Durham Cathedral may be the jewel in the crown of the city but it is just part of the wider Durham World Heritage Site which covers much of the spectacular peninsular in a loop of the River Wear. The cathedral is undoubtedly the main draw for visitors but there is much more to explore around the UNESCO world heritage site during a visit to the city, as we discovered this weekend.
Durham Castle tour
Two buildings dominate the Durham skyline – the cathedral and Durham Castle. They sit either side of Palace Green, which was once a market place. Durham Castle was once the palace of the Prince Bishops but since 1840 it has been part of Durham University. It is now home to around 120 students who are allocated to rooms within the castle through a lottery system, due to the understandably high demand for this prime university accommodation.
Thankfully access to the castle is not restricted to members of the university. We joined one of the frequent Durham Castle tours, many of which are led by students. Our tour took us into the stunning early Norman chapel which is dominated by a series of beautiful sandstone columns. These are veined with patterns of red iron oxide and topped with carvings of animals, faces and even an early depiction of a mermaid. Entry to this incredible chapel is reason enough to take the tour but our guide also took us on to the long gallery to see the incredible carved doorway which was added by Bishop Le Puiset. Further on we stopped at the Black Stairs – a very early example of a cantilevered staircase. This should be on the bucket list of anyone with an interest in architecture. Finally we were shown in to the Great Hall, were those students who are lucky enough to live here eat their meals in fabulous surroundings.
‘In a different light’ photographic exhibition
Our reason for visiting Durham on a cold, wet winter day was primarily to see the current exhibitions in the Durham World Heritage visitor centre and in the Palace Green Library building. After leaving the castle we made our way first to see the exhibition by Jonathan Bradley in the visitor centre. ‘In a different light’ is a small photographic exhibition of stunning photographs taken by Jonathan within Durham cathedral, using unique lighting techniques. The visitor centre also includes a number of displays which tell the story of Durham, and the peninsular in particular.
Palace Green Library
Moving on, we crossed Palace Green to visit the exhibitions in the Palace Green Library. These change frequently and over the last couple of years have included diverse subjects such as the hugely successful display of the Lindisfarne Gospels and an exhibition of robots and sci-fi material. Over this winter however the exhibitions are themed around the Antarctic. There are three exhibitions including ‘With Scott to the Pole’ and ‘Antarctic Witness’ which feature the photographs of Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley which were taken on their expeditions with Scott and with Shackleton. Together with the Jonathan Bradley exhibition this makes it an excellent time to visit Durham if you have an interest in photography. The third exhibition in the Palace Green Library is ‘Antarctica: Explorers Heroes Scientists’ which brings the polar story up to date, focusing on scientific exploration to investigate global warming.
Easy to miss but highly recommended if you are visiting the Palace Green Library is Bishop Cosin’s Library. If you imagine a historic library then this is almost certainly what you picture – ancient leather bound tomes stacked in dark wooden bookcases, decorated with historic paintings. There is even a wooden spiral staircase to access the upper level of books. Ask at the reception desk if you cannot find your way into the library. It really is a room that you need to see while you are in Durham.
Upstairs, but within the same building, is the recently developed Wolfson Gallery. This is another exhibition space, with ‘Living on the Hills: 10,000 years of Durham’ currently on display. This presents local archaeological finds from around the Durham area.
More to explore on the Durham World Heeritage site
By the time we had explored all of these sites and exhibitions the light was fading and the weather was worsening. If you visit and have the time, there are few better ways to complete your day than with a walk around the peninsular. Take the steeply sloping Owen Gate, past the World Heritage visitor centre, and then turn right onto the Bailey. This will take you around the cathedral, passing the small but beautiful church of St Mary the Less and on the historic and picturesque Prebends’ Bridge which was given World Heritage status when the original USECO site was expanded in 2008. For those interested in stretching their legs a little further, the Woodlands and Riverbanks walk provides much more heritage to explore around the city, but that’s a story for another day.
If you are interested in learning more about the historic buildings of the city then I can highly recommend the excellent ‘Durham – 1000 years of history’ by Martin Roberts, a former Inspector of Historic Buildings for English Heritage and the founder of the North East Vernacular Architecture Group (NEVAG).