Dr Jonathan Foyle scales Britain's most iconic structures to reveal the buildings' secrets. His journey begins in the North East of England at Durham Cathedral.
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Welcome to 11th century Britain.
I'm hanging 140 feet up the side of Durham Cathedral,
where - almost 1,000 years ago - medieval masons crafted a marvel in stone.
And let me tell you, the view is terrifying.
This is Climbing Great Buildings, and throughout this series,
I'll be scaling iconic structures, from the Normans to the present day.
I'll be revealing the building secrets
and telling the story of how British architecture and construction developed over 1,000 years.
My journey begins here in the North East at Durham Cathedral,
built from 1093 in the Norman, or known in the trade as the the Romanesque style.
If you want to know about the rise of British architecture,
there's no better place to start.
In order to see all this, I need to get close up to places
most of us never see when we visit these buildings.
-Gosh, it's beautiful, though, look at it!
Fortunately, I have a crack team to help.
Lucy Creamer is one of Britain's top climbers.
Oh, Jonathan, this is fantastic.
Along with her team of riggers and all-action cameraman, Ian Burton,
she will be helping me on my vertical adventures.
Today, I'll scale the 70-foot north wall to have a close look at its 900-year-old stonework.
Stone's in dreadful condition, some of these pieces.
I'll get a unique view of its beautiful, vaulted ceiling.
Oh, my lord, that is so high.
And I'll conquer my fears to climb over 140 feet, to the top of the western tower.
In 1093, when Durham Cathedral began to be built,
England was experiencing the biggest building boom since the Romans had left.
After the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror asserted his power
with a mixture of military might and great cathedrals,
to show that God was on his side.
Durham Castle was started by 1072, but it would be the cathedral that was the main event on this site.
And the result was this, one of the great spaces of Europe.
900 years on, this thing still has the power to take your breath away every time you walk in.
It's technically brilliant, the space is thrilling.
Imagine what the Anglo-Saxons thought.
It would have knocked their sandals off!
So, how did the Normans do it?
Well, with some brilliant innovations which transformed architecture in Britain.
And, as with any building, it all starts with the foundations.
It's rather funny that the story of Durham starts in a little hole just off the north aisle.
Thousands of people walk over it every year,
but no-one gets inside.
I am the exception.
I'm descending 14 feet below the cathedral floor, to see what this vast structure rests upon.
Look at this. It's like the Famous Five.
These deep foundations enabled the cathedral to be built on a huge scale, to stand the test of time.
The Normans conceived their buildings on massive foundations.
They were prepared to dig right down to the bedrock.
As they changed the whole scale of British buildings,
the depth of their foundations had to follow suit.
With foundations like these, it's no wonder
they were able to construct immense stone walls,
which form my next challenge.
En-route to my first climb, I want to show you this, the north door.
It dates to about 1140, and it features a perfect replica of the bronze Sanctuary knocker.
So called because fugitives from the law could grab hold of it and claim immunity, at least for a time.
They had 37 days to consider whether they wanted to stand trial or be deported.
If they chose the latter, they would be taken to a port
and stuck on a ship, no matter what it was going.
It's time for my first climb.
Now, I've never done anything like this before and I'm certainly not a climber,
but the opportunity to see this cathedral from this perspective is the chance of a lifetime.
-It's climb number one.
-Here we are.
I'm all rigged up and excited.
-Any last minute tips?
A few, I've got to say, but it doesn't look that high from here.
That's probably because I'm sitting down. That's what I'm used to.
I'm climbing the north wall of the nave, which is the main body of the cathedral.
-Right, let's go.
Whoops! I think I might be flying into the wall fairly regularly.
The walls are massive by any standards.
At over 70 feet high, they're certainly imposing.
How's it looking up there?
It's very fragile, this building.
So, what sort of age are we climbing on at the moment?
How long's this been here?
It was begun in 1093, but most of them have been rebuilt...
throughout the Middle Ages.
And Durham is the best survivor of the Norman cathedrals.
