So often our identities, both as individuals and as nations, are bound to our sense of place; a particular familiar landmark, be it a castle or a hill or a church, evokes a sense of community and belonging, a feeling of “home.” These landmarks tie us to the land, helping to create within each of us our regional or national identity.
We begin to see them as old friends, perhaps even as members of our families; bricks and mortar, yes, but so much more than that. In times of strife, these landmarks become symbols of spirit, of hope and determination.
There is a famous old black and white photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral in London at the height of the Blitz, its world-renowned dome towering above the smoke and the rubble, and the death and confusion which surrounds it.
For County Durham folk, their landmark, their talisman, the source of so much pride and affection, is Durham Cathedral. For over a hundred years, every July, thousands of miners from colliery towns and villages all over North East England have gathered here with their banners for the traditional service which marks the beginning of the miners’ gala, or as it is known in these parts “Durham Big Meeting” earning it the nickname of “The Pitman’s Cathedral.”
Entering the cathedral through the ancient Norman doorway, it is very easy to miss the Royal Air Force Memorial and stained glass window to the right, as your attention is automatically drawn to the vast nave and the towering columns to the left.
The window depicts an airman in his flying jacket, facing away from the viewer, gazing upon a mist-shrouded cathedral, and references one of the most famous episodes in the cathedral’s more recent history.
In direct response to an RAF attack on the ancient city of Lübeck, the Luftwaffe launched a series of bombing raids on historic British cathedral cities. These were nicknamed the “Baedeker Raids,” because they targeted sites of cultural and historical significance picked out from the series of famous old travel guides.
The first raid took place on 23 April 1942, targeting Exeter. Canterbury, Bath, York and Norwich were also bombed, the latter twice, along with small towns of no strategic importance such as Cowes, King’s Lynn and Poole. Every one of the cathedrals survived, but there was heavy damage to the city centres and substantial loss of life. Over 1600 civilians were killed, even more injured, and 50,000 homes destroyed or damaged.
On the night of 30 April, a force of some thirty-eight German bombers passed over the North East coast . A number of bombs were dropped in the vicinity of Durham, which was much less heavily defended than the industrial towns and cities of the region.
Four fell near Carville, on the outskirts of the city, others at Beamish village (including one with a timer device that exploded later in the day, killing eight people); a few miles to the north, an unpopulated area by a bend in the River Derwent was heavily bombarded, and two bombs fell at Finchale Priory, which perhaps had been mistaken for the cathedral.
Many believed that the Luftwaffe had been aiming for Durham that night, but for some reason had missed their target. However, it was a bright moonlit night, and the cathedral is hard to miss; it towers above the peninsula in the River Wear and is visible from miles around.
Some local residents, including the chief air raid warden, George Greenwell, had recounted that a mist had suddenly and miraculously descended upon the city, rendering the target all but invisible to the marauding German aircraft.
Many local people attributed the fog to divine intervention, perhaps on the part of the cathedral’s resident saint, Cuthbert, and it became known as “St Cuthbert’s Mist.” Whatever the cause, Durham Cathedral was spared that night, and it is this event which is so beautifully depicted in the stained glass window above the RAF Memorial.
Durham Cathedral was also the scene of an infamous incident in November 1936, when local aristocrat and coal magnate Lord Londonderry hosted Hitler’s ambassador Von Ribbentrop. A vociferous advocate of appeasement, Londonderry was regular visitor to Germany as a guest of Herman Goering, and met Hitler on several occasions.
Von Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador, had visited the Londonderrys at their home at Mount Stewart at the end of May 1936, presenting the Marquis with a Meissen porcelain figurine of an SS Stormtrooper.
The ambassador was invited to attend a service at the magnificent Norman cathedral to pay tribute to the Marquis who had just been appointed Mayor of Durham; as the service was concluding, the organist began to play the German national anthem, “Deutschland Uber Alles,” in honour of the important guest.
Von Ribbentrop automatically began to raise his right arm in salute to his Führer, until the offending limb was grabbed by the embarrassed Marquis and shoved politely but firmly back down to his side.
After leaving the magnificent cathedral (don’t forget to visit the beautiful Durham Light Infantry Chapel while you’re there), make your way back down the very steep and winding Sadler Street. Call into Durham’s most haunted pub, the ancient Shakespeare Tavern, for a pint, as Jim and Lydia did in Above Us The Stars, just before Jim was posted to North Africa in 1942.