Durham, Northern England's centre of culture and learning, preserves the character of its Medieval past
Standing in the cavernous stone-arched interior of Durham Cathedral it's hard not to feel a sense of awe. Regardless of ones religious convictions, or lack of them, the place evokes a feeling of mystery, a connection to the supernatural that transcends time in a seamless union of history and myth.
Ever since AD 995, when the monks of Lindisfarne chose this densely wooded spur of land as the final resting place for the remarkably durable body of St. Cuthbert, Durham has been a destination for Christian pilgrims. It still attracts thousands of visitors each year some seeking the silent blessing of Cuthbert, "the healer," whose remains are buried behind the high alter. Others come to marvel at the architecture and recently, Harry Potter fans have come for a closer look at the enchanted halls of Hogwart's. In the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Durham Cathedral doubled as the classroom attended by the young wizard and his owl, Hedwig.
With our English friends, Alan and Pat, as guides we were on our way from Lindisfarne on the Northumberland Coast to the city of York when we paused for a quick look around Durham and ended up spending most of the day. Even that was far too little time. Alan parked the car near Palace Green and from Prebends Footbridge we watched rowing teams sculling their slender racing shells in practice for the mid-June regatta. The River Wear meanders through the hilly landscape and, as though commanded by some supernatural power to alter its course, it loops around the narrow rocky spur, now a World Heritage Site, where the Cathedral and Castle stand.
The city of Durham was founded by a group of monks whose monastery on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne was ransacked by Viking raiders in AD 875. In those days the northeast corner of Britain was a lawless frontier between north and south where not only Vikings, but a host of tempestuous Scots and assorted other border raiders posed a constant threat. When the beleaguered Lindisfarne Monks finally arrived at the River Wear they recognized the rocky spur, surrounded on three sides by water, as a place where they could defend themselves and the curious mementos they had salvaged from their ravaged monastery. They brought with them the Lindisfarne Gospels and the body of St. Cuthbert.
As things turned out St. Cuthbert's body proved to be of more than spiritual value. According to the monks who peeked into his coffin, Cuthbert stubbornly refused to decay. A phenomenon that attracted a constant stream of gift-bearing pilgrims whose offerings soon proved sufficient to pay for construction of a church to house the Saint's remains. That first small cathedral became the nucleus around which the great medieval city of Durham grew and prospered.