Discover Durham, the university city in the north east
The City of Durham sits on a huge rocky hill surrounded by the waters of the River Wear. Surmounting the peak rises the triple towers of Durham Cathedral, and Norman keep of the old castle.
Durham has a prestigious university, which makes this historic city feel young and vibrant. You cannot visit Durham without a tour of the Cathedral. Architecturally and spiritually it is of great importance, and behind the high altar lies the shrine to St Cuthbert.
Durham is the northeast's jewel and worth spending a morning or afternoon, climbing the cathedral towers and admiring the Romanesque splendour of the architecture.
Durham a UNESCO World Heritage Site
A brief history of the City of Durham
One of England's major cities
In medieval times one of England’s major cities. The Normans built high above the River Wear on a sandstone outcrop. Its beautiful Norman Cathedral still crowns the settlement. There is also a castle which was used as a palace for the bishops of Durham until 1837. It is now the foundation college of Durham University.
Roman times and St Cuthbert
The history of Durham goes back further to Roman times, a bathhouse was discovered in 1939. During the 7th Century an energetic, but calm monk call Cuthbert travelled the northeast of England spreading the word of the gospel. He survived an outbreak of the plague and aided victims while travelling through the region. His reputation as a miracle worker gained traction. During the Synod of Whitby (664), a meeting to decide the Anglo-Saxon churches direction. The question was to choose to follow the Roman Christian culture or Celtic Christian customs. The synod decided to follow the Roman way. Cuthbert helped implement the new rules, and his status grew.
Cuthbert was a hermit by nature and built himself a cell on the island of Lindisfarne. The island and Northumberland Coast as a whole is famed for its bird wildlife, Cuthbert instigated the protection of said birds. Therefore we could say he was one of the first conservationists of nature.
The end of the dark ages
After Cuthbert died in 687 ad, his grave became a place of pilgrimage. It generated income for the Lindisfarne community, which in turn provoked Viking raids. The monks decided to remove the body and other treasures from vulnerable Lindisfarne. The monks toured northern England with the Lindisfarne gospels and coffin of St Cuthbert before settling at Durham. The easily defended wooded hill-island or Dun-Holm became the permanent site of the shrine of St Cuthbert.
The wealthy place of worship became a target for the Scots in 1006. The formidable defences of Durham were too much for the invaders, the armies of Northumberland and Yorkshire repelled the attackers. The defending troops decided to remove the heads from the dead Scots and then displayed on the city walls – a gruesome warning to future would-be attackers.
When William the Conqueror arrived in Durham, it was clear he wanted to see St Cuthbert body. As he approached the tomb, it was said he had a panic attack and fled the city. Maybe the result of the mysterious powers of St Cuthbert.
William sent an army north to take the city. The secretly stationed Northumberland army inside the city slaughtered the Normans, which enraged the Conqueror. Out of pure hatred and anger, William sent another army who plundered the entire region, burning crops, destroying towns and cities. The murder of thousands of innocence bystanders became known as the ‘Harrying of the North.’
The Prince Bishops
The Prince Bishops of Durham enjoyed enormous powers. The ability to hold an independent parliament and raise an army was unknown anywhere else in England. At certain times during the middle ages, it's thought that the Prince Bishops of Durham enjoyed almost equal status with that of the King. In the 19th Century, the Bishop William Van Mildert and chapter founded the University.
World War Two
St Cuthbert is the legendary protector of Durham. His mythical powers thwarted a German bombing raid in WW2. The Luftwaffe targeted Durham on the 30th May 1942, as the bombers approached a mist or fog enveloped the Castle and Cathedral, and called off the attack. It is a nice story, anyway and it is true, the German airforce did not bomb Durham during WW2.
The big attraction of the Cathedral is the use of intricate geometric patterns on the enormous cylindrical columns and dogtooth designs on the arches. The effect is dazzling and a sculptural tour de force. The Cathedral is large, but it is stone masons detail that makes a visit here so rewarding.
The Medieval Clock is a surprise for any visitor. It is brightly coloured and shows the moon phases, days of the month, and months of the year. It is much like a giant Rolex.
The three-towers of Durham Cathedral were built later and have a gothic style that contrasts with the colossal columns and round arches of the nave. Climb the 325 steps of the 15th Century central Tower. You will be rewarded with fine views across the city, and understand why the monks chose the site for their shrine and town. See the protective loop of the River Wear and appreciate the steep sandstone rock location, a strategic hill, a safe place.
The Shrine of St Cuthbert is the very spiritual heart of the building. The Saint is buried beneath a simple stone slab bearing his name. Nearby is the damaged statue of St Cuthbert holding the head of King Oswald, a saintly king. Oswald did much to convert the northeast of England to Christianity in the early 7th Century, a task completed by St Cuthbert.
The Galilee Chapel is a stunning piece of artistry. It works as a porch and as a lady chapel. You will also find the tomb of the famous Venerable Bede in the chapel. Without Bede, we would know very little about Anglo-Saxon history, the history of the early church and St Cuthbert. However, it is the perspective of the church. He joined a monastic community when aged seven, and became a great scholar. He was an accomplished historian, theologian, poet, scientist and biographer.
The 14th century Monks’ dormitory is the only surviving monastic dormitory in England, and it is spectacular. It is now a space to display precious objects from the cathedral archives which previously lacked space and visitor facilities.
There is so much more to see and admire at the Cathedral, the coloured glass, great kitchen and quire. A professional tour guide will be able to enhance your experience at this wonderful UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Touring and accommodation
We can tailor a driver-guided tour of the northeast of England that includes the City of Durham and the surrounding area. Other places of interest in the region include but are not limited too, the Northumberland Coast, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland National Park, and further south the City of York. Staying in the northeast allows you to stay in an authentic Inn or a luxury guest house.
If this is your first time to England, we would recommend a custom version of our Town and Country Tour; it covers the famous places and allows you to utilise your private driver-guide by getting-off-the-beaten-path. Our Classic tour of Ireland is a good place to start for the first trip to Ireland, and we suggest the Classic tour of Scotland for your first trip to the bonny Highlands.
Norman Columns of the Nave
The Cathedral Crossing
Durham Cathedral Pulpit
Medieval Tomb, Durham Cathedral
The Cathedral Precinct
Framwellgate Bridge, Durham
Independent Shops of Durham
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Whether you are a honeymoon couple, a family or a corporate incentive group, our team’s collective resources will be brought together to build the experience that’s right for you.
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