Big Churches in Little Europe: Durham

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Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert (Durham)

A famous travel writer describes Durham Cathedral as the best in the world. I have no idea if it is or isn't but it is pretty good.

As you come into Durham on the train (or whoosh past at 115 miles per hour) the castle and the Cathedral stand out on the rocky promontory, high against the rush of river and time. When you get closer to the building itself, you are left with the impression that it was built to last. Once you get inside, impressions be damned, you know that it was built to last.

This isn't a light and airy building. Its huge, overwhelming construction is built basically straight upon the rock of the promontory over the river that surrounds the city. There are no foundations. The pillar bases are huge, standing directly on the ground. The pillars themselves are big drums and not slender trees. The far off roof clearly rests on them and the architect does nothing to distract you from their function, drawing the eye to each pillar by having them carved with striking geometrical patterns that are completely distinctive.

The bishop's seat is an amazing testament to power and politics. For many years after the Normans finished their reverse coup (in 1066), the Bishop of Durham was routinely appointed from among the younger sons of the king. The bishop had powers to legislate (since revoked) and run the north west of England as he saw fit. The fact the Durham Castle, built as the home of the prince bishops, is collocated with the cathedral is not an accident. The seat in question is on a pedestal 15 feet off the floor and tastefully decorated in a style suited to the younger sons of kings.

The whole cathedral works visually. Yet there was obviously a problem from an engineering point of view because the east end fell down within 50 years of it being constructed. It turns out that some of the church was built on rock and some on sand. When you walk around the eastern end, you will notice it is now much lower. That is because they still didn't want to use foundations and the number of steps down matches the amount of material they had to remove to get to the next layer of rock.

I like this place. The floor decorations between the choir stalls are made from swirling patterns of different coloured stone. The roof is simplicity itself with plain rounded arched stone work. The church was built to be a Cathedral from the start but also was a monastery. If you walk right through the church at the western end, there is another door that leads to the monk's cloisters - a huge grassy courtyard surrounded by an intricately carved stone covered walkway. Through all of that there is a dark passage to the Chapel of the Holy Cross which is a cold, simple chapel that suggests nothing except silence. Given the crowds of people who can descend onto this heritage listed site, the silence can be quite welcome for 10 minutes. There are also some lovely gardens out there too.

If you are a fan of saints you can visit Cuthbert, who is still thought of kindly by the locals, and Bede, who kicked off the modern approach to writing history. Both should still be there when you visit.

From the random services I have experienced here, I can say that they are excellent. There are some points that may be too formal - occasionally you wonder where the fine line between dignified and OCD lies. However the organ is good and loud and the choir knows how to sing. I have no idea if they do more contemporary services. The mood of the place is to look back to the Benedictine tradition of the monastery rather than forward to new sounds. I think this is a fair decision.

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