It wasn’t intentional, but over our Christmas roadtrip, we seemed to visit quite a few cathedrals. Not for spiritual reasons, you understand. We love a cathedral for its architecture and gloriously over the top rich interiors. First stop was one we know very well – Durham Cathedral. Having grown up near here, it’s a place we’ve visted often – and definitely think winter time is by far the best time to visit. Lighting is much more evocative, with lots of candlelight and shadows. The Norman pillars are utterly majestic, as are the stained glass windows. The construction of the cathedral started in 1093 – 1093!
Over 900 hundred years ago!
Today, it is regarded as one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in Europe, and in 198, along with Durham Castle, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Durham Cathedral holds the relics of Saint Cuthbert, transported to Durham by Lindisfarne monks in the ninth century, the head of Saint Oswald of Northumbria, and the remains of the Venerable Bede – and if you went to school in the North East, you definitely who this lot are and how important, both historically and, in religious terms, they are. In addition, its library contains one of the most complete sets of early printed books in England, the pre-Dissolution monastic accounts, and three copies of Magna Carta. So, it’s a bit of a wow. It’s been used as a film location on many occasions, most recognisably probably in the first two Harry Potter films. Scenes from Elizabeth 1, starring Cate Blanchett were filmed here, as well as interior views which were featured in the 2019 Marvel superhero film Avengers: Endgame, as the indoor location of Asgard. (We had no idea about this, until the day after our visit, watching the film with our superhero-mad nephew, we spotted the Norman pillars).
We first visited Canterbury over twenty years ago, but it’s become a bit of a go-to stopover when we travel to and from England on our regular roadtrips back from Istria. It’s so convenient for Dover and such a lovely place that we did it twice on this Christmas trip. And because we had two full days on the return trip, we decided to spend most of it investigating and exploring the Cathedral. When I did A’Level English Literature, we studied the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales – a nice do-able introduction to medieval English – and was fascinated by Canterbury and its Cathedral, so I was keen to get to know it.
Now, I thought that Durham Cathedral was impressive age-wise, but it’s just a baby cathedral, compared to Canterbury. Founded in 597, it was completely rebuilt between 1070 and 1077. Perhaps the most famous moment in its history was the murder of the archbishop, Thomas Becket, on Tuesday 29 December 1170, by knights of King Henry II. The king had frequent conflicts with the strong-willed Becket and is said to have exclaimed in frustration, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights took it literally and murdered Becket in his own cathedral. After his death, the cathedral became a place of pilgrimage.
We spent a good few hours mooching around the Cathedral and its Cloisters and it was pretty magical. Not for the religious experience though – what blew us away was the architecture and historical significance. And, so across the channel and onto our next Cathedral…
NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL, STRASBOURG
We were entirely unprepared for this Cathedral, not even knowing that there was a Notre Dame here. We saw it first, late at night, after dinner, when it was bathed in a golden light – the Christmas lights were still very much up in Strasbourg, despite it being after the 6th January and the golden lights were for the festive season. To say it’s a jaw-dropping structure is an understatement…
We were due to leave Strasbourg early the next morning for Brescia, but felt we couldn’t pass up the opportunity of a visit when we were in the city, and so squeezed one on before we left.
We expected to pay an entrance fee to get into the Cathedral, but after a brief security check, we were in, no charge. A bonus.
So ended our Christmas Tour of Cathedrals. Completely unintentional and not pre-planned, but wonderful. Three gorgeous cities, full of history. A perfect way to bring our roadtrip to a conclusion.