Early one October morning a couple of weeks ago I was sat at the table over a cup of tea, as I often do, thinking about the day ahead that I had off from work. It was a pretty miserable day. Overcast and forgettable. I couldn’t think of something new to do or somewhere new to go. I remember being tried and I was guilty of feeling particularly lazy and my regular go-to-activity cycling, didn’t have much appeal. As the dog snored away by my feet and I scrolled through my Twitter feed having momentarily abandoned a plan to make a decision, I came across a Tweet by Durham Cathedral. It was promoting their new state-of-the-art exhibition space and permanent exhibition displays. “Finally!”, I thought; “Open Treasure is open for visitors!” Within minutes I’d purchased train tickets online and an hour or two later I caught the 09:48 from York to Durham.
I’d read about the Lottery Funded project for new exhibition and gallery spaces in the medieval Claustral buildings at Durham Cathedral in my final at University. That was nearly a year ago, and the exhibition opened to the public in July – so I was a bit slower on the uptake than I had planned. I was still as excited about my visit as I was all that time ago reading about the project online. I spent close to 3 hours walking around the Cathedral, drawing, writing and talking to volunteers. I had a truly great time at the Cathedral and enjoyed Open Treasure tremendously.
Before I set off, I kept in mind two things in particular I was keen to see most all in my visit. Firstly was St. Cuthbert’s shrine. Cuthbert may be one of the more famous Anglo-Saxon saints, of which there are many, but he is my favourite. I wrote an essay about the decoration of his coffin at University and slowly became familiar with the stories surrounding his life and have since developed some affinity to him. Second of all I was keen to see Cuthbert’s relics and the collection of Anglo-Saxon sculpture said to be on display in Open Treasure. I was told by one individual on my walk around that unfortunately Cuthbert’s relics would not be on display until at least Easter 2017. Whilst this was disappointing news it’s understandable that a little more time be spent on ensuring the conditions of display for the relics are perfect. Their preservation and conservation is the priority – and at least I have a reason to visit again in the new year!
Before entering the claustral complex and the new galleries I took a slow walk down the north aisle towards the east end of the Cathedral where behind the High Altar is Cuthbert’s shrine. During this amble down the aisle it instantly hits you how mind blowing this building is. The imposing arches and soaring ceiling of the nave are unique. No sooner does the architecture have you marvel at the wonders of early engineering than it also enforces upon you a sense of your own tiny existence. Something about Durham Cathedral reminds me of the feeling of insignificance you can feel when star-gazing. But of course, who isn’t familiar with the architectural grandeur of Durham Cathedral and its impact on the mind and body? Those who aren’t should stop reading this and pick up some proper literature surrounding Durham’s spectacular architectural history. The great height of the architecture is similar to continental architecture of the period and this is largely due to the significant introduction of rib vaulted ceilings at Durham which allow for arches to successfully reach greater heights without danger of buckling (one volunteer also told me that Durham’s stone ceiling was the first stone church ceiling in Britain. I think this may be only part true). One thing I will add which the literature might not tell you about is the Victorian stained glass. Take some time to have a look at it. I found it surprisingly interesting!
The journey of St. Cuthbert’s body across the North of England after his death is well explained in a series of boards in the Cathedral as you venture from west to east towards his shrine. The information is very well written and the language chosen to convey the story of his posthumous travels and eventual translation in Durham was, for lack of a better description: pleasantly surprising.
Entering the shrine, you know this is still a sacred place. Benches and cushions for kneeling to pray line the walls, themselves illuminated by the candles lit on either side of his tomb. Pilgrim graffiti from centuries passed covers the wall separating his shrine from the High Altar. Despite these signs of the long history of his veneration I was alone in the space for nearly 20 minutes. Sat on one of these benches, just contemplating the significance of the space I was in, I momentarily experienced something about religious belief I had not, and might not experience again.
Moving on to Open Treasure. The new gallery and exhibition spaces here are impressive. The first room had the look about it of a poor man’s Trinity College Library at the University of Dublin. Basically it just had a load of old books on ‘distressed’ shelving in-between the windows. A reputed £10 million investment has been injected into the Open Treasure project and whilst I’m not entirely convinced that evidence for all that amount spent can be seen in the resulting features – this is undeniably a great space with a lot of thought and consideration put into it. This is especially so for younger audiences. The interactive displays in the first gallery where are displayed a large collection of Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Viking age stonework are particularly great. They’re fun. They’re easy to use; and they relate important information about the history of the artifacts in a language a kid is going to appreciate. As you move through the exhibition you come to one room in particular where there is a focus on pilgrimage, and what being a pilgrim and going on a pilgrimage meant in the greater medieval period. If the interactive touchscreen display in this section was fun for me to mess around with as an adult in my mid 20s, I could easily well imagine a younger group having the same amount of fun with it too. I even learnt something about pilgrim symbols that I didn’t know before.
The stonework on display in the first room of the Open Treasure display was of course massively exciting for me. But because you ‘aren’t allowed to take photographs’ in the exhibition I got out the pen and paper and drew the things that I wanted to take a note of instead. If I could share more images I would, but unfortunately some ‘rules’ have yet to be reconsidered. Anyway, it’s OK because it felt good to stretch those artistic muscles and work that ink.
Scroll down for two more images. Cheers Durham, I’ll see you next year when Cuthbert’s relics go on display.