“Grey towers of Durham
Yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles
Half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot
And long to roam those venerable aisles
With records stored of deeds long since forgot”
Walter Scott – ‘Harold the Dauntless’
Usually at about this time of year I am thinking about getting on a plane and flying to Europe but this year have decided to spend some time at home in the United Kingdom and this time we were loading up the car and heading north. I bought a flat cap and read some books on breeding ferrets and racing pigeons and suitably prepared we set off to our first destination – Durham.
For eight hundred years Durham was the most important city in Northern England with a castle and a cathedral built within the natural defensive position of a loop in the river Wear which gave protection on three sides and the city became the first line of defence against any invasions from Scotland and the North.
The city declined in importance in the eighteenth century when the Industrial Revolution passed it by and the city of Sunderland became the most important place on the River Wear. After the final Jacobite invasion it wasn’t needed for military purposes either.
Local legend states that the city was founded in 995 by some sort of divine intervention. The Monks of Lindisfarne grew tired of constant visits from the Vikings and packed up the bones and relics of St Cuthbert and looked for a safer place inland. Wandering aimlessly in the north in search of somewhere suitable the wagon carrying the coffin came to a sudden halt and despite the best efforts of the monks refused to budge.
Being in a bit of a fix, short on options and with rations running low the monks rather ingeniously decreed a holy fast of three days and during this time Saint Cuthbert miraculously appeared with instructions that the coffin should be taken to a place called Dun Holm.
After the appearance the monks could suddenly move the wagon again but this was all well and good but they had no idea where Dun Holm was. By lucky chance they came across a milkmaid who said that she was seeking her lost dun cow* which she had last seen at Dun Holm. The monks took this as a sign from the Saint and followed her whereupon they came across the gorge which was soon to become the birthplace of the city and where they began to build their new cathedral.
“If you have never been to Durham before, go there at once. Take my car, it’s wonderful.” – Bill Bryson – ‘Notes from a Small Country’
If you read the book it appears that Bill was only in Durham for a couple of hours but it seems that it was enough time for him to declare it one of the finest places in England.
We found our hotel conveniently situated by the banks of the river and just a short walk into the city centre so we checked in and walked out immediately in the direction of the castle at the top of the city.
We lost no time in finding the cathedral, one of the finest Norman buildings in England, it isn’t the biggest, or the tallest or the highest but it occupies a wonderful position and is a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the exterior it isn’t even the best looking but inside it is a jewel of religious architecture. Generally I prefer Catholic cathedrals for the their lavish decoration but although austere in the Anglican style the Cathedral is full of drama with soaring columns, extravagant arches and sun filtered stained glass windows. Architectural features include what is believed to be the world’s first structural pointed arch in the Nave and it houses the Shrine of St Cuthbert and the Tomb of the Venerable Bede.
I would like to show you some pictures but photography is forbidden on the ridiculous basis that this is a house of God. No one can really be sure that God doesn’t like people taking pictures of his house and the Cathedral authorities conveniently overlook this when the take pictures for their web site and (being cynical here) for their postcard collection which is on sale in the Cathedral shop.
After the Cathedral we dodged the rain showers and walked along the heavily wooded river banks until we found somewhere suitable for lunch with a good view over the water and the city.
It was time to go our own ways now for an hour or so, so while Kim found the Market Place and the modern shopping centre I returned to the medieval city to look for more treasures. There was a Magna Carta exhibition but it was oversubscribed so I decided to leave that for a later planned visit to Lincoln (where they have two copies) and the castle was closed because during the summer recess the University lets out the student rooms to paying guests. I sneaked inside but was swiftly invited to leave by an officious porter.
Luckily there was a free exhibition of a thousand years of Durham history and these are the sort of exhibitions that I like best so I took advantage of that before leaving the crooked streets of the old town and making my way back down to the hotel at the bottom of the steep hill.
Kim had been busy and had discovered a promising little restaurant for later. It turned out to be an opulently themed small hotel that had allegedly featured on the TV show ‘Four in a Bed’ but there was no evidence to confirm this although there was a Tripadvisor award proudly displayed in reception. It served an excellent evening meal however and once again I was left impressed with Kim’s uncanny knack of finding a good place to eat.
* The Dun Cow is a common story in English folklore. I grew up in the town of Rugby which had its own Dun Cow, this time a huge beast owned by a giant. Its milk was inexhaustible but one day an old woman who had filled her pail, wanted to fill her sieve as well. This so enraged the cow, that it broke loose and wandered to Dunsmore Heath, where it was slain by Guy of Warwick.
In 1966 I went to Dunsmore School in Rugby in Warwickshire. It isn’t called Dunsmore School anymore it is called Ashlawn School.