Crossing the black line: the secret history of Durham Cathedral


When you walk into Durham Cathedral take a moment to look down at your feet in the nave. You might notice a big black line of stone in the grey slab floor, right near the entrance at the back. I noticed it on my honeymoon, when my husband and I went to visit There used to be a sign on the pillar telling you that it marked the point, forward of which women were not allowed. I was intrigued and somewhat shocked by the idea that such beauty was off bounds to half the population for so long. That story, which I told producer Lucy Dichmont, was the starting point for developing this Something Understood.  The Cathedral’s since taken down the sign, because they think it gives an unnecessarily negative image.  And Cathedral guide Lillian Groves, who’s known the Cathedral since her student days in the 1940s, challenges my assumption of female exclusion in the programme in a most engaging way.

No re-use without permission. Unless labelled otherwise all photos are copyright Samira Ahmed.

In the Galilee Chapel, built to enable women to worship in the monastery, she’s still finding new secrets of its human life, such as  the offerings box, where generations of women’s fingers have worn the stone to a cupped smoothness. Having studied Anglo Saxon poetry at university and been haunted by the world of early North Eastern Christianity I took the chance to explore the strange phenomenon of anchorites and anchoresses — devout Christians who would wall themselves up in tiny cells  to liberate their souls to worship God, even as their bodies were confided to the narrowest physical space.

I get to explore the history of the building through its geography – a citadel on the hill – and its fabric: the huge grooved columns that resemble the trunks of prehistoric trees, fossils in its marble, the tree branches visible in the beams of the dormitory, the remarkable stained glass window of an airman which remembers the Second World War Baedeker air raids that tried and failed to destroy such cultural landmarks as the Cathedral. Locals credit St Cuthbert for the mysterious fog that threw the German bombers off their target. Everywhere there are little details to linger on if you take the time to notice: Traditional swastikas, untainted by the Nazi appropriation centuries later,  decorating the robes on the magnificent portrait of of St Cuthbert above his shrine. Once the shrine was richly decorated with gold and jewels. The dissolution of the monasteries strippd that away, and it’s useful to contemplate how we now take the austere plainness of his shrine, as the natural setting.

Monuments to miners, to fallen soldiers and the shrine of the Venerable Bede — an early chronicler of English history — remind you of the Cathedral’s one thousand year presence.

There are “backstage’ places we got to see that we couldn’t fit into the final edit:  Lillian Grove took us to the chapter house where monastic politics played out and the prison for bad monks. We discussed how though pitch dark with the door closed, it actually had ventilation and a built in lavatory that emptied directly into the river — something modern prisons failed to achieve with enduring slopping out. And most memorably we got locked in the tower for an hour (deliberately so we could record in private) with the magnificent view of  the world below as we sat out on the roof of the tower and listened to the bells.

There were some outlandish ideas that didn’t make the final cut, such as my idea of paralleling the closed world of the monks, as war threatened outside, with the world of the Berlin Cabaret. A number from Liza Minnelli in Durham Cathedral would have been fun.

One thing I would say is, go one day, make sure you get a guided tour or buy a guide book, and most importantly, take your time to find the secrets yourself.

You can listen to the programme on Sunday November 16th on Radio 4 at 6am and 1130pm and iplayer for 7 days after.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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