So, by Norman, we're talking about the round arched tradition
that goes up to the beginning of the 13th century, more or less.
-More or less.
On the old side of old, then.
A large team of native masons constructed these walls.
They were led by a master mason, an individual who combined
architectural vision with engineering expertise, and who produced the plans.
It's probable that the Norman-French bishop imported a Norman-French master mason.
But soon, Norman scale and techniques would be fully adopted by English builders.
The stone used to build Durham Cathedral is local Coal Measures sandstone,
which would have been brought, in blocks, along the River Wear
to pretty much the foot of the cathedral.
It's a pretty tortuous climb to get it up to this spot, it must they said.
But then it was laid into walls two medieval yards thick - that's about 6'6".
Now there are no building accounts left to tell us exactly how this was done,
but one person did have the foresight to write something down.
A diary written by a monk called Simeon in 1093
is the only remaining record of the construction of Durham Cathedral.
Simeon of Durham was a historian of Durham,
a member of Durham Cathedral Priory at the beginning of the 12th Century.
He was an eyewitness to the digging of the foundations and his account here -
written at the beginning of the 12th Century -
is the earliest and most authoritative account we have of those events.
He gives us the date - 1093.
And he explains that the bishop himself,
along with the rest of the brothers,
placed the first stones of the foundation.
This is a remarkable contemporary account of the events in question.
And remarkable, too, because we know that the person writing it
was there from the beginning of the process that he's describing here.
At this stage of my first climb, we're now halfway up the north wall
and the challenge that must have faced the medieval masons is becoming increasingly obvious.
So, we've managed to ascend our way up here relatively easily,
but what I don't understand
is how did they get the stone blocks up here and into position?
Yeah, now, that's clever.
We know that medieval masons cut blocks at the quarry,
because there's no point in carting waste material.
So these blocks arrived at a jetty on the river,
would be brought up to the site, presumably by cart.
And then, there would be a timber scaffold up here.
And very often you find replacement stones which have gone in where the timber scaffolding was taken out.
They're called putlog holes.
Now, to get them up on the scaffold,
you're talking about a wheel - a pulley system -
and some medieval cathedral towers still have giant hamster wheels,
where men walked round and pulled them up. So, it's pretty clever.
I've noticed something here, Jonathan.
I don't know if you can see, but it looks kind of like mother-of-pearl, or something.
That's exactly what it is. Oyster shells.
It's like medieval crisp packets!
They ate so many oysters, they just chucked the shells away.
But they were useful to masons because -
when you're laying one block of stone on another -
with wet mortar between them, you're going to squeeze that mortar out,
so you put oyster shells in, which is calcium carbonate -
the same material as the lime - the lime sets around it
and those domes actually support blocks of stone.
Really useful to a mason.
Today, modern quarrying techniques and cement mixers
mean we are easily able to churn out vast quantities of cement each day,
but in medieval Britain, making mortar was hot, sweaty and dangerous.
First, they would have fired limestone to around 800 degrees in a kiln,
before it was mixed with sand and water.
That's hissing and fizzing.
-You see, this is proper alchemy.
-Is that steam coming off it?
It's getting the heat now, that's why it's a hot lime mix.
-That's a strong chemical reaction, isn't it?
-Oh, God, yes.
So, people in the Middle Ages using this stuff without goggles and...
It's quite easy to do a lot of damage to your eyes.
What about getting it on your skin?
Yeah, it takes your fingerprints off.
I haven't got any fingerprints on my hands any more.
-Have you not, really?
You can just see this has turned into a lovely mortar now.
Feel the heat coming off that.
It's very warm. It's like something a cow's just produced.
As well, with the heat, it sticks very well to the stone
and forms an excellent bond with the pores in the stone.
Gosh! The stone's in dreadful condition in some of these places.
The thing about this local sandstone is, it's very soft and crumbly.
You can see it flaking away there at the top. I don't want to touch it.
I'll just press my fingers against it,
and you can see grains of sand just sticking to them.
So, centuries of rain and wind are going to wreak havoc here.
The constant weathering of the stone
means there's virtually no original stonework left.
A restoration and replacement programme begun in the 18th century
has continued through to the present day.
What kind of work do you do?
Well, if there's a stone - say like one of these here -
which is particularly badly weathered so it's structurally unsound,
you cut it out and make another stone and refit it into the building.
That looks like modern, abstract sculpture, doesn't it? Masons doodling or something.
It's been eaten out by the elements.
It's natural erosion. If you look at the building and say,
"Well, it's not a stone building, it's a stone cliff face," you'd expect it to be eroded.
So they built beautifully, but the material they had is known for weathering badly, isn't it?
It's very porous - it will absorb water in the winter when it's raining -
and then it gets cold, freezes, expands,
and takes the face of the stone off.
What does it feel like, then, to work on Durham Cathedral?
The sheer scale of Durham Cathedral is daunting, but I've only a few feet left to go.
We're nearly at the top. Your first climb?
I'm feeling good about it.
Yeah, that was nearly...
-We got to the top, didn't we?
I'm chuffed with that.
I'm chuffed with that. First climb, and with it being such a big building...
When you walk in the cathedral close, you see the entire length of the thing,
and it's a Goliath amongst medieval buildings
and you think, "That's what it's intended for," I guess.
It makes you feel humble, makes you feel small.
I feel a bit bigger than I did...
a few minutes ago.
The stone rib vault is one of Durham's most impressive features.
More pioneering and magnificent than anything that had gone before in England.
But its stone shell is incredibly heavy
and the Normans had to ensure that the ribs which bore its weight
didn't push the walls out and cause them to collapse.
In order to solve this problem, they created flying buttresses
which pushed back and braced the nave walls.
And here they are - the first flying buttresses, at least in embryo.
In fact, the Norman flying buttresses
are much more slender than what you see today.
It's just the uppermost of those three concentric arches which was laid by those Norman builders.
Underneath are two more layers added in 1915.
It's interesting that - even into the 20th century -
the solution to the spreading vaults
was to simply add to what the Normans had established 800 years earlier.
The flying buttress may have been a cutting-edge innovation at Durham,
but what truly defines a Romanesque cathedral
is the use of what's known as a Norman arch.
What are they all about, then?
That's where that curious word, "Romanesque", comes in.
Because if you took the elevation of the nave of Durham Cathedral
and compared that with a Roman aqueduct,
they wouldn't be so very different.
It's really tier-upon-tier of semi-circular arches.
And the structures were built more or less the same way.
What you need is centring.
You can imagine carpenters by the hundred here,
assembling what looked like giant wagon wheels
so that you can build an arch on top of them.
These brown bits then stand for the piers or columns from which the arches spring.
The centring is in place.
So, the scaffolding can go up
and we can get on with building our Norman arch.
So, here they are - voussoirs.
A nice Anglo-Norman word for a section of arch like this.
In this case, five up.
Now, once they're built on to their centring,
and the keystone goes in place in the middle,
we can remove the centring
and it should stand more or less where we left it.
Take the wedges out, and the centring goes.
You can imagine everyone crossing their fingers -
if they did such things in those times -
when they took the centring down.
Every arch gives a bit,
but there we are - hey, presto! - and it stands.
And once you've spotted one Norman arch, you see them everywhere.
They're in the vaults, over the doorways and above the windows.
The construction of the nave went from east to west over a period of 30 years
and, as time passed, it's possible to see more exotic influences in the detail.
Durham Cathedral's first building campaign, which ended in 1104,
included the east end and preparations for the Norman tower.
You can see the character of the architecture
by the first two arches in the arcade of the nave,
and the easternmost arch above it.
They're plain, quite simple.
But that moment coincided with a change in direction in English Romanesque architecture.
Because it's thought by historians that the experience of the first crusade after 1096
equipped people with knowledge of Islamic architecture,
which is noted for its zig-zag decoration.
