Tag Archives: Durham

County Durham and Northumberland

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I have always hated caravans.  I remember how horrible they were when I was a boy and we used to have family holidays in a tin box without any modern facilities but now, after a few modern caravan holidays I have become a real enthusiast, a zealot even, rather like someone who has gone through a rapid religious conversion and has become a serious pain in the arse and this time, after banging on about it I persuaded Kim to join me to a holiday park in Whitley Bay in Northumberