Durham Castle and Cathedral
Durham Castle and Cathedral are the largest and most impressive examples of Norman architecture in England. They overlook a bend in the Wear river, crossing the old university town of Durham.
The Cathedral was built between 1093 and 1133. It is in the Norman (Romanesque) style and houses the relics of St. Cuthbert, the evangelist of Northumbria. The building is considered one of the high points in medieval architecture, because of the speed in which it was made (about 40 years) and the considerable unity in its style. Most spectacular is the Nave with the huge carved pillars that are 6.6 meters round and 6.6 meters high.
Behind the Cathedral, at the northern end of Palace Green, is the Castle: an ancient Norman fortress that was the residence of the Prince Bishops of Durham.
Map of Durham Castle and CathedralLoad map
Hidden amongst the flurry of new inscriptions in the bumper 2020/21 session, the UK attempted to expand the boundaries of one its first ever sites. Durham was inscribed in 1986 with two separate core zones, one each for the castle and the cathedral. In 2008, the site boundaries were extended to include the area of Palace Green in between the two with its associated buildings. ICOMOS considered that this extension to form a homogenous zone had “specific architectural and historic values which strengthen the expression of outstanding universal value”. However, the periodic report of 2013 still stated that even this extended area was “still not adequate to illustrate the attributes of Outstanding Universal Value” and so that is how we come to this new proposal.
The new boundaries cover an area almost four times that of those of 2008, the site extending in all directions from its current core to cover more historic buildings along what is known as the Bailey as well as the entirety of the meander of the River Wear that flows around the hill on which the castle and cathedral are built and parts of the adjoining riverbank. The original 1986 designation included the 18th Century Prebends Bridge but this new zone includes three more – the 13th Century Elvet Bridge, the 15th Century Framwellgate Bridge and the considerably less medieval 1966 Kingsgate pedestrian bridge that links the cathedral to the brutalist concrete masterpiece/monstrosity (opinions vary) of Dunelm House. Taken together, these new components are supposed to highlight the urban integration of the castle-cathedral complex and demonstrate the significance of its location on a defensible hilltop surrounded by a river. The riverbanks are said to have further historical importance as former sites of agriculture, presumably by the ecclesiastical inhabitants of the hill, although they are now entirely forested or built upon.
ICOMOS approved this extension in principle but did not think it went far enough and referred it back to the state party. They recommended that the core zone should expand even further to include not just the wooded areas of the riverbanks but the entire gorge of the Wear to “protect the views to and from the river landscape”. It is understandable why the proposal initially left out the non-wooded areas as these are occupied by a series of predominantly 20th Century buildings, including the aforementioned Dunelm House, which does seem incongruent with the medieval focus of the site. ICOMOS also recommended that a buffer zone should be considered to protect views of the Durham site, despite having said in 2013 that the site had “no buffer zone, and it is not needed”. What this would mean in reality is not clear as the cathedral can be seen from almost every street in the city centre and is ever present on the horizon from the many surrounding hills. The 2017 management plan attempts to determine what views most need protecting, outlining in great detail several factors such as which direction pilgrims would historically have approached the cathedral from. Whilst there is construction ongoing in the city on the sites of the old passport office and bus station, it seems unlikely anything will approach Liverpool levels of disregard for local heritage in this small, usually quiet city and the topography of Durham is such that it would take some remarkable building work to disrupt the views from the surrounding hills.
Beyond the city and its immediate surroundings, the management plan claims that the cathedral is visible in some directions from over 20 kilometres away and that consideration should be given to protecting all of these views where possible, particularly what it refers to as “influential ridgelines”. See the attached photo for a personal example, taken from approximately 13 km to the northeast at the Penshaw Monument in the outskirts of Sunderland, where the cathedral can still be seen as an imposing feature on the landscape. If a buffer zone is at some point implemented, it will be interesting to see how far it extends and how the rather intangible concept of a ‘view’ is protected over such distances. I would agree with other reviews here that the best view of Durham is that from the train as it crosses a viaduct on approach to the station from the south. Whilst on the topic of previous reviews on this site, the ban on photography inside the cathedral appears to have been lifted at some point in recent years, with their website stating that visitors are now “encouraged to take respectful non-flash photos for personal use”. Bill Bryson, former chancellor of Durham University, wrote in Notes from a Small Island that he "unhesitatingly gave Durham [his] vote for best cathedral on planet Earth." I don’t know if I would go that far, there are certainly many other inscribed European cathedrals to pick from, but the hilltop riverside setting of the imparts a grandeur that puts Durham, to my mind at least, ahead of other English cathedrals such as York, Salisbury, Lincoln, Ely etc. and well deserving of its inscription, whatever the new boundaries may be.
March 2018 - Wow, what a cathedral. We walked one hour through the cathedral and one of the guides told us about the history of the building and we discovered a lot of details. There are even mauric influences, which can be seen in the pillars of the church. We also got to hear a short concert on the organs. Amazing acoustics.
