Exploring Durham and its magnificent Unesco-listed cathedral

Britain at its best: Exploring beautiful Durham, where all roads in the historic centre lead to the magnificent Unesco-listed cathedral

  • Durham Cathedral, completed in 1133 after 40 years, became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986
  • The central tower can be climbed, offering giddying views of the cloisters (where Harry Potter was filmed)
  • A couple of university-run attractions are open to the public: the Botanic Garden and the Oriental Museum 

Not many cities have a milkmaid to thank for their fame. But in AD995, Lindisfarne monks were wandering the north-east with the 200-year-old body of Saint Cuthbert, and the plan was to lay his coffin in ‘Dun Holm’ (Durham’s Anglo-Saxon name).

Completely lost, they chanced upon a milkmaid who was seeking her missing dun cow (‘dun’ means ‘hill’), which she’d last seen in Dun Holm.

They followed her to a ‘wooded hill-island’, laid their coffin down and set about building something to house it.

Spiritual haven: Durham Cathedral, where many pilgrims head to see St Cuthbert’s shrine

This was to become today’s Romanesque Durham Cathedral, completed in 1133 after 40 years. Together with an adjacent Norman castle, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986.

All roads in the city’s historic centre are cobbled, steep and lead to this cathedral.

One is called Dun Cow Lane and it’s from here, during a history walking tour, that I captured my first full glimpse of this magnificent church. Look closely and you’ll spot a statue of that milkmaid and cow on the sandstone facade. It’s Saint Cuthbert the pilgrims come to see, as well as the stained glass rose window.

Legend has it that his skeleton is still perfectly preserved and has the power to heal.

I ask a church volunteer if Cuthbert’s healing powers have waned. ‘Ah,’ she smiles knowingly. ‘That depends on what you believe.’ I have an achy back and arm and, as I while away time by his shrine, I’m prepared to be open-minded.

The central tower can be climbed (325 steps up a narrow, spiral stairwell), offering giddying views of the cloisters (where Harry Potter was filmed) and the surrounding region. The River Wear loops around the cathedral’s hill in an oxbow.

The Daily Mail’s Jo Kessel enjoyed a serene walk along the River Wear, which loops around the cathedral 

Over the centuries, Normans and Scots failed to conquer Durham — heads of the most handsome Scottish warriors were paraded on sticks around town.

Many believed Durham’s success in battle had nothing to do with the city’s defensive hilltop position and everything to do with Saint Cuthbert.

In fury, William the Conqueror demanded Cuthbert’s coffin be opened, threatening to kill everyone if the corpse was not intact. But as he approached the saint’s unwrapped body, William collapsed from a seizure and, terrified, galloped out of town.

Magical: Durham Cathedral’s ancient cloisters doubled as a film location for Hogwarts in Harry Potter


Durham Cathedral’s tower climb costs £5.50 (durhamcathedral.co.uk). Guided history tours from £25pp (ilestours.co.uk/durham-tours). Doubles at the Radisson Blu Hotel from £99 B&B (radissonblu.co.uk/hotel-durham). London to Durham LNER trains from £44 return (lner.co.uk). For further information visit thisisdurham.com.

Henry VIII was the next to interfere with the saint — in around 1539 his men looted the shrine and smashed it open with a sledgehammer.

In so doing they broke one of Cuthbert’s legs, but found him otherwise intact, as if he was sleeping, with stubble on his chin.

The serenity of the River Wear offers respite from such dramas. A one-hour riverside walk circles the cathedral. 

Trees arc over the river, their boughs reflected in the water, with only the occasional duck, swan or passing row-boat for company. Durham is a collegiate university town and colleges have their own boathouses.

Students give the city a buzz, and a couple of university-run attractions are open to the public: the beautifully landscaped Botanic Garden and the Oriental Museum. 

The latter is devoted to art and archaeology from Northern Africa and Asia, with Egyptian mummies and an 18th-century Qing dynasty bed, no less.

Don’t leave without trying a couple of saintly dishes. One is a ‘St Cuthbert’s Slice’ — think Bakewell tart meets almond cake. It’s a safely-guarded recipe and only served in the cathedral cafe.

The other is monkfish cheeks with monk’s beard at The Cellar Door restaurant in Saddler Street.

As for my aching back and arm? Healed, of course. 

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