The Friends of Durham Cathedral: Safeguarding the Rich Heritage of the North East for almost 90 years

In this blog post for #HeritageOpenDays 2020, Nanette Tiplady, the Officer Manager of the Friends of Durham Cathedral, details some of her favourite projects that the Friends have supported the cathedral with over the years. We hope you enjoy!

The independent charitable organisation, the Friends of Durham Cathedral, was formed in 1933 by Dean Alington with the aim of supporting the cathedral and its surroundings with ongoing maintenance and restoration work.

For nearly 90 years, thanks to the support from our members, we have been able to help safeguard the heritage and history of Durham Cathedral. We support a number of projects including providing regular grants to the Library, Broderers, Education Department, the maintenance of the woodlands & riverbanks and provide a bursary to the Chorister School!

Members of the Friends of Durham Cathedral during their recent Moment in Time fundraising appeal

Over the years the Friends have been involved with some of the biggest projects in Durham Cathedral’s long history and have helped to fund:

  1. The Central Tower

One of Durham Cathedral’s major 3 year projects that the Friends helped to finance was the restoration and renewal of the Central Tower which reached completion in 2019.  The project involved the conservation and replacement of weathered stone on the upper part of the central tower, which was completed entirely by the cathedral’s in-house team of around 8 stonemasons. Although the tower is currently closed to the public as a result of the cathedral’s Covid closures, we are looking forward to visitors once again being able to climb the 325 steps to enjoy the breathtaking views of Durham and beyond, in the near future.

Restoration work on the Central Tower in 2019

2. The Transfiguration Window

One of the most eye catching gifts from the Friends is the cathedral’s Transfiguration Window. The window is located in the South Quire Aisle and is dedicated in memory to the much loved Bishop Michael Ramsey, who was canon and then Bishop of Durham during the 1940s and 1950s before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. Designed by Tom Denny, the window includes many different images reflecting the glory of God along with stories from the Bible and Durham’s history.  It was installed in the cathedral in 2010 and is a real focal point for visitors

The Transfiguration Window at Durham Cathedral

3. Art in Durham Cathedral

The Friends have also contributed to the cathedral’s Contemporary Arts Programme. The much-loved piece by Durham based sculptor Fenwick Lawson ‘The Pieta’ (a wooden sculpture depicting the body of Jesus and his mother) was gifted by the Friends and is situated in the Chapel of Nine Altars. Fun fact for you all – Fenwick was so pleased that his sculpture was in its spiritual home that he gifted another of his sculptures “Christ in the tomb” which is placed just behind the Pieta.

Recently, the Friends have sponsored the exciting new Contemporary Arts Programme including the artwork LIGHT, by international artist Chris Levine. LIGHT is an immersive artwork that is is soon to be turned on inside the cathedral’s Galilee Chapel. It explores the themes and rituals of ancient pilgrimage.

The Pieta sculpture in the Chapel of Nine Altars

4. Open Treasure

The Friends were among the lead sponsors of the cathedral’s Open Treasure restoration project which transformed the 14th century Monk’s Dormitory into the world-class exhibition space you see now. 

The Friends played a special part in the transformation of this space with its members fundraising specifically towards the costs of the St Cuthbert’s Coffin display in the centre of the Great Kitchen. Arguably the most important wooden object to have survived from the pre-conquest period, and perhaps the greatest of the Cathedral’s treasures, St Cuthbert’s timber coffin rests in a state-of-the-art temperature controlled display case which allows the detail of the carved images to be enjoyed by visitors of all ages.

Unfortunately, due to Covid, out Open Treasure museum is currently closed, but a lot of our collections can be enjoyed online. Take a look at this recent blog about St Cuthbert’s treasures.

St Cuthbert’s coffin in the cathedral’s Great Kitchen. Image by David Wood

5. Lobbies 

Supporting projects that restore and preserve the fabric of the building is one of our main aims. It is wonderful to see the new internal lobbies have now been completed and are a fantastic addition to Durham Cathedral. The Friends have previously supported schemes including the provision of a new lighting and heating system in the church, but it’s lovely to say that the result of the lobby work was to reveal the intricate stone carving surrounding the North and South doors. You must take a look the next time you visit, the detail is incredible!

The south door and glass lobby
Details on the impressive carved Romanesque stonework at the cathedral’s south lobby

We hope you enjoyed learning about how the Friends of Durham Cathedral play an integral role in sustaining this nearly 1,000 year old UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more information about the wonderful work that the Friends do click here.

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