Durham, 52 years on

Offered interviews at Durham and Newcastle universities (English and Philosophy), I didn’t immediately realise the succinct disastrousness of my “I’ve read a bit of Hegel”, neatly demonstrating in six or seven words that I had no idea about the state of English philosophy in 1964. The slipper-shod interviewer sprawled across a sofa (this impressed me at the time) replied with a laconic “We don’t concern ourselves very much with Hegel these days”.

I’m much more proud of the 17 year old who thought that Durham was very fine, with its cathedral and castle, and that he must come back on a more leisurely occasion.

And now today I’ve finally managed to do so, a mere 52 years later.

I wouldn’t go as far as Bill Bryson who is quoted in the cathedral guide as saying “I unhesitatingly gave Durham my vote for the best Cathedral on planet Earth” (Notes from a Small Island). But it is certainly among my favourites. Apart from the Chapel of the Nine Altars, it’s very largely Norman work, giving an impression of stylistic harmony and strength. But, less usual for a Norman church, the bulky pillars don’t block the light out. Especially interesting is the late Norman ceiling with its pointed arches anticipating the first of the Gothic styles. These arches could bear more weight than the earlier round Norman arches, enabling the construction of a high stone ceiling (and producing the happy combination of Norman solidity and strength and the lightness of soaring Gothic).

There are also two important graves in the church. First, St Cuthbert, his body evacuated to Durham at a safe distance from the Vikings, who were ravaging Lindisfarne. He had a lavish grave here for many hundred years until the time of Henry VIII (16th  century) when the King’s commissioners came to dissolve the monastery and lay their hands on the gold casing of Cuthbert’s tomb. Cuthbert himself was reported to be incorrupt (body intact after about 800 years…) and they let him be minus the gold (which I suspect was of much more interest than the body anyway, corrupt or incorrupt….).

More of a favourite for me, the Venerable Bede is also buried here, one of the more substantial of the slender threads leading back to Saxon times with his history of the English people (historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum).

Information culled from “Durham Cathedral, Light of the North” (2006), John Field and “Durham Cathedral, The Shrine of St Cuthbert” (2013).

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