View from the Top

Durham Cathedral western towers
The western towers of Durham Cathedral and the River Wear viewed from the cathedral’s central tower © David Simpson

Durham Cathedral’s stunning central tower reopened to the public during 2019 after extensive repairs. DAVID SIMPSON takes a trip to the top and enjoys splendid city views that include the Newcastle skyline and parts of Sunderland as well as the beautiful county and city of Durham.

It’s many years since we’ve climbed to the top of Durham Cathedral’s central tower. The tower re-opened to visitors earlier this year following extensive much-needed repairs, so a crisp autumnal Saturday afternoon in November seemed a perfect time to go and check it out.

Durham Cathedral steps
The spiral steps to the top of Durham Cathedral are relatively broad to begin with © David Simpson

During 2013, an inspection of Durham’s cathedral tower had highlighted the need for extensive conservation work. Fortunately, the cathedral was able to draw on funding from the newly established First World War Centenary Cathedral Repairs Fund which contributed significantly to the £1.9 million needed to carry out the repair work on this iconic North East landmark.

Inside the cathedral tower, Durham. The steps are quite narrow from here on © David Simpson

Scaffolding appeared around the central tower in late 2015 accompanied by bright white protective sheeting that locals referred to as the ‘bandage’. Such ‘tender loving care’ was a necessary if a little bit of a frustrating interlude for visitors and photographers wanting to capture the cathedral’s full beauty. Finally, however, the work was completed in May 2019 and the tower re-opened for the public to enjoy once more.

Chapel of the Nine Altars, Durham Cathedral
Chapel of the Nine Altars, Durham Cathedral © David Simpson

The cathedral’s central tower is 218 feet high (66.45m) and you need to negotiate 325 spiral steps to reach the top. So it’s probably not for the faint-hearted. Opening times can be found on the cathedral website and it costs £5 for the climb (£2.50 for children) with a number of advisory warnings on the website which we recommend reading. It’s worth knowing that the tower has the steepest and most narrow spiral of any cathedral in England and Wales.

Feeling fit and trying to shake off a bit of a discomforting cold from too many hours cooked up in a warm office, I walked into Durham from a village three miles to the east, paid my entrance fee and embarked on the cathedral climb. The spiral steps are quite broad at first, just to get you going and break you in gently. Then you reach a half way point, with a resting room and a long corridor that features displays relating to the cathedral and the tower’s restoration. At the far end of the corridor a sign dated 1783 directs us through another door where the spiral steps are significantly narrower.

Durham Castle from the cathedral tower
Durham Castle from the cathedral tower © David Simpson

It’s exhilarating when you reach the top and there was plenty of company yet still plenty of space. The view is simply sublime. Briefly, however, I must say I felt a slight touch of vertigo but quickly adjusted to the height. Durham looks rather like ‘Toy Town’ from up here, but a very picturesque Toy Town at that. Little cars and little people wander the neighbouring streets such as the Bailey and Owengate and Palace Green. Neighbouring South Street glimmered in the sunlight, with the water mill on the weir of the Wear far below. Here and there you could see preparatory activities for the forthcoming Lumiere festival.

The bailey, Durham from the cathedral tower.
The Bailey, Durham from the cathedral tower © David Simpson

There’s plenty of city landmarks to pick out – and not just Durham City landmarks. To the west we just about spotted the old miners’ hall in Redhills on the fringe of the beautiful woodland of Flass Vale. Here also we can see the city’s viaduct, Durham County Hall and the nearby hospital. A little closer to us we find Redhills Lane leading to the site of the Battle of Nevilles Cross of 1346. It’s known that some of the monks of Durham Cathedral monastery observed the battle from the vantage point of the cathedral’s tower all those centuries ago.

We observed the chapel of Durham School and the former Catholic seminary college at Ushaw. To the east and south east you can pick out Old Durham Farm and Old Durham Gardens near the site of an ancient Romano-British settlement and nearby the yet more ancient wooded hill fort site of Maiden Castle. To the south you see mostly hills, to Ferryhill and beyond.

Durham viaduct viewed from Durham Cathedral tower
Durham viaduct viewed from Durham Cathedral tower © David Simpson

The loop of the river surrounding the centre of the city demonstrates the importance of Durham’s defensive location. The historic streets, some dating back to medieval times are full of charm. There are long strings of Georgian and Victorian buildings that are brimming with character and various architectural styles forming a lacework along the hill sides. You can see an interesting contrast in style with the more modern buildings in Millburngate; the Prince Bishops Shopping Centre and the Durham University buildings around Mount Joy and Stockton Road.

