There was simply nothing here to spoil the picture book mood and character and in the pretty triangular market place at the heart of the town the fasnacht festival bunting hung high above the cobbled street and old town well, the merchant’s houses and the town hall with its striking Teutonic wall paintings. After walking around the town we found a little place at the side of the river Schiltach and stopped for refreshment in the immaculate café that was serving fresh cakes and treats.
Tag Archives: County Durham
Land of the Prince Bishops…
Bishop Auckland in the northern County of Durham has always sounded to me like a place I should visit because a place with two names always sounds intriguing to me like Kings Lynn, Saffron Waldron and Westwood Ho!
Westwood Ho! incidentally has the distinction of being the only place name in England with an exclamation mark and this would be very impressive indeed were it not eclipsed by a parish community in Quebec, Canada called Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! which has two!!
But I have never been and that is all the more surprising because this is Kim’s home town.
Kim of course has fond child hood memories of the place, now half a century away and like most of us she laments the passage of time and the erasure of childhood memories; from her description of modern day Bishop Auckland I was certain that I was going to be disappointed.
Kim, centre row, third from left (1963). No designer clothes or replica football shirts, hand knitted cardigans and home haircuts – those were the days!
We began at Witton Castle, a crenulated fifteenth century manor house which became the centre of a mining estate three hundred years later but by the 1960s had fallen into derelict disrepair where Kim would play amongst fallen statuary and in haunted rooms but more recently has been purchased, repaired and transformed into a holiday park and a restaurant which Kim doesn’t approve of at all.
All the way around she kept telling me how it used to look and I was reminded of the assessment of Henry Miller about the reconstruction of the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete – “There has been much controversy about the aesthetics of Sir Arthur Evans’s work of restoration. I find myself unable to come to any conclusion about it; I accepted it as a fact. However Knossos may have looked in the past, however it may look in the future, this one which Evans has created is the only one I shall ever know. I am grateful to him for what he did…”
There is no real castle at Witton Park anymore, but there is history and I could smell that in the breeze that brushed past my face as we walked around the adjacent gardens.
Next we went to the village of Escomb, once a pit village where Kim grew up and spent her early childhood. Her memories have been bulldozed away now in frenzied 1960s slum clearance housing improvement projects and the dismantling of the pit and anything associated with it but the main reason to visit Escomb is to see the seventh century Saxon Church, quite possibly the oldest and the finest example of its kind in the country although this claim is contested by Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, Barton in Northamptonshire and Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex.
I liked this place and even though the heart of the village had been brutally ripped out fifty years ago there was a genuine sense of community, after looking around the interior of the church on the way out we chanced upon a local resident who was coming to polish the pews or arrange the flowers or whatever and after only a short introduction Kim and this lady where exchanging memories and comparing a list of local acquaintances.
I have seen this happen before, in 2008 in Pula in Croatia in a chance breakfast encounter in a hotel Kim recognised the local Durham accent of a fellow traveller and within two minutes had established that they came not just from the same county or the same town but from the same village, knew the same people and used to go to the same school – it is sometimes a very small world!
As we drove away back towards Bishop Auckland through woodland and pasture it was hard to imagine that this was once a huge industrialised area with both open cast and deep shaft mining but also a massive ironworks with a mill, which was one mile long and half a mile wide all of which has been demolished with little trace.
And so we finished in the town of Bishop Auckland where Kim had painted a grim picture of decline and deprivation but I found a pleasant county town with an open market place and an especially fine Wetherspoon pub before moving on to the jewel in the Crown – Auckland Castle, the home of the Prince Bishop’s of Durham.
It turns out that until 2010 this was the official residence of the Bishop of Durham but strapped for cash the church decided to sell both the building and the collection of unique paintings inside until a local businessman stepped in and bought them both and now has grand plans to finance a proper restoration and make this place a major tourist attraction. I am not so sure about that and was pleased to see it today before the swarms of visitors arrive and even Kim was forced to grudgingly concede that this intervention represents progress.
I liked Bishop Auckland and as I left I was determined to return again quite soon.
Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by a visit somewhere?
“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 and these days the Scots just go straight to Westminster as elected Members of Parliament to bully the English.
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. That is a bit hypocritical don’t you think?
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!