The university, and the area around the cathedral is very authentic and historic. The Tourist information has a detailed exhibition on WHS. Very interesting town and good for a stopover from Newcastle to the south.
My wife and I visited Durham Castle & Cathedral in June 2017. I actually found this site to be quite a disappointment. The cathedral is impressive, but I didn't think it was more impressive or interesting than York Minster which isn't on the UNESCO list.
Likewise with the castle, most of it is actually comparatively recent in construction - the beautiful keep is actually from the 18th century, and the buildings around the main square are mid-1600s. Only one small Norman chapel survives from the earliest days of the castle.
Also very disappointed to find that neither the castle nor cathedral allowed photography or filming inside, which makes producing a video review a very difficult task! Prior requests to the management for a permit went unanswered.
Overall unless you have a specific interest in this area or either of the buildings, I wouldn't recommend it over say York or Oxford.
See below for my full video review!
Read more from Joel Baldwin here.
I visited this WHS in June 2016. I slept 1 night here on the day the Brexit referendum voting took place and as much as I loved the vibrant feel of this university town and the magnificent views of the castle and cathedral from the banks of the River Wear, I wasn't that much impressed about its OUV. Unfortunately, I think it doesn't rank as one of the best European cathedrals on the list so I'm glad I spent more time visiting another site of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire and only dedicated a late evening and a morning visit inside the cathedral. I felt the castle doesn't add much to this inscription and it isn't impressive either. I enjoyed my free visit at the Durham WHS Visitor Centre (open 09:30-18:00) but I cannot understand why photography is not allowed in the Cathedral during normal hours while it is permitted on special Thursday night tours. Probably a source of income for restoration I hope, but it would make much more sense to be able to pay to take photos any time and not only on a particular day of the week. If truth be told, there's nothing that special inside apart from the Norman elements of the cathedral. My highlight in Durham was eating a delicious fish & chips with mushy peas in the main square from the popular Proper Fish & Chips Restaurant. Had I more time, I would have loved to meet up with Solivagant for some insider tips but I hope to make up for that in Vilnius at least. Now I can fully understand why he would choose York and Whitby over some of the nearby WHS.
I spent a year studying at Durham U when I was young. Each day I would walk through the cathedral and along the riverbank to admire the view of it from there. When I revisited the cathedral several decades later I felt the same mystical sense of its beauty as before. Only Chartres, of many other beautiful cathedrals I have seen In Europe, has a similarly powerful aesthetic effect on me. I agree with the other reviewers about the amazing view of the cathedral and castle from the train station that builds your excitement about the town as you arrive.
Similar to other viewers, the skyline view of Durham from the train station was indeed very gorgeous, the whole complex of cathedral and castle, a World Heritage Site, on the top of the hill perching above the city really made Durham looked very special and unique. From the rail station, it was very near to reach the old city center. At first I decided to walk along the river to see the breathtaking view of the Cathedral, the only word came out from my mouth was "WOW", the view of gigantic medieval structure behind the forest with the reflection on the river was truly postcard perfect. Then I continued to the old city which was part of University of Durham, after some direction confusing to find cathedral entrance, I finally reached my destination, the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham or shortly Durham Cathedral.
Inside the cathedral, I was impressed by its sacred atmosphere; the beautiful and unique columns along the central nave were indeed one of the highlight, but the superb workmanship of choir and organs won my heart. I also saw the tomb site of St Cuthbert behind altar and very simple tombs of the Venerable Bede in Galilee Chapel, two holy men of Northern England which signified the importance of this Cathedral. After Cathedral, I went to see the cloister, which nothing was special; however the modern cafeteria and cathedral museum shop were surprisingly bright and warm, no wonder why this area was so popular with the tourists. The Cathedral was free of charge but 5 pound donation was highly appreciated. During my visit the cathedral received a continuously flow of tourists and university students and maybe fan of Harry Potter film.
After saw many UNESCO listed cathedrals, I hardly found a nice cathedral which really can impressed me in the last few years, Durham was truly a breeze of fresh air for me, this cathedral was quite unique enough for its own, the interesting Norman influence was lovely to admire especially at columns in central nave and inside the Galilee Chapel. The only regret was photo was not allowed inside and that such a great tragic that how much you can remember all those beautiful details inside the complex.
Kathryn Houseman Lobert
What wonderful memories I still have of my time in Durham! I was lucky enough to live the the keep of Durham Castle for four weeks in July 1970 with AIFS. Can you imagine the magic of celebrating my 18th birthday in a castle?? Treasured times, treasured friends.
I lived and worked in Durham for 3 years. I have been away from it now for over 13 years, however when ever I get the chance I go back to visit. I was there yesterday (31st January 2010) for a short while introducing it to a dear friend. It holds special memories for me, the Cathedral is magnificent and the position of the city is superb. Its peace, tranquillity and spiritual ambience makes it one of my favourite places in England, steeped in history, it truely is a magical place which as a Northener I was proud to show to my dear friend.
