Heritage North East & Yorkshire

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral

Work on Durham Cathedral first began in 1093 and now, almost 920 years later, the way that visitors experience this magnificent building is set to be transformed.

The Open Treasure project plans to open up the space in the Cathedral’s Claustral buildings to allow visitors to appreciate more of the beautiful architecture. The development will include a sequence of linked exhibition spaces, a new shop and choir vestries, along with improved access for disabled visitors.

The £8 million project will be split over several phases, with Phase One scheduled for completion in September 2012. Estimated to have a value of £1.5 million, the phase will see the redevelopment of the area known as the Undercroft, which lies directly below the space known as the Monks’ dormitory located off the Cathedral Cloisters.

In the second phase of Open Treasure, the Monk’s Dormitory will become the start of a new exhibition route which will display both the Cathedral’s own treasures and to house temporary exhibitions, as Head of Property at Durham Cathedral, John Holmes, explained:

“Before, the space was an underused area and contained display and exhibition areas which were inadequate. We are trying to get more people to the Cathedral and also provide a better experience. It’s a stunning place already and this will enable them to better enjoy the Cathedral’s treasures.”

This is a major project for the Cathedral and the subject of a major fundraising campaign. A grant application is being submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund. A first stage pass has already been received for £3.5 million which means that HLF support the project in principle and will welcome a more detailed application for the amount proposed. A number of organisations are supporting the work already in progress including the Friends of Durham Cathedral.

Main contractor for Phase One the project is SIMPSON (York) Ltd and the architect is Purcell Miller Tritton. The Cathedral’s own yard staff, comprising a dedicated team of stone masons and specialist joiners who continually maintain and conserve the building, carried out the enabling works.

Durham Cathedral

Dunhouse Natural Stone is the stone supplier for the restoration of the Durham Cathedral project.

Dunhouse Natural Stone Managing Director, Paul Allison, commented:

“Dunhouse Quarry is proud to have supplied the stone for the ongoing restoration of Durham Cathedral and we hope to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”


SIMPSON is vastly experienced, having worked on numerous heritage and listed building projects throughout the past, including Bishopthorpe Palace, York and Bowes Museum and Barnard Castle. They also have a large construction arm and are one of the largest fit-out companies in the UK, having recently completed work for some of the most established retailers in the UK.

The project has involved taking down some of the more recently erected stone walls and lifting sections of the original stone flooring in order to install under floor heating. In addition, a new stone floor has been laid and the existing undercroft ceiling has been lime washed.

Further works will include the installation of a platform lift to help improve disabled access and the fixture of a number of feature glass screens for the retail and restaurant area.

Durham Cathedral

John Holmes said:

“Because the development is within the stone vaulted area of the Undercroft, everything has to be approved by the Cathedral’s Fabric Commission for England, a statutory body, as well as other consultative organisations, and has to be carried out in a very sensitive way. The stone needs to match what is already there, whilst woodwork and specialist joinery fittings have to complement the existing structure.

“We are also significantly improving the accessibility. As you can imagine with a Norman and medieval site, access has previously been very difficult. The Cathedral is looking to make all public areas fully accessible for disabled visitors and wheelchair users, which it has never been before.”

“We aspire towards RICS, RIBA and heritage awards in the future and are designing it to the highest quality that we possibly can.”

Mark Cregan Operations Director of SIMPSON, spoke of their aim to make best use of the Cathedral’s amazing spaces:

“This project is about improving the whole experience and making it better for visitors – for example the shop, cathedral and other facilities are currently tucked away in small rooms, whilst the café/restaurant is located in another area of the building.

“Access to the development has been difficult and it has been approached in a sensitive manner due to the historic fabric we are working on. However, we are professionals in this field so it hasn’t delayed our main schedule in any way. We have taken on the challenges a building of this nature produces into consideration, and have programmed the works accordingly.”

SIMPSON craftsmen are using traditional lime plaster, lime wash and oak for all the feature joinery, including the fit-out of the new vestry and choristers. The company is also fitting feature lighting to enhance the undercroft, with the feature glass screens supplied by OAG – who carried out the glazing works on the recently completed St. Pancras Station in London.

Mark Cregan commented:

“We are currently carrying out the ground works to allow the underfloor heating to be installed, whilst all of the bespoke joinery is currently being produced in our own joiners shop. There is an air of excitement amongst our directly employed joiners and apprentices working on the stunning furniture, but the real feature is the space itself- it’s amazing.

“It was a dark dingy place previously unsuitable for the exhibits to be displayed and we’re bringing it to life. Open the Treasures is all about walking around the space and being able to appreciate and absorb all the dimensions the cathedral has to offer. It’s a beautiful cathedral and we at SIMPSON are privileged to have been selected as the preferred contractor to carry out these works.”

About the author

Roma Publications

Leave a Comment