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Episode 4: Durham

Where is Durham?

In our fourth episode, we referred to loads of interesting Durham-based things - and promised links and photos, so here they are:

St Cuthbert's Coffin

This is the coffin made for Saint Cuthbert in 698, eleven years after his death. He had been buried on Lindisfarne, and the monks planned to transfer his bones to a ‘reliquary’ or small box, to be kept in the church. However, when his grave was opened the body was discovered to be ‘incorrupt’ – no decay had taken place – which was a sign of great sainthood. A new coffin had to be quickly made.

The coffin is made from oak wood, with decoration carved using knives and a very narrow hollow chisel or gouge. The figures on it include Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostles and archangels.

Among the earliest surviving objects of its kind, the coffin provides a unique example of techniques used for decorating wooden items in the 600s. The coffin is also probably the earliest example of an object with inscriptions using both runes (Viking carved lettering) and Roman letters.

Most of the fragments were recovered from Cuthbert’s tomb when it was opened in 1827. In 1899 the tomb was opened again and Canon William Greenwell recovered some further fragments missed in the earlier excavation. It was Greenwell who first attempted to fit the pieces together and reconstruct the coffin as it can be seen today.

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral is a Norman building constructed between 1093 and 1133 in the Romanesque style.

It was founded as a monastic cathedral built to house the shrine of St Cuthbert, replacing an earlier church constructed in his honour.

Durham’s architectural value lies in the fact that it is the oldest surviving building with a stone vaulted ceiling of such a large scale. This may not seem remarkable today, but developing the know-how to roof large buildings with stone rather than wood shaped the course of European architecture from then on.

Durham Cathedral is also valuable because its Norman architecture has survived largely intact – the addition of two chapels and a later central tower notwithstanding. Most other important Norman buildings in Britain were substantially modified, often beyond recognition. As such, it is recognised both as an exemplar of the Romanesque architecture, and as one of the world’s greatest cathedrals.

Durham Castle

William the Conqueror became the first Norman King of England following victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but this shift in power was not immediately accepted in the north.

The Earl of Northumbria controlled the North, and after two Earls were murdered and the third rebelled, William appointed a Norman, Robert de Comine, who, along with 700 men in 1069, were ambushed and murdered in Durham. The response from the new King was a devastating campaign to repress northern resistance.

Known as the Harrying of the North, William’s campaign lasted 2 years. Villages and food stores were destroyed, livestock slaughtered, and crops laid to waste. It is estimated that 100,000 people were killed or died of famine during the campaign.

The order for the construction of Durham Castle was given in 1072. The new castle would protect the Norman rulers from the rebellious local population and potential invasions from Scotland.

Opposition to the Norman rule was a real threat, and even whilst the castle was being constructed, rebellion was close at hand. Waltheof, the Earl of Northumbria who was tasked with building Durham Castle, rebelled and was later executed.

The Dun Cow

Legend has it that at some point on the monks’ journey back to Chester le-Street with the body of St Cuthbert, the cart carrying the coffin suddenly stopped and could not be moved. The leader of the community, Bishop Aldhun, had a vision of St Cuthbert demanding to be taken to a place called ‘Dunholme,’ but nobody knew where it was.

The puzzled monks stood perplexed at how to find ‘Dunholme'. Then a cow girl walked by, and asked another young woman if she had seen a lost dun (brown) cow.

The young woman said she had seen the cow heading in the direction of Dunholme – and pointed out the way.

The monks, who had overheard this exchange, decided to follow the cow-girl, and found that St Cuthbert’s coffin moved readily in that direction. They continued along that road and got to Dunholme (Durham).

The story is memorialized in one of the statues on the side of Durham Cathedral:

Durham's Many Historic Sites

From city, countryside to coast, Durham is the ideal destination for group travel.

Step back in time and discover Durham’s fascinating heritage at award-winning attractions, or enjoy stunning scenery dotted with natural wonders and cultural gems – memories are waiting to be made.

The Jabberwocky

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Sockburn and The Conyers Falchion

This is what's left of Sockburn church. Sadly, a number of Anglo-Saxon relics were stolen from the church in 2016, with the police recovering them in 2019. You can read about that here.

Sockburn Hall, meanwhile, stands nearby, and was home to the Conyers family for centuries.

Then, of course, there's the Conyers Falchion. As mentioned in Martin's retelling of The Sockburn Worm, there's a special rite involving the sword.

The Conyers Falchion is presented to any incoming Bishop of Durham, and as the sword is proffered, the following words are spoken:

"My Lord Bishop, I hereby present you with the falchion wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery serpent which destroyed man, woman and child; in memory of which the king then reigning gave him the manor of Sockburn, to hold by this tenure, that upon first entrance of every bishop into the county the falchion should be presented."

Beowulf and The Lindworm

The classic Norwegian story of the Lindworm is available here.

As for Beowulf, here is a reading of Seamus Heaney's iconic translation.


In 1665 a tailor from Eyam ordered a box of materials relating to his trade from London, that he was to make into clothes for the villagers. He unwittingly triggered a chain of events that led to 260 Eyam villagers dying from bubonic plague – more than double the mortality rate suffered by the citizens of London in the Great Plague.

Between the first death and the last, the villagers set an extraordinary and enduring example of self-sacrifice by sealing off the village from the surrounding areas to prevent the disease spreading...

The Lair of the White Worm

Bram Stoker's final (and probably worst) novel, The Lair of the White Worm was published in 1911. You can read it online for free here.

There was also a rather excellent, extremely camp film of it made by Ken Russell in 1988 starring a very young Peter Capaldi and an even younger Hugh Grant.

The Bishoprick Garland

There aren't many better repositories of Durham folk tales and ballads than this book. Who could argue with this kind of lyricism?

Sockburn — where Conyers so trusty

A huge serpent did dish up,

That had else eat the Bish-up,

But now his old faulchion's grown rusty, grown rusty...

Read the whole thing here.

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