Durham had been on my list of sites to see soon for some time and in March 2009 I finally managed to arrange a work trip that enabled me to see it.
I have to say I am in agreement with most of the other reviewers on this page, Durham really is a lovely place to visit. I got my first view in the morning as my train travelled across the viaduct. It was quite a surprise just how impressive an entrance to the city this was, certainly one of England's finest urban views.
I managed to get back in the afternoon to explore the city on foot. The town centre is a nice maze of winding roads and narrow alleyways. The approach up to the Cathedral green was particularly nice.
I was very lucky as when I went into the cathedral there was a choir practice being conducted, this really added to the atmosphere. I must admit to sometimes having cathedral fatigue as collecting World Heritage Sites takes you to a lot. However I really enjoyed visiting the interior, it was not particularly busy and also it was free to enter, a bit of a rarity in England. The famous columns with diagonal patterning were very impressive. Also it is well worth heading through the cloister to the bookshop and restaurant, which are housed, in some fine outbuildings.
Alas, the castle was closed for a special event when I visited, it did look impressive but I am not sure I would have ventured in had I had the option. I just enjoyed the views of it from the river.
I visited after a meeting in Newcastle (about 15 minutes by train), which I was particularly impressed with. If you are in the area it seems like a great place to be based. I should hopefully be back up there to visit Hadrian's Wall, and certainly would have no qualms about going back to Durham to explore a little more of one of England's most charming cities. A very worthy World Heritage Site.
Durham cathedral is truly a superb building. I last visited there about twenty years ago and I'm ashamed to say that I had forgotten how wonderful it really is. It's certainly true to say that you dont appreciate what you have on your own doorstep. The only thing that is disappointing is that whilst there is a copy of the Lindsfarne Gospels held within the cathedral the original is kept in London ( a place as far away from Lindisfarne and the history of this area that you could wish to get) miles away from its true beginnings , what better place for anyone to view this holy book than in the area in which it first began.
The first view of Durham, from the train or walking down from the railway station, is very impressive. The town is dominated by what looks like a huge fortress; in fact, it is the medieval complex of a cathedral and a castle. Quite hard to encapture this sight into a picture, though. I climbed bridges and followed the riverside footpath, but to no avail.
The front of the Cathedral is massive, but the whole thing is huge when you look at it from the side. The grey stones also dominate the inside, giving it a heavy air although the pillars are distinctly decorated.
Somehow, I didn't find the time to go inside the castle. There are guided tours a few times a day, but I preferred sitting on a bench, reading a book, sipping some coffee, and looking up every ten minutes or so to enjoy the magnificent architecture.
I was blessed to have lived in Durham Castle for four weeks as part of an AIFS group in the summer of 1968. It is truly one of the highlights of my life and I have such fond memories of the Castle, as well as the Cathedral, Durham University and the townsfolks of Durham. I hope to return for an extended visit in 2010.
I brought my seven year old son to visit the Cathedral and the Castle. Hav to say it is absolutely spectacular and is breath taking. When you sit back and consider the work that has gone into the Cathedral during such hard times it makes your mind boggle! Fell in love with the place and I felt a sense of warmth and calm that I have not experienced anywhere else yet.
You are truly lucky people to live in such a beautiful part of the country!
As an American who has moved to Durham, I found the history of Durham, which is incorporated in almost every aspect of life, amazing. The idea that people had been here for thousands of years, and that some of those people built magnificient buildings such as the the cathedral was exhilarating. You never know what you've truly missed before unless you experience a different way.
Like the other posters, I really enjoyed Durham. Even though I had arrived in the early morning on a night bus from London and had to wait several hours for anything to open, the city didn't fail to impress me with its considerable charm. The cathedral is one of the greatest in England, and a wonderful example of Norman architecture at its prime. The castle is also very interesting, but it's now used as a university, and not everything can be seen. By the way, when I was there, the late Peter Ustinov was still chancellor (or whatever his exact title was). I found this entertaining, even though the post is probably only ceremonial. The city of Durham is also pleasant and not too big, meaning that the cathedral and the castle can be seen from almost anywhere, without any modern buildings blocking the view.
Durham cathedral is a lovely place to ralax at night when the lights shine up at the cathedral the scene is unberliveble and is breath taking.The sight is not only breath taking but is a memory which will last a life time i would recomend a visit to durham cathedral to anybody who is interested in historicsl sights.
I really enjoyed my visit to Durham Castle and Cathedral. I took a tour of the Castle and i found the history fascinating. The Cathedral was really impressive and i climbed to the top of the tower to get a good view of Durham city. Everywhere I went in Durham, i never lost sight of the castle and cathedral. they dominate the city and are a really historical background.
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