So, when the second campaign started, look at it - it's a riot.
It's as if all of this stone has been cut out with pinking shears - zig-zag everywhere.
It's a curious thought that this masterpiece of Christian architecture
might have been influenced by Islam.
Whilst the Norman arch might be that most defining feature of this cathedral, it had its limitations.
If the masons here stuck to it, it would have been much more difficult
to build this magnificent vault.
For my next climb, I'm going to go across what's called a postman's walk to reveal how they achieved it.
Here, we're about 60 feet...
Way more than that.
-Yeah. Sorry, but yeah.
-Yeah? That's fine...
-I'm quite good at judging height looking UP!
I would say it's definitely way more than 60.
It's one thing to climb up a building with something solid to grab hold of,
but it's altogether different
to step on to something like a piece of string.
-you are going to love this. I hope.
I mean, architecturally, I'm...
-Oh, my lord! Yeah, you know, you see the whole seating plan in one go.
Sorry. THEY LAUGH
This is amazing.
I think you made a valuable contribution to the choir - that double whoop!
-I forgot we're in a cathedral.
-It echoed well.
Right, here we go.
Lucy makes it look so easy, but this is only my second climb,
and frankly, I find it a bit scary.
Ye Gods! That is disconcerting.
-You can hold the line where the pulley is.
Just be careful that the pulley doesn't go into your fingers.
That's a funny feeling.
Because it's quite springy up here.
And it's like being on some kind of giant trampoline.
Oh, my, that is so high.
The reason I'm dealing with all this fear
is to get a good look at the stone ceiling, or vault, as it's known.
It's made up of a series of criss-crossing stone arches, called ribs.
These are the their earliest surviving rib vaults anywhere -
not just in Durham, but the whole of Europe.
And they do two important things. Firstly, they get out of the idea
that a vault has to be a stone shell of a consistent thickness, just like half a cylinder.
And instead, the vaults are conceived as a series of ribs - it's rather skeletal.
It feels like you're in a whale's chest or something. It's beautiful.
To make this beautiful vault level, the masons had to build the transverse arches higher
so they invented a brilliant new idea, the pointed arch.
Ironically, when you walk into this most Norman of all cathedrals,
you have this forest of pointed arches ahead of you.
What it points toward is the Gothic age.
It's hard to believe that changing the shape of an arch
could have such a dramatic impact on architecture,
but it's true to say that without it,
such beautiful, vast and inspiring spaces
would have been impossible to build.
Once you get over the bendy, squashy ropes,
and the fact they seem to be going somewhere when you first step on them,
once you sit here and it takes the tension,
it's actually incredibly peaceful.
Before I climb the last stretch up one of these enormous towers,
you may well ask, "How did the medieval masons get such hefty bits of stone to such heights?"
One answer lies in this room in the south-west tower.
Have a look at this, Luce.
It's a windlass.
-Grab the windlass, lass.
Now, the thing is, these were used in the Middle Ages.
This one happens to be 18th century in date, but it's exactly the same kind of technology.
A winding system redistributes the weight in such a way
that two people could easily lift a ton-block of stone.
They could also easily lift a man, but unfortunately for me
they don't have a windlass at the top of these towers.
For my final climb, I'm going to have to put some serious effort in.
These towers rise a massive 144 feet over the western front of the building.
I hope I have more luck than an early adventurer who apparently climbed them a long time ago.
You know, there's a story,
and it's...a tightrope walker in 1237.
He stretches a rope across those towers
and walks for the entertainment of the monks,
and plunges to his death.
-I don't know if it's the historian in me that doubts that,
or whether it's just blind fear that says that can't happen.
It's not going to happen.
We have to get outside the tower to start our climb.
I'm beginning to understand that Lucy is never going to take the easy option.
I'm staying calm, but I'm prepared to be petrified!
Awesome. I'm back again.
It's a long way down there.
Your turn, guys.
That was cool.
Bit scary, thank you.
All right, ready?
Oh, well, got to commit. We're off.
Well done! Brilliant.
That was a very exposed leap, it has to be said.
Gosh! It's beautiful, though. Look at it.
-You just don't see many sights like that.
I tell you what, though...
you just think...
that the people who built these things are giants.
We too easily patronise the past.
We call things medieval...
-..and talk about being primitive.
-it's such a sophisticated thing to have done this.
Definitely blows my mind.
These towers were completed almost 80 years after the main building
and you can see examples of both Norman and Gothic architecture on top of each other.
I noticed something slightly odd about this tower.
I've climbed past these pointed arches -
the type of gothic arch which Durham seems to have pioneered in the nave
when they built those beautiful rib vaults.
-I've come up to a row of round arches again, aren't they?
There are two possibilities.
One is that Durham's builders had stockpiled a whole series
of round arches which they wanted to use, but that seems unlikely.
These fine mouldings and these capitals are very much like the ones below.
The other, I think, more intriguing idea
is that the builders of Durham
were so enamoured of their round-arched, so-called Romanesque structure,
they had to bind the whole thing together and continue the style that they had begun so beautifully.
I quite like that idea, really.
Progress can be overrated.
I've studied architecture for as long as you've been climbing - 20 years.
I remember coming to Durham and seeing it from the valley over the way
and thinking, "What a work of wonder that is."
I'm looking back at it the other way now
and it's that that takes my mind off the fact
that I'm simply not used to...
Dangling off two shoe strings.
Don't put it like that. Let's go.
Two very strong shoe strings.
You're reassuring, Luce.
Jonathan, with these big archways,
would it have been some fantastic window, a giant pane of glass?
What's the point of them?
They're always set against the wall like this.
These are called blind arches.
The idea really is to add decoration.
They're purely decorative.
It's an investment in these mouldings and this richness on the surface.
It catches the sunlight. It makes the building look more solid.
It gives depth into the facade.
They're there for the pure joy of it.
On this west facade imagine when the sun goes down.
A gorgeous display of light and shade.
-Out of interest, what's the blackness?
Yeah, it's the relics of coal fires.
Yes, because it seems much worse on this level.
Yeah, doesn't it?
It is an amazing thing for people who built this place almost 1,000 years ago
to have had no side rails, no health and safety, nothing.
They got on with it for as long as they could get away with it in any one building season.
I've got to say I'm clinging on to this building.
You have to have faith in this stuff,
but nonetheless, you still have your instinct to overcome.
I've seen buildings like most other people from the ground upwards,
but when you see it from the perspective of those who built it in the first place,
you realise what giants they were.
-Nice work, my man.
-Thank you, fella.
That really is very impressive for a beginner, what you've just done.
I've nothing to compare it to.
-There are probably quite a lot of climbers who wouldn't want to do that.
Yeah and I'm not just saying that. That's genuine. Yep!
That is a beautiful prospect.
About 1,000 years ago, people who lived in timber huts in this area
must have watched as this Goliath of a Norman cathedral was built in their midst.
They must have been awestruck, and the thing is,
all these centuries later, that impression hasn't changed.
I climb Lincoln Cathedral, an architectural laboratory
where English Gothic style was brought to perfection.
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Dr Jonathan Foyle, architectural historian and novice climber, scales Britain's most iconic structures, from the Normans to the present day, to reveal the buildings' secrets and tell the story of how our architecture and construction have developed over 1000 years.
Jonathan's journey begins in the North East of England at Durham Cathedral, one of the finest surviving examples of Norman architecture in the UK.
Jonathan, who has never climbed before, is aided by Lucy Creamer, one of Britain's top climbers, as he conquers his fears to scale over 140 feet to the top of Durham Cathedral to investigate how the Normans revolutionised building in this country. On his climbs, he comes face to face with the crumbling 1000-year-old stone with oyster shells hiding in the mortar, discovers carved stone arches influenced by the art of the Middle East and he braves a tightrope nearly 100 feet above the nave, to get a closer look at the revolutionary and beautiful stone ceiling.