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Durham Cathedral gives up its secrets as Open Treasures attraction takes shape

We go on a site visit as work proceeds at Durham Cathedral to turn rooms off the cloister into a major visitor attraction

Behind a mundane piece of plastic sheeting at Durham Cathedral lies a flight of stone stairs, dark, claustrophobic and probably untrodden for centuries.

But that is to come...

Putting on hard hat and high visibility jacket ahead of a very special site visit, I am already thinking: if walls had ears, what a lot of mutterings and murmurings this building would have heard down the years.

Shortly, myself and photographer Emily Carey will venture through a makeshift wooden door in the company of Tom Billington, whose job title, property facilities manager, seems too mundane for a place where Reverends and Very Reverends go about their business clad in the colourful raiments of the Church.

Tom, cheerfully practical but also scathing about some of the Victorians’ botched improvement projects, will be leading us on a journey back in time.

But first I read the display board in the cloister which offers a glimpse of the future.

Some time next year, behind the wooden door, will be the cathedral’s Open Treasure attraction, ready to admit its first paying visitors.

Completion of this ambitious £10m project – the funding is almost there, helped by a £3.9m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund – will see a series of new exhibition spaces created in buildings that lie a little off the beaten track.

Displayed there will be some of the valuable objects and documents that are normally kept away from the public gaze but constitute “an internationally significant collection”.

Among potential exhibits are the cathedral’s three copies of Magna Carta, dating from 1216, 1225 and 1300 (the first of these you will be able to see at nearby Palace Green Library in June when an exhibition marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta opens).

Open Treasure will also be a venue for hosting “world class” temporary exhibitions.

Venturing through the wooden door we find ourselves in the old monks’ dormitory. Where stone steps should be, there is a hole where a lift will go. “Everything in here will be fully accessible to everyone,” says Tom.

But you don’t make a big hole in a building like this without an archaeologist present and Norman Emery, resident archaeologist at the cathedral, has been having a wonderful time, it seems.

Roman pottery has turned up and – since the Open Treasure site also includes the great kitchen – evidence of what fuelled the monks physically (if not spiritually). Among an impressive cache of bone fragments, according to my guide, was evidence that porpoise was sometimes on the menu.

The monks slept here in cells and one of these is to be recreated to give a sense of how they lived.

At present, most of what we see is wrapped in plastic sheeting, including the collection of Anglo Saxon artefacts which is usually a magnet for scholars from far and wide.

High above, and still visible, is the awe-inspiring 14th Century timber roof – matched only by the one in Westminster Hall, I’m told.

At the far end of the monks’ dormitory, the complexity of this project becomes apparent. An opening in one of the thick stone walls was opened, it is believed, in the 18th Century and then closed by the Victorians.

It has now been reopened to give access into a space which was once occupied by a nondescript 1950s building.

Tom shakes his head at the liberties once taken with a building that is now part of a Unesco World Heritage site.

“Still,” he says, “if all these things hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be able to do this now.”

The work has also provided touching glimpses of the relatively recent past. Newspapers from the 1880s were discovered under one of the bookcases that was shifted to make way for the new doorway.

As we proceed, Tom says: “Durham has the most intact set of cloistered buildings in the country.”

Wolf Hall has been on the television, showing how Henry VIII fell out with Rome, leading to the dissolution of the monasteries. How did Durham escape? Tom nods in the general direction of Scotland. “They wanted a buffer,” he says. “We had a lot of land here.”

We venture into the old library office which is to become a search room where researchers will be able to pore over old documents in secure conditions.

We clamber down into the bowels of the refectory library where all is darkness and shrouded in plastic. The books have been taken out for the first time in 300 years for environmental improvement work.

“Quite an important room,” notes Tom. “It houses the most complete monastic library in Europe.”

Treasured volumes include the first printed book in Arabic, early 7th Century tomes and, from more recent times, a first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

We proceed to the great kitchen, the “most intact friars’ kitchen in Britain”. It’s a hugely impressive octagonal room where you can see the great fires and ovens and imagine the smell and the noise of the turning spit.

Tom says the cement-based mortar is all being removed – “it exacerbates decay” – and replaced with a lime-based equivalent. St Cuthbert’s coffin is to be displayed here although nothing will be done to hide the room’s original purpose.

There are plenty of jaw-dropping sights before we reach what will be the exit.

But first that little staircase, dating, Tom reckons, from the 11th Century and only recently uncovered. It’s blocked a little way up and probably doesn’t lead far but how many centuries have elapsed since the last feet trod on its narrow steps? It’s a mind-boggling thought.

When Open Treasure opens, probably in summer next year, there will be modern lifts, swish glass doors and lots of interpretation boards. But the tangible sense of history is likely to provide the biggest thrill.

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