Much can be seen beyond the centre of the city too. From the suburbs of Gilesgate and Newton Hall you can see out beyond to the neighbouring villages, all bordered by beautiful green patchwork fields and hedgerows broken by numerous russet coloured woodlands.

Newton Hall estate near Durham and Lumley Castle with the pormimemt office blocvk of Durham Tower at Washington on the horizon.
Newton Hall estate near Durham and Lumley Castle with the prominent office block of Durham Tower at Washington on the horizon © David Simpson

I must have been up there for at least a quarter of an hour, probably more and I kept seeing more and more new things. Lumley Castle can clearly be seen and of course Penshaw Monument. The Nissan car factory can be clearly made out and the prominent Department of Work and Pensions office block called Durham Tower near the Galleries in Washington is an imposing landmark. So we can look across from one Durham tower to another distant Durham Tower of a very different kind. Those last three mentioned landmarks are all of course in the city of Sunderland but beyond I could also make out cranes on the Tyne, somewhere in the South Tyneside or North Tyneside area.

View of Newcastle from Durham Cathedral tower
View of Newcastle from Durham Cathedral tower © David Simpson

In fact the view from up here is a tale of three cities as directly to the north the distant horizon is dominated by the most prominent buildings in the city of Newcastle. St James’ Park and the new Hadrian’s Tower development of course stand out but you can even make out the blue lantern tower of Newcastle Civic Centre. I’d definitely suggest taking a pair of small binoculars so you can make most of this splendid view.

Best of all though is the view of Durham City itself and it’s all well worth the £5 entry fee to the tower. Of course the descent is a lot less hard work than the ascent, though I did have a three mile walk home ahead of me as well. Ah well, it was worth it for the exhilarating view.

Durham Cathedral tower opening times and details here


Focus on Seaham

About Seaham

‘Tommy’ by Ray Lonsdale © David Simpson

So, where is it?

Seaham is on the County Durham coast, just south of Sunderland.

What’s the name mean?

Seaham simply means ‘Homestead by the Sea’


Ray Lonsdale’s beautiful ‘Tommy’ sculpture is probably Seaham’s best-known landmark. It depicts a First World War soldier – a ‘Tommy’ at rest. It’s nearly 10 feet tall and made of Corten steel.

Things to see and do:

Blast Beach, the harbour, Chemical Beach. The beaches are delightful despite their industrial sounding names. Just stroll and take in the sea. You can see ships coming in and out of the Tyne, Wear and Tees. There’s a lovely Saxon church near the beautiful Seaham Hall Hotel. The hotel is well-known for its spa.

Seaham is noted for:

The poet, Lord Byron. Being the site of a Victorian glass works. Rounded jewels of sea glass washed up on the beach which is sometimes collected for making jewellery. Seaham is also noted, like many Durham coastal locations, for its complete transformation from a run-down coastal eyesore to one of the most delightful little towns on the coast. There were once three collieries here: Vane Tempest, Dawdon and Seaham.

Some facts:

Although a little village (near the hall) and the church of St Mary date back to Anglo-Saxon times, the present town and harbour of Seaham was developed by the third Marquess of Londonderry who wanted to put the rival port of Sunderland out of business.

Blast Beach, Seaham
Blast Beach, Seaham © David Simpson

Famous people:

The nineteenth century poet Lord Byron was married at Seaham, hence the name of the local shopping centre. Byron’s wife was Lady Ann Isabella Milbanke, whose father owned Seaham Hall. She was a keen mathematician. The poet nicknamed her his ‘Princess of Parallelograms’. Although their marriage was short-lived they had a famous daughter, Ada Lovelace, who has the distinction of being the world’s first ever computer programmer.


Try Downey’s Fish and Chip restaurant; the Lamp Room Cafe or Martino’s Italian. The Crows Nest is a popular family pub at the north end of Seaham.

To find out more about Seaham visit our Seaham history page:

Your Seaham?

We’d love to hear your comments. What are the best things to see and do in Seaham? Any notable shops or crafts? Where’s the best place to eat? Please leave your comments using the comments link at the top of this page.