Climbing Durham Cathedral Tower

There’s a university-wide superstition that if you climb the Durham Cathedral tower before you graduate, then you won’t graduate. This belief has existed for many years, and so a tradition was formed which led to hundreds of students climbing the tower in the week following their graduation. I, too, planned to save this experience until the summer of my BA graduation in 2017. But then in 2015 Durham Cathedral gained a hat of scaffolding, the tower was closed, and my post-graduation hike of its 325 steps was thwarted, as were the plans of many Durham graduates.

But finally, after four years of anticipation, the tower has been re-opened. As of June 1st 2019, the Cathedral no longer has a white hat covering its beauty. Students are free to climb to their heart’s content! And while I may still be at Durham as a PhD student, my post-BA and -MA graduation climb was awaiting — I just hope the superstition doesn’t prove true for the outcome of my PhD.

So on Monday of this week, I followed Eleanor up the winding spiral staircase. I huffed and puffed up every step, and walked out onto the roof of the Durham Cathedral tower to see a stunning, sunshine-filled sight.

Durham Cathedral is the centre of Durham. It is the highest building in the city, dwarfing the castle to an almost unnoticeable size. No matter where you are, you can see the top of Durham Cathedral popping up in the distance. I moved to Durham in September 2014, and I spent the next five years walking around the city, seeing this impressive monument from (nearly) every angle. On Monday I got to see it from above, standing atop this monolithic object on the Durham skyline. After spending so much time staring up at it, I now found myself stood atop this amazing building. I looked out onto the city in which we became adults, trying to spot all the Durham places full of memories where the Cathedral always hovered in the background.

There was the DSU, the Durham Students Union with its ‘interesting’ architecture. Turning to another side of the tower, we found, in the vague distance, our student house from second year, and from a different angle, my houses from third and fourth year. From another, we could spot the university library filled with the books I cited in my essays, and the college we both hold dear was peeping up above the trees on the hill. And there was the hill where my husband proposed to me, with Durham Cathedral in the background. Looking out onto this city, I realised how many memories this place holds for me, after only five years. I looked out onto the city which has shaped how I think and live, standing atop its most memorable object.

It seems a bit unfair to call Durham Cathedral an object, but it is one — just a very big one. And it is an object which means a lot to me, not just in its beautiful architecture or its imposing presence. I remember that I always planned to take the time to wander in, sit in a pew, and have some quiet time, maybe draw or write a little something. I never did, but I guess there’s still time during my PhD years. I did matriculate three times in this cathedral, and I have graduated twice. I attended Sunday morning matins in my last year of living in the city, making the cathedral a little more dear to me from a spiritual point of view. I took part in the BBC Radio Four Christmas broadcast, recorded in Durham Cathedral in 2016. I have sat on the grass outside in the sunshine, and I have stood amongst the hundreds of graduation guests as camera upon camera was pointed up at the tower.

The tower on which I stood, and which is now another place of significance for me in Durham. The Cathedral has been standing for nearly 900 years, and my mind expands in wonder at the millions of memories it must hold. But it will always hold a special place in my heart for the memories of mine which it contains, memories which I’m reminded of every time I’m on the train to Durham and I spot this impressive building getting ever-closer.

When I bought my tower-climbing ticket I wasn’t expecting such deep thoughts to emerge. I expected to be out of breath at the top, my heart racing, from the physical exertion of climbing so high. I expected to be stunned by views across the rolling lands of Durham County. I expected to enjoy the breeze and play spot-the-place in Durham City. But I hadn’t expected to grow so thoughtful while standing so high in the sky, looking down on the city which has welcomed me, educated me, and provided me with a second home — one with an awe-inspiring Cathedral at its centre.

This blog has been republished with Katie’s permission, you can read more from Katie in a blog she writes with friend Eleanor called Object which is a fascinating archive of their lives as experienced through the objects they find.

Are you planning to climb the tower?

The central tower is usually open Monday to Saturday 10am-4pm (last entry 3pm), and Sundays 1pm-3pm (last entry 2.30pm). There are some key safety messages for students who want to climb the tower, such as no high heels or large bags – full details can be found at cathedral-towers.

Katie Harling-Lee

Musician, reader, writer, and thinker, studying for a PhD in English Literature at Durham University. Interested in all things objects, music, Old Norse & cats. Read more from me https://medium.com/objects
Katie Harling-Lee

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