12 January, 2013

Durham Cathedral

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.


Rick said...

Wonderful picture! Is the bridge in the background Prebends Bridge?

I'm a bit surprised that the alignment of a Roman road would be uncertain!

Looking at the map, first I was distracted by a nearby place called Quebec - then even more distracted by another place called Pity Me.

Carla said...

Roman roads do disappear, often where there have been extensive changes in land use or development - which can happen in 1500 years. The exact line of Roman roads is often lost close to towns, for example, presumably because routeways changed as the town developed. Or if the river changed its course through its flood plain, that might mean the road was no longer useful and then it would go out of use and disappear under fields or whatever. The road went through Chester-le-Street ('Street' or 'Strat' is a giveaway in place names), where there was a Roman fort, and another stretch is known at Great Stainton further south, near Darlington. Presumably the two originally joined up, and if you drew a straight line between the two you probably wouldn't be far off, given Roman engineers' propensity for straight lines unless there was a good reason against.

Yes, Pity Me has a very strange name, hasn't it? I have no idea of its origin. Wikipedia has some theories, if you're interested. On Quebec I have no idea; maybe it's a modern name and it's named after the Canadian city for some reason? Your guess is as good as mine.

Rick said...

No surprise that Roman roads disappear in built-up areas. In more rural areas I picture as more durable - farmers would have to do a lot of work moving paving stones in order to cultivate a narrow strip of land.

But I don't really know what happens to land over long time periods. Over 1500+ years, I suppose erosion on the one hand, or deposition and burial on the other (whatever the proper term is for gradual buildup of soil), can dispose of even a Roman road.

The Wikipedia article on Pity Me made for amusing reading!

Carla said...

If the paving stones are useful and the road isn't (because it goes to places that are no longer important, or a key link like a bridge has gone) they may well be removed by farmers or other people for building material (this happened to quite a lot of Hadrian's Wall, for example). It may also depend on the road construction. I remember reading a study of Roman roads written by a retired civil engineer, and he commented that although some Roman roads were massively built with large stones and strong foundations ('heavy bottoming' was the rather delightful term), many others were quite lightly constructed, more like a gravel track. I imagine the lighter-built roads would be less durable than the heavier ones, and would wash and wear away with weather over time. Even the heavier built roads would break up over time from the action of water and frost forming potholes. Structures often end up buried by soil build-up and vegetation encroachment, sometimes to a considerable depth, and I imagine a road on a flood plain might end up under a lot of silt after a few big floods.

Rick said...

I thought about filching paving stones, but probably underestimated how much of that can go on over 1500 years.

And, yes, not every Roman road necessarily fits the stereotype - heavy bottoming and all that.

Carla said...

There's a line in one of the Vindolanda letters that says something like 'sorry the waggons with your delivery were late, the roads were impassable' or words to that effect. Which might just be an all-purpose excuse of the Reggie Perrin 'Signal failure at White City!' type, or may genuinely indicate that some of the roads in the north of Roman Britain were on the flaky side.

Gabriele Campbell said...

British rain may erode even Roman roads in the long run. :-)

That's a splendidly looking cathedral. Pity that photographing isn't allowed inside - that's the one advantage of Russia; bribes still work there and so I got my interior shots. ;-)

Carla said...

Gabriele - yes, it's a magnificent cathedral. Well worth adding to your itinerary next time you visit the north of England, if you haven't already seen it. It's probably a good thing they don't permit interior photography - the cathedral gets a lot of visitors, so it would be difficult for a photographer to get an uncluttered shot, and the number of people trying would probably be very distracting for everyone else, including all the other photographers.