Behind the Pages – Discovering the hidden treasures of Durham Cathedral Library

I have recently been fortunate enough to participate in Behind the Pages, a special programme being offered to groups as a series of discussions and visits to Durham Cathedral. The project is linked to Open Treasure, the Cathedral’s exhibition experience open from 23 July 2016.

As a volunteer at Durham Cathedral, I first saw the project advertised in the Volunteers Newsletter and felt it was too good an opportunity to ignore!

Behind the Pages gives existing book groups the opportunity to study a book before being invited to the Cathedral’s Refectory Library (not normally open to the public) to examine rare texts, supported by informed staff.

My U3A Book Club were equally enthusiastic about the prospect of engaging with the Cathedral’s collections – it was our first experience of such a project!

A number of books spanning across different genres were selected by the Cathedral’s Head of Collections and Assistant Librarian. We were asked to select a title that we felt was appropriate to our group, with each title being linked to an object or artefacts held in the Cathedral’s hidden treasure collection.

We chose ‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale almost by default, having previously read several of the other books suggested. We were then free to read the book at our leisure before being invited to visit the Cathedral and view the hidden treasures. It proved to be a very good decision!

‘English Passengers’ is an ambitious novel spanning 40 years of colonial history, told in the first person by 20 narrators. The action takes place in England, on the high seas and in Tasmania, taken over by the British as a penal settlement.

In Tasmania, British actions completely wiped out the indigenous people, through disease and murder, with the last person dying in 1879. Surprisingly against this background there is hilarity in the book as well as absolute horror.

Overall, ‘English Passengers’ is a satisfying read which races along and subjects us to the full range of emotions, and we would happily recommend the book to other readers.

After reading the book, we were invited to the Cathedral’s Refectory Library for a fascinating ‘Show and Tell’ session. We were shown books which predated the 19th century and others contemporary with it. Books of hand-coloured maps used by travellers in the 18th and 19th centuries were especially beautiful.

We also saw etchings made from drawings done during Captain Cook’s voyage to New Zealand and could imagine the wonder felt by those who saw the people, plants and animals shown, for the first time. The library staff were both enthusiastic and knowledgeable and happy to share their passion for the books with us. We felt privileged to be there surrounded by the many treasures and would love to be involved in further outreach projects.

This experience has made us more aware of Open Treasure and we look forward to visiting the exhibition space when it opens in July.

Maria Mekins, Cathedral Volunteer and Member of Sedgefield U3A Book Group

*Behind the Pages is a new and exciting project, which aims to transform access to the Cathedral’s collections and previously hidden wonders including never before seen objects and artefacts.

For more information, please contact education@durhamcathedral.co.uk or call 0191 374 4070.