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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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