AFTER three years looking as if it had had a white sock pulled over the top of it, Durham Cathedral’s central tower will reopen to the public at 10am next Saturday, much to the delight of Durham residents and visitors from across the world.

With the scaffolding coming down, the tower is once again a structure of grandeur and beauty, steeped in history.

The tower reopening is sponsored by Baldwins Accountants, and it has been three years in the making as stone eroded by the passage of time has been restored and replaced. It is, therefore, a fitting time to reflect on the rich history of the magnificent tower, which has dominated the city’s skyline for nearly a thousand years…

Between 1093 and 1133, Durham Cathedral was completely rebuilt by the Normans, replacing an older, Anglo-Saxon cathedral. The new cathedral was designed to have a central tower and two western towers, in a cruciform. The two western towers were originally integrated into the castle wall surrounding the peninsula, forming part of the site’s military defences. Over the following centuries, there were many changes to the building, eventually resulting in the cathedral you see today.

THE first central tower was either rebuilt or heightened in the second half of the 13th Century, but it was badly damaged when it was hit by lightning on May 27, 1429. Total reconstruction of the tower was necessary between 1465 and 1474 as the tower was again hit by lightning on Easter Day 1459.

THE new central tower was constructed in two stages, in the late 15th or early 16th centuries. This included the creation of a top belfry and Chapter records from 1541-96 refer to work on rehanging the bells in the central tower.

Thomas Barton was thought to be the master mason in charge of building the new lower stage, and John Bell the master mason responsible for constructing the upper level, having been appointed mason for life to the Prior and Chapter in 1488.

It is their work that created the 66 metre high central tower that is known and loved today.

IN 1777, a survey identified repairs needed on the parapets and buttresses of the central tower. It suggested that the western towers be properly finished with parapets – the two towers had been fitted with extraordinary-looking spires which had been taken down in 1658.

The 1777 report said they and the central tower should be given “ragged pinnacles” to soften their appearance. This was the first of several attempts to “finish” the top of the central tower, which had never received the pinnacles intended by its medieval designers. This work appears to have been carried out by 1801.

AN 1804 report to Chapter by architect William Atkinson described further work needed on the central tower, but also emphasised a wish to retain its aged and historic appearance. Atkinson recommended using a material called “Parker’s Roman Cement”, and the well-known Italian plasterer Francesco Bernasconi, who had previously worked at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, was hired to carry out the work.

MORE work was needed in 1858. Architect to the Dean and Chapter, George Gilbert Scott (who the Scott Screen in the cathedral’s crossing is named after – he was the man who designed the iconic red telephone box), drew up a major restoration scheme, which included rebuilding the parapet, removing old render, re-casing the upper part of the tower and restoring the belfry windows.

Thomas Winter, a Durham City builder and mason, carried out this work between 1859 and 1861, removing Bernasconi’s cement in the process. The project also included the replacement of lost statues in niches on the outside of the tower and large carved heads, including a lion, were installed just below the parapet.

Winter used a steam engine to operate a cage to raise men and materials up the tower to the working platforms. This is a far cry from the modern hoist that has been used since 2016, enabling access to the tower for the in-house masonry team and sub-contractors to carry out the current scheme of repairs.

APART from some restoration in the 1960s, this was the last major work carried out on the tower until the current project.

THE past three years have seen up to eight in-house stonemasons, working alongside the cathedral’s architect from Purcell UK and other contractors. Their task has been to restore the interior and exterior of the tower, which had suffered from stone erosion over the years. The work has been carried out in phases and has involved:

Rebuilding the upper parapet, including the repair and replacement of weathered sandstone

Replacement and repair of stonework to the interior and exterior of the bell chamber

Re-bedding the replacement ‘blaxter sandstone’ (chosen because of its close geological profile to the existing ‘prudham stone’) on traditional lime-based mortar.

Replacing the old iron railings from the Victorian era with new bronze railings.

Replacing the decking walk ways with a new visitor viewing platform

Repairing the tower’s lead roof

A SURVIVING medieval tradition is the inclusion of masons’ marks on stones as an identifier of a mason’s work. This was done to calculate the salary each mason would get, depending on how many stones they had successfully carved. While it is not associated with pay anymore, the tradition lives on, and eagle-eyed visitors from June 1 may be able to spot some modern marks if they look closely enough.

The significance of the tower today

AS Durham is surrounded by rising land, the towers were a vital part in allowing it to be seen by pilgrims from miles around.

Today, the central tower remains at the heart of cathedral life, as a highlight for visitors, an essential part of community life and ceremonial worship.

It offers arguably the best vantage point from which to take in the 360-degree view of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Durham City, the winding River Wear and the surrounding countryside.

Durham Cathedral Guild of Bell Ringers is the group responsible for ringing before services from the bell chamber. The bell ringers practice on Thursdays evenings with the glorious sound of the ringing resonating through the city.

There is added poignancy throughout the liturgical calendar when flags are flown from the top of the tower to mark holy days and special services. The next time this is scheduled to happen is on Thursday which is Ascension Day – when the Lord’s ascension into heaven is celebrated with a Sung Eucharist at 5.15pm.

The tradition of singing from the top of the tower

MEDIEVAL sources mention that in 1346 the monks of Durham watched the Battle of Neville’s Cross from the top of the central tower, and started to sing with joy when they saw that the Scots had been defeated. For many years after that, on the anniversary of the battle, a group of monks would climb up the tower and sing three anthems, one to the north, one to the south and one to the east. (The west, being the direction of the battle, was not sung to).


ONE lucky reader and their family will win tickets to be the first to climb the central tower, when it reopens at 10am on June 1. All you have to do is answer the following question: What was the date of the battle of Neville’s Cross which was watched by monks from the top of the cathedral tower – and we want the full date, not just the year?

The winner will receive a family ticket (for up to two adults and three children, aged eight-17 years).

Your entry must reach us by 5pm on Wednesday. It must include your answer, name and address and a phone number. Either email it to and it must have “Durham Cathedral” in the subject field, or post it to Durham Cathedral Competition, The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington DL1 1NF.

Climb the towers

YOU can climb either the central tower – 325 steps – or the north-west tower – 137 steps. Admission is £5 for adults and £2.50 for children aged eight to 17 – under eights cannot climb. From next Saturday, the central tower will be open from Monday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm; the north-west tower is open for climbing at 10.30am on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are only available from the visitor desk. For more information, call 0191 338 7178, email or visit

By Kate Pawley, of Durham Cathedral