Elspeth’s Naughty Guide to Durham

Durham Newc BW3

My first self developed photo.

“Grey towers of Durham, how I love thy mixed and massive piles”

Does anyone else think of an intimate bodily dysfunction here? Would it be too rude and childish to say “bum grapes” this early on – though I have called this a naughty guide!

And, Sir Walter, it is not “Half a church of God, half castle ‘gainst Scot”.

But Scott was of the establishment, and this pair of actually quite brown if you look properly piles are definitely of the establishment.

Durham full length

Yes this handy Cuthbert statue’s covering something…

I have just finished reading Durham Cathedral: Light of the North. Its subtitle is hardly appropriate, given the contents and my and others’ experience of the titular church. This official cathedral publication is a catalogue of abused privilege as women-free as the cathedral was for much of its life: women are behind a marble line, a footnote, and in reference to their bishop/prince husbands. I recall only three being mentioned, despite the story of Durham actually going back to Saxon times. And despite the Celtic church being one where women were equal – in the same region, there is a famous abbess of a co-educational monastery.

Yet I’d like to squash right now the idea that Cuthbert, the ‘saint’ who gave us and has often saved today’s city, was a misogynist. And I’d like to do it by recounting a legend about three females, one especially. But you’ll have to wait for that.

Let’s get back to the piles, and the half church. I think this was built with less than half an intent as a house of God. It was not so much castle ‘gainst Scot as castle against your own.

This was the symbol of “you have new leadership”. The Normans, like the Romans (their structures are well alternatively called Romanesque), were building edifices that literally, as per the too oft used phrase, dominated the city. Why the Scots and Northumbrians didn’t bond over this, I couldn’t tell.

Durham was not, as the book says, the biggest Norman church. I know the lengths of the cathedral and abbeys in Britain and there were and are some much longer than Durham. They are all in the south/east (save Glastonbury, which is a bit later). But I can assert that at the time, Durham cathedral was by far the biggest building that North Britain had seen and remained one of that area’s largest churches by far. (I have thrice read that Durham’s 469ft in length, about the same as St Andrew’s, and compares to present York minster’s c520ft. Yes, I’m imperial; times by 0.3048 if you want to know the lengths in metres). And all Norman churches were huge by Saxon standards.

Was the Norman’s God one who was simultaneously worshipped as they conquered, and felt that quite congruent with faith? It’s been a regular tenet in history. But I see Durham’s mother church as little about the glory of God and more about the glory of the Scandinavian descended French invaders, and little mothering, from God or otherwise.

For centuries – I cannot work out when exactly it ceased – a marble line prevented women from entering barely past the door to the nave. Even queens were not allowed; King Edward III’s wife Philippa, it’s said, was asked to move in the night to be further away. From what or whom? Cuthbert, of course. His followers brought his body here – he  was bishop at Lindisfarne, but they needed a new safe home from the previous invaders. Durham cathedral is jointly dedicated to him. And he has been the trump card of the people, being more miraculous in death than in life. He was the source of income from myriad pilgrims.

When it was realised that other saints were inclusive and their shrines were doing better, Durham thought how to get women pilgrims in without compromising their men-only rule. They attempted the now fashionable Lady Chapel in the usual position at the east end, but said Cuthbert didn’t want even the Queen of Heaven near his high altar resting place. The Light of North book says it was really foundation related. Bollocks. They wanted women kept behind the marble line, and they wanted their pink (girls not gay) pounds. So they built the Lady Chapel on the west front, by the women’s area. Now they could get the consolation of the Blessed Virgin, cough up for indulgences and pilgrim badges, and yet still be kept at bay (literally). Although I believe in miracles I think this one was entirely invented for an obvious purpose: whilst obviously on the right side of the black line, a blind lady had a vision of Cuthbert restoring hers.

Why didn’t they do what Newcastle did  with their marble line: dig up and move it?

Why didn’t a woman have a vision (made up if necessary) that Cuthbert – or better still Jesus – had appeared to her and told that the banishment of women was wrong?!

Durham is often called a massive, powerful masculine church. But I see its famous tall round pillars (piers) with their four types of incised patterns (sacred geometry?) as maternal, soft, strong and very very long. Yes that was a tagline from a toilet roll advert, but I am not being facetious. Stone might be solid and hard and even cold, but these piers look huggable. And it endures, it is constant. They hold up shelter, you can escape wind in their lee and sun in their shade. Curvature is an essentially feminine quality.

I love that God, especially in her female form, was not invited much into the making of this church, but She snuck in anyway.

And I take great pleasure in stepping over that marble, as even my favourite queens could not.


Durham Newc BW2

I was a friend of Durham Cathedral. They were not a friend to me. I am still angry, a decade on. They were rude, stuffy, uncaring, telling me when I asked to join that “Sunday is a bad day, we’re terribly busy. Are you sure you want to join us?” They are the only church – I’ve been to many, including other cathedrals – who have cheese and wine instead of tea and coffee as post service refreshments. Older alumni wear college scarves and enquire in incredulous plummy accents which institution you have possibly got your degrees from if not themselves, Oxbridge, or Caledonia’s equivalent.

