Durham Cathedral's central tower to reopen after three-year restoration project

Most of the scaffolding has been removed. Image  Chapter of Durham Cathedral
Most of the scaffolding has been removed. Image Chapter of Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral's magnificent central tower is almost back to its former glory.

Conservation work on the building is drawing to a close and the tower will reopen to the public from Saturday, June 1.

Conservation work on Durham Cathedral is almost finished. Image  Chapter of Durham Cathedral

Conservation work on Durham Cathedral is almost finished. Image Chapter of Durham Cathedral

The reopening will mean visitors will be able to take on the challenging 325 step climb to take in the unrivalled views of Durham and beyond for the first time in more three years.

Scott Richardson, Clerk of Works at Durham Cathedral said: "I am thrilled that the belfry project is nearing completion.

"Not only have the upper levels undergone significant renovation to ensure they are structurally sound for continued public use, but the skillset of the cathedral’s in-house masonry team has been dramatically expanded due to the demanding nature of the work.

"On a personal level, it has been a pleasure to work on a project of this magnitude, overseeing a job which I am not likely to encounter again in my lifetime. I know that once the public see the work, they will realise the closure was worth the wait."

The hoist lift will remain in place until finishing touches to roofing work and the construction of a new viewing platform are complete.

The hoist lift will remain in place until finishing touches to roofing work and the construction of a new viewing platform are complete.

The removal of the scaffolding is almost complete, though the hoist lift will remain in place a little longer, allowing finishing touches to roofing work, and the construction of a new viewing platform.

Lee Boyes, Wood Group Scaffolding Supervisor said: "The scaffolding has in itself become a recognisable feature in the city because of how long the work has been ongoing.

"As we reach the final stages of dismantle in preparation for June 1st, it is dawning on me that I will soon be leaving Durham Cathedral behind and saying goodbye to a project which has been a career highlight for me."

The conservation scheme was devised by Chris Cotton, of Purcell, Durham Cathedral’s Conservation Architect: "The work in itself has been challenging, involving stone renewal and restoration to both the exterior and interior of the tower," he said.

"The iron railings which were installed during the Victorian era have been replaced with new bronze railings. These have been fixed using the medieval technique of hot poured lead which minimalises mortar erosion.

"The cathedral stone masons have done a fabulous job with acute attention to detail and it has been a pleasure working with them."

David Baldwin, Board Director at Baldwins Accountants, wjhich is sponsoring the reopening, said: " As a business, we’re passionate about working with local communities and organisations to protect our historic and cultural sites such as Durham Cathedral for future generations.

"We look forward to working with Durham Cathedral for many years to come."

This essential conservation project was made possible with grants from the First World War Centenary Cathedral Repairs Fund, The Alan Evans Memorial Trust, Allchurches Trust Ltd, Friends of Durham Cathedral, Sir John Priestman Charity Trust, Headley Trust and Surtees Trust, as well as kind donations from a number of individual supporters.

Keep an eye out on social media (@durhamcathedral) for ticket information and competitions.

Durham Cathedral factfile: Standing at more than 66 metres high, the cathedral's Central Tower dates back, in its current form, to 1484 (although smaller towers were in place earlier than this date.)

Like the rest of the Cathedral, the Tower is constructed from golden sandstone, which is highly susceptible to erosion and weathering.

Apart from some restoration in the 1960’s no major work had been carried out until the current project got underway in 2016.

During a routine inspection in 2013, the Upper Parapet, which forms the protective wall at the very top of the tower, was identified as requiring repair. The stone work of the Central Tower’s Belfry and internal Bell Chamber had deteriorated.

The 19th Century iron railings had also started to rust, causing them to expand and the stone to split. These splits allowed water to get into the stones, which when frozen caused further expansion.

In June of 2017 the Upper Parapet was dismantled and rebuilt and the old iron railings were replaced with bronze. The stone was re-bedded on traditional lime-based mortar and secured with basalt stone dowels.

The lower section of the parapet was built by pouring led into the joints between the stone. The replacement stone used for the tower is called Blaxter Sandstone, which was supplied by Dunhouse.

This particular stone was chosen because it matched the geological profile of the existing Prudham stone, ensuring they weathered well together. For conservation purposes, only the stones that were badly damaged were replaced. This was done by cutting the stone and removing the damaged parts, before replacing it with new sections of stone.

Repairs to the lead roof began in March 2019 by CEL, a roofing company specialising in heritage buildings.

The final stage of the work will be the replacement of the decking walk ways with a new viewing platform, making it safe for public use.

Building work on the cathedral started in 1093 and took around 40 years to complete. It replaced a Saxon cathedral built by the Community of St Cuthbert after it arrived in Durham in 995 following its flight from the ‘Holy Island’ of Lindisfarne 80 miles North of Durham.

The body of St Cuthbert is enshrined in the Feretory at Durham Cathedral and the Tomb of the Venerable Bede is in The Galilee Chapel. The cathedral existed as a Benedictine Monastery until 1539 when it became one of the Church of England’s major cathedrals.

It continues to be a focus for pilgrimage and attracts more than 750,000 visitors each year from all over the world. Durham Cathedral is often referred to as the best example of Romanesque architecture in Europe, or as American writer Bill Bryson put it, ‘the best Cathedral on planet Earth.’