Durham Cathedral has a spectacular setting, high on a sandstone bluff above the River Wear. The river loops back on itself in a deep meander, creating a steep-sided peninsula that is almost an island.
Map link: Durham
Durham is located in what is now north-east England, south of Hadrian’s Wall, and although it isn’t associated with a Roman fort it cannot have been far from the main Roman road that ran north from York to the Wall (the exact course of the road is not known).
Zoom out on the map to see Durham in its wider geographical context.
The Norman cathedral is aligned across the peninsula, with the west towers positioned immediately above the steep drop to the river bank:
Durham Cathedral west towers, seen from across the River Wear
The name Durham derives from Dun Holm, from the Old English ‘dun’ (hill) and Norse ‘holm’ (island), a singularly apt description given the shape of the peninsula.
The site has obvious defensive potential, surrounded on three sides by the River Wear, broad enough to be a serious obstacle:
Looking along the River Wear below the cathedral west towers. The river was high when I took this photograph in the middle of a wet summer.
The peninsula looks an obvious location for a fort of some kind, and I wonder if there was ever any influence on the name from Brittonic ‘Din’ (fort), given the site’s obvious defensive potential. However, there is no mention of the site before the monastery was founded in 995 (see below), so this is pure speculation on my part. There may have been an early defensive site in the area at the nearby Iron Age promontory fort at Maiden Castle, east of the cathedral, which has steep slopes on three sides and may have originally been situated in another meander of the river.
Map link: Maiden Castle
Durham first appears in the records in 995, when a group of monks from Lindisfarne settled there. The monks had fled from Lindisfarne in 875 to escape Norse raids, carrying with them the body of Northumbria’s premier saint, St Cuthbert. They initially settled in Chester-le-Street, until further raiding in 995 prompted them to take to the road again in search of a secure site for their precious relics.
According to legend, the monks had seen a vision telling them to take St Cuthbert to Dun Holm, but did not know where that was. By chance (or providence) they encountered a milkmaid who told them she was looking for her dun cow, which she had last seen at Dun Holm. They followed her, and when they came to the peninsula above the River Wear they settled there and built a church to house St Cuthbert.
This charming legend is commemorated in a sculpture on the external wall:
Sculpture showing the legend of the Dun Cow, Durham Cathedral
Nothing now remains of the 995 church, which disappeared when the great Norman cathedral was built on the site in 1093, obliterating the earlier building.
West and central part of Durham Cathedral from Palace Green
The nave is Norman, the west towers are 12th and 13th century, and the central tower is late 15th century.
Photography isn’t allowed inside the cathedral, so to get an idea of the magnificent interior, see the pictures of the nave, the crossing, the central tower, and Bede’s tomb on the official cathedral website. Yes, Bede is buried there too. I went to pay my respects and say thank you to him for writing his Histories.