Visit: 30th November 2016
Following two nights in Edinburgh with friends I set off early in the morning to head south, travelling by train the 90 minute journey to Durham. I’d never been to this city before, but I have a friend studying at the university who was kind enough to show me around.
Jonathan picked me up from the station and drove us to a parking spot on the outskirts of town. We walked in to the centre via the placid River Wear that forms a horseshoe bend around the promontory that Durham’s centre is built upon.
The castle, above, has been extensively modified over the years and is nowadays used as a student hall of residence. Durham University is organised into colleges, and this one is apparently the most desirable because the students who get in can say they live in a castle.
The only way to see inside the castle is to go on a guided tour. One stop is the dining hall, walls covered with paintings of illustrious graduates from the past. Durham is the third oldest university in England, after Oxford and Cambridge.
The castle is significantly older than the university, however, as evidenced by the Norman chapel contained within it. It originally had no windows, as these would have compromised the defensive strength of the castle, which was used as a redoubt from which to hold out against the Scots from time to time.
Durham’s significance in the eyes of UNESCO is its manifestation of Norman authority over the English nation, standing as a symbol of the power they had won following William the Conqueror’s invasion in 1066. The city centre’s hilltop location, surrounded on three sides by water, made it a natural place for a fortification and an imposing deterrent to any would-be attackers.
But it wasn’t a total Norman dominance. Durham had a unique status as a sort of buffer state between England and Scotland. After trying and failing to send Norman nobles up to rule over the border region, in 1075 William instead endowed Durham’s bishop with secular powers, giving him the grand title of Prince Bishop. In return for these powers he would protect English interests in the region. The office of prince bishop remained until 1836.
The seat of the prince bishops, Durham Cathedral, stands next to the castle. Built in the 12th/13th centuries, it houses the remains of Northumbrian evangeliser St Cuthbert and Dark Age historian the Venerable Bede (below). Bede, a monk of the 7th/8th centuries, chronicled a period of British history that might otherwise be little known to us. His Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum runs from Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC through to the conversion of the English proto-monarchs to Christianity following the voyage to Canterbury of St Augustine.