Durham Castle, Durham, England
I remember well my university days. I don’t remember my university nights quite so clearly.
That’s the way it’s supposed to be, though, isn’t it? University is the bridge between childhood and serious adulthood – the period when your newly-acquired legal rights allow you to do many wrongs and a day in bed recovering has few consequences.
I lived on campus at my Australian university and I remember the crazy parties we would have, the holes in the wall from intoxicated exuberance and the look on the faces of the cleaners when they saw the aftermath in the common rooms. (I’m pretty sure this never happened, but my memory wants to conjure up an image of a cleaner with a jaw dropped and buckets and mops falling from their hands in shock.)
It’s for this reason that I have trouble getting my head around University College in the English city of Durham. I don’t understand how a bunch of undergraduate students can actually live here!
Let me explain. Durham University is one of the three big institutions in the UK – the others being Oxford and Cambridge. Because it’s in a small city a long way from any major ones, the majority of students live in sharehouses or colleges in the city. University College is one of the residences and is home to about 150 students.
That all sounds pretty straightforward so far. Until you find out that the college is inside Durham Castle which was built in the 11th century and is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. I bet it’s the only one in the world that has a bunch of 20-year-olds living in it!
The Great Hall, used centuries ago by religious and political leaders, is where the students now eat each of their meals. The beautiful Tunstall’s Chapel hosts services for the college residents, and there are even bedrooms in the towering stone keep with its castle-like windows giving views across Durham. A ‘museum’ of important artefacts fills a corridor on the second level of the building that I would be terrified of walking down lest I knock over a 15th century bust.
Seif El-Rashidi is the World Heritage Co-ordinator of Durham and he doesn’t see a problem with a group of young people essentially being the day-to-day custodians of such an important building.
“I think there’s a strong sense of ownership of the castle by students which I think is a great thing,” he tells me.
“It’s one of the best things about this castle that the people who use it care about it. I think with anyone if you make them think this is their thing and they’re privileged to use it and to experience it, they feel like it’s theirs. If you give people loads of restrictions – oh, you can’t sit here – they become alienated from it.”
“And I know this from my experience working in Cairo where many historic buildings are restored and then shut off because they think the public is going to ruin them and as result they throw rubbish in front of them and they don’t care because they don’t mean anything. But this castle – it means something.”
Durham Cathedral, Durham, England
Just across the lawn from the castle is Durham Cathedral. Once, the two were intimately linked – the cathedral was the city’s house of worship and the castle was where the bishop lived. These days there is no direct link but the bond is still strong. The bond comes from the community of Durham which sees both as the symbols of their city. (The view of them both from the train as you arrive is spectacular!)
The cathedral was founded in 1093, after the Norman conquest of England. By any of today’s standards, it would be spectacular. By the standards of the time, it is almost hard to believe. 144 metres long and 66 metres high at the top of the central tower, it is an architectural marvel.
Stained glass windows; small carvings of faces in the walls; recently-uncovered frescoes; ornate altars; and more. At times, walking through the building, it feels more like an art gallery than a church. My guide, Lillian Groves, has been showing the cathedral to visitors for years. She says she’s always finding something new herself, though.
And while it is clearly a religious building and the art and the atmosphere is spiritual, there is more to Durham Cathedral than just a place of worship. Much like the castle, Seif El-Rashidi says there’s a sense of community that he also tries to encourage with festivals and special events.
“It’s impossible to think of Durham without thinking of the cathedral,” he says.
“You’ll find, for example, on a Saturday, people shopping in the market will walk up with their stroller and the children into the cathedral and spend fifteen or twenty minutes and leave. It’s a cornerstone not just as an institution but as a place.”
“It’s hard not to see it’s a moving place and a beautiful place. In the same way you sit by the sea or a river and contemplate, it has a meditative quality even if you’re not religious.”
The cathedral and the castle may have been built in a strategic position on a hill to protect people during a time when religion and military forces were intertwined. Today they are still just as strong… but it seems it’s the people who are protecting them now.