The bit that also really winds me up is the long term interior photography ban. It’s been there for 20 years at least. Ten years ago, you had to pay £20 for a permit – that’s for amateurs too. Now there’s twice yearly photo nights at £10 a go. It’s hard to photograph a cathedral without professional equipment – the better your camera, the harder it is: big space, intense light and shade. And we don’t own the photos to put in posts like this! To make up for the ban – which is enforced – there are extra postcards available to buy. Doesn’t that smack of the medieval tricks of indulgence buying and oddly placed lady chapels? Oh and it’s free to enter, but would you like to give £5? And you? Really, would you not like to donate? And if you want a leaflet, it’s £1. It’s several thousand pounds a day to run this place.

Well, pay your senior staff less then, have less golden capes and flash new visitor centres.

Look online, and I’m not the only one who’s found snotty staff. The many positive reviews are for the building, though it can feel forbidding – people related as much as architecturally.

It’s why Durham’s not my favourite and it’s enough to wonder, even having had a prolonged cathedrals/Normans/Celtic phase, if I want to go again.

Castles2 - Durham

Then there’s the castle – the home of a bishop come civic and military ruler with prince like powers – hence the jurisdiction of Durham was known as the Palatinate. This was a stronghold and palace, used for showing off, entertaining (I mistyped and got exterminating – that too, including Cromwell’s Scots prisoners who were held in the cathedral and starved to death). The fat edifices of the Normans take up most of the little peninsula that’s Durham City. So most of the citizens had to live outside the walls, taxable and protectionless, and doubly controlled.

Durham from cathedral tower

The bishops were mostly drawn by the fact that due to its significance in trying to quell the north (that’s you too, Scotland), Durham was a high status, well paid, high powered bishopric. (Note the last syllable). Many bishops barely lived here – a few didn’t even visit. They did little, they had often little aptitude or calling for the role. They had huge salaries, in proportion to other vicars and local workers, and to other bishops. This was the case at least till living memory. (During the miner’s strikes, the bishop was paid – I scrubbed out earned – 700 times what miners got).

Durham had a long relationship with Oxford university, even though it and Cambridge stopped earlier attempts at Durham getting a uni. It seems Durham was finally allowed one to prevent Newcastle getting in first. It was of course, a C of E establishment.

So when at last reform came to the overpuffed and stuffed Chapter, who were more about filling prestigious “stalls” in the choir (ie where you could stand in services if you had a special job), the institution created that killed off the Prince Bishops just started another exclusive hierarchy to look down on citizens and visitors.

If you receive a castle tour, a posh lad takes you round his founding college with lots of in private school/man’s club sorts of jokes. We’re fined £20 if our phone goes off during Latin grace, he quips. We have competitions for who can say it.

Do you care what it means? It’s more for show, and tradition for tradition’s sake it seems, than any thankfulness.

The corridors and entrances of Pudsey, a 12th century bishop, now lead to state rooms of the senate, embellished by those overblown dining club primates inbetween.

I first saw Durham as a student elsewhere, and I didn’t know where to belong – neither town nor gown. I can see why there was such strong anti feeling during labour related struggles.

DurhamMy friend was interviewed for Durham in the late 1960s. “What class are you from?” the panel enquired of her. “A class of my own” she brilliantly replied. One feels that this question is still one posed, even indirectly, by staff and student alike.

As for the rest of Durham – there isn’t much. Take away the Norman monoliths, and you’ve a dun-coloured average market town with far too much space taken up by the university, and with below average facilities – only one theatre-cum cinema, and little other nightlife and not great shops.

This is considered a superlative Norman city by some – but that’s because it’s a small hilly place, surrounded by hills and viaduct, topped with two fat buildings. As I say in my Norman Britain piece – it’s not so Norman; no Romanesque towers, apse, and little of the castle externally. Even the boasted of bridges are mostly if not entirely rebuilt later.

The Light of the North book tries to wash off its soot in the final chapter. Amusingly honest about the dirt of its forebears, it tries to show that it now embraces coal dust, that staff are well trained, that since 1990s Cathedral Acts, it’s well run. The lively tone of gentle ribbing narrative turns to advertorial.

The last line is true – there is work to do.

I hope this piece has made clear what some of that might be – or at least, what areas and impressions need addressing.

Durham sketch

I round up with that female, the one that began Durham, and the one that overturns the cart of Cuthbert’s lady hatred. Cuthbert posthumously guided his followers as to where to put his revered body safely. The cart got stuck – Cuthbert himself was going no farther in their direction. Instead, he gave them a word – a place they’d not heard of. In that form, neither have we. Then some of those lesser creatures, women passed, seeking their cow, who might be at Dunholme – a wooded promontory with the river Wear wrapped round it. And the wheels of the Cuthbert cart freed, and they found both dun cow and resting place. We call that place Durham. But I love the cow, who gets a statue on the cathedral and her own lane. Females, human and bovine – the chosen instruments of God and Cuthbert.

Like Sister George, I close with MOOO!

(Don’t forget my novel… there will be updates!)


2 thoughts on “Elspeth’s Naughty Guide to Durham

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