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The mysteries of Durham Cathedral and the River Wear

If Indiana Jones had a penchant for getting extremely wet, he’d be Beau Ouimette, an intrepid seeker of lost relics whose adventures have made him a YouTube sensation. In new series River Hunters, he teams up with wild swimming enthusiast Rick Edwards to explore Britain’s waterways and lay hands on long-buried artefacts from the most dramatic chapters of our nation’s past – from the days of the Romans to the Wars of the Roses.

In Durham, the pair visit the natural nook formed by the bend of the mighty River Wear. Nestled here, protected by the flowing water, is Durham Cathedral, a structure so spectacular it was used as a filming location for Harry Potter. But long before the exploits of a boy wizard put it on tourists’ radars, the cathedral drew in fans of a very real historic figure: St Cuthbert. By hunting down offerings left by medieval pilgrims to Durham, Beau and Rick brush up against a time when St Cuthbert was renowned as one of the country’s most popular and magical figures.

Cuthbert, who was born around 634 AD, was a monk in the most monk-like sense of the word, preferring to spend long stretches of time in contemplative isolation on an island off the coast of Northumberland. His famously austere lifestyle added to his reputation as a pure and pious miracle worker, and that reputation became all the more awesome after his death – especially when it was said his body showed no sign of decomposition when his casket was opened more than a decade after his death.

Viking attacks on Britain’s monasteries in the 9th Century forced monks to exhume Cuthbert’s body on the island of Lindisfarne and flee to the mainland. According to legend, while the monks were on the road with the body, their cart came to a mysterious standstill. One of the party then had a mystical vision of Cuthbert telling him he wanted to be laid to rest in a place called 'Dunholm'. Directions provided by a passing milkmaid pointed them in the direction of this mysterious location by the River Wear, where the monks settled and where the cathedral and city of Durham would later spring up as a result. (The protection offered by the loop of the river is a more prosaic and practical reason why the location may have been chosen.)

Pilgrimage was also big business.

Pilgrimage was also big business. The journey to and from a site like Durham Cathedral would have been arduous, with pilgrims needing places to rest up and eat. There was also a thriving trade in religious relics sold to pilgrims – a fact satirised by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, which is about a group of pilgrims travelling to the shrine of Thomas Becket. One of the characters is the unscrupulous Pardoner, who passes off pig bones as the bones of saints. 

Pilgrims would also purchase badges, often crafted from lead alloys, which would be worn as proud proof of having completed a pilgrimage. One such 'souvenir' from a pilgrimage to Durham Cathedral was recovered from the River Wear in 2011: a lead alloy cross with flared arms which may have been thrown into the river as a kind of religious offering, or simply because its vendor didn’t want it anymore.

Durham was just one of many pilgrimage sites that became hugely popular. Another was Norfolk’s Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, which was built after a Saxon woman called Richeldis de Faverches had a vision of Mary in 1061, revealing the very house where the Virgin was told she was destined to give birth to Jesus. A replica of this residence was built in what became known as 'England’s Nazareth', attracting droves of pilgrims, including a succession of English monarchs.

The shrine at Walsingham was destroyed during the Reformation, when – having dramatically broken from the Pope – Henry VIII pillaged and ravaged monasteries and Catholic places of worship throughout the land. Land was taken from the Catholics and sold to local landowners, while the treasures of shrines were snatched by the state. 

Durham Cathedral was another major target for Henry’s agents, who came to literally strip away the jewels which adorned St Cuthbert’s shrine. Fascinatingly, the legend of St Cuthbert persisted even during these dark times – according to an account written after the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry’s men asked a blacksmith to crack open the casket containing the saint’s body. The blacksmith was shocked to report the body looked only recently dead, complete with a “fortnight’s growth” of beard.

The cathedral was left transformed, not least because 107 gilded statues were removed from the building for safekeeping by the local monks. These statues, which had pride of place in an ornate structure called the Neville Screen, have never been recovered – their whereabouts an enduring and intriguing mystery.

As for Durham Cathedral itself… its story went on to encompass even more dramatic events, such the period in the wake of a battle waged by Oliver Cromwell, when the building was used as a gruelling prison for thousands of Scottish prisoners of war. You can see why the River Hunters are so excited about visiting this peninsula on the River Wear, where secrets still lurk beneath the water’s surface.