Alex Hibberts reflects on his resident tutor project ‘Sacred Spaces’, discussing places of sanctity and inspiration in the city of Durham.
‘To step for the first time into Durham Cathedral must always be, for anyone in love with architecture, one of life’s most thrilling experiences’. These are the words of Alec Clifton-Taylor, an all too little-known architectural historian who delighted the nation in a series of BBC TV shows imaginatively called Six English Towns (1978), Six More English Towns (1981), and Another Six English Towns (1984). In an old fashioned, polite and courteous manner, lest he offend his listeners, Clifton-Taylor took viewers on a sweeping survey of eighteen English towns. His tour of Durham was to be his last television appearance; he died a year later. Like many first-time visitors, Clifton-Taylor began at the cathedral. This makes perfect sense, the cathedral dominating every aspect of Durham, from the colleges huddled round its sandstone feet to the far suburbs of Gilesgate which sprawl under its benevolent shadow. However, are there other spaces and places, within the city boundaries, which similarly inspire and uplift us?
One writer once remarked that, unlike York and Chester, where those seeking to escape urban chaos go up to the city walls, in Durham, one goes down to the riverbanks. Indeed, there are many magical spots to be found amidst the groves of trees and winding gravel paths which fetter the ivy strewn cliffs of the silent, ever-flowing Wear. In comparison to the static sandstone walls of the cathedral, one of the chief attractions of the riverbanks is its seasonality – the constant renewal, refreshment, and change on show to the onlooker. Beyond cathedral and river, Durham’s many parish churches offer places of recluse both within and about them. The graveyard boundaries of St Oswald’s blur with the riverside walkways whilst the church interior possesses a surprising silence in comparison to the noisy road to the east. It’s only a shame that the church is not regularly open as in pre-Covid times. St Margaret of Antioch is far smaller but perhaps more impressively sited on a steep rise above Framwellgate Bridge. Inside, a zoomorphic capital is a reminder of the ancient origins of this place of worship. The Castle’s Norman chapel is equally impressive, its capitals predating the cathedral. These have an otherworldly character about them, mermaids and dogs staring out across the divide of nearly ten centuries. Nonetheless, space doesn’t have to be enclosed to be sacred. Some may prefer the windswept grasses of Observatory or Whinney Hill, where the whole of Durham can be seen in a single gasp.
This article, which has offered a sample of the ‘sacred spaces’ in Durham, is an invitation to take part in a community-art-faith project. Some may seek solstice in churches or cathedrals, whilst others will sit quietly on the riverbanks or alone on Whinney Hill. The sacred is often subjective and open to interpretation. Using art as a medium, we want to capture individual moments of inspiration and connect different inhabitants of our beautiful city. Bringing together students and locals, this exciting project needs volunteers to help run a series of workshops using different art forms – photography, dance, sculpture, and fine art – to explore sacred space. Anyone and everyone are welcome to take part, please email Alex (firstname.lastname@example.org) to express an interest. What does sacred space mean to you?