but long in the sense that I’d need to get there, visit, explore, and get myself home before too tired to drive. Luckily, the days were incredibly long. It didn’t get dark in northern England until 10 pm. I knew I wouldn’t have to drive in the dark. I just needed to be sure not to be tired when driving. I found the Park ‘n’ Ride (feeling triumphant! Every time I reached a destination I felt triumphant!) and said goodbye to my little VW Golf. I found the bus, got on and was on my way into the heart of Durham. It’s not a big city at all. Quite small actually, but surrounded by bedroom communities. It’s also the home to one of the largest and most prestigious universities in the UK. Aaaaaaaaand, it was graduation week. Yep. And where do they hold the graduations? You guessed it. At Durham Cathedral. So, turns out I was there on a Friday – the final day of a full week of graduation exercises held right there at the cathedral. After hopping off the bus, I walked across to the peninsula on which the cathedral, castle and original medieval town stood. It’s basically closed off to cars, so pedestrians wandered about in various celebratory dress. Parents, grandparents, young adults in black robes with hoods of various colors and decorations, languages being spoken from all over the world, etc. It was kind of fun, actually! When I got to the summit of the hill on which the castle and cathedral stand, I found an open plaza at which the cathedral stood at one end, the castle at the other, and beautiful, medieval buildings stood along the sides. I found out they are mostly dorms and classrooms because the university is located all over the city. And much of it is right there!

The cathedral’s interior was blocked off for the graduation ceremonies. Also, the main spire, located over the central crossing, is currently being renovated. But, as compensation, they’ve opened the north towers to visitors. I entered the cathedral and walked up the many, many, many stairs to get up to the top of the northwest tower.

I then spent time in the museum at the cathedral. It is housed in the old monastery. You aren’t allowed to take pictures there, so I have none to offer. However, the main room is floor to ceiling with books, books, books – the collection of the monks that lived there prior to Henry the 8th’s expulsion of their order. I was also able to go down to the restored kitchens of the monastery. And there were various displays. All fine and good. But really, I was simply waiting for the commencement exercises to finish at 2pm so I could go in the sanctuary itself. I had lunch, I wandered over to the library… finally they removed the barriers and let the public into the interior of the cathedral.

I was not disappointed.

I didn’t take a tour. I can’t really tell you all the history or the chronology related to Durham Cathedral. I know it was built as the burial place for St. Cuthbert. But I don’t know anything about St. Cuthbert. What I can do is tell you what the place means to me. Durham Cathedral is old and heavy with the souls who have built, loved, visited, fought for and prayed there. It carries the weight of hundreds of years, hundreds of souls, hundreds of changes. The first incarnation of the present cathedral was started just after William the Conqueror crossed into England. That means the foundation and ground level stones were placed by collective hands almost a thousand years ago. A thousand years! Its interior tells the tale of human engineering in stone. Durham Cathedral is a halfway point, a pause at which you can see what humans have been able to do and also what they are about to be able to do. The stone structure is still thick and heavy, drawing on the domes and vaults used by the Romans to enclose great amounts of interior space for the first time. But the interior is also beginning to rise, to lighten. Its columns, ribs and arches show where humans will go with stone – to the soaring heights of the later Gothic cathedrals. Rheims, Notre Dame, Chartres. At Durham, you can see the past and the future in stone. And you can see the human mind at work – creating spaces with stone that reach great heights, then leaving stone behind and going on to iron, steel and glass. You can see the human mind advancing toward enclosures that allow us to leave our atmosphere. Durham is like an early chapter in a very good, very long novel. About us.

Walking through the sanctuary, you encounter the ages. Recognizable names are inscribed on stones throughout the floor – important people buried there at the church (actually IN the church’s floor). I saw stained glass panels from the medieval period, the Renaissance and also recent, modern panels. There are adornments everywhere, of every description and in every media: sculpture, sewing, bead work, batik, needlework, stone and wood carving. Each generation seems to have contributed something of itself in decoration and commemoration. So I’ll stop describing and just post some pictures.

I walked around the exterior of the cathedral as well as the interior, but the graduates and their families really did make things feel more like a music festival than a reverent architectural pilgrimage.

Then I wandered to a nearby museum about Durham. It was small but beautifully curated, relaying the history of Durham from the middle ages to the present. I wandered down the streets and found shops and more university buildings and a river with families boating. Even saw two sets of rowing crews slice their way down the river. A quintessentially English sight!

By about five I decided to return to the Park ‘n’ Ride. So did half the families there for commencements! But I got on a bus, made it back to the Park ‘n’ Ride, found my car, turned on the GPS and followed its mechanical voice all the way back to tiny Myton-on-Swale. Back at the house, I kicked of my shoes, wandered outside with a glass of water and toasted the day. Hurrah for me! Made it to Durham Cathedral. It was worth every ounce of effort. A day I’ll long remember.

2 comments

  1. I visited Durham Cathedral in July 2016, when Anne and I were staying near Hadrian’s Wall and working on the dig at Vindolanda. I remember most the stained glass window commemorating the defense of Durham by members of the RAF during WW 2. The cathedral suffered no damage during those raids, as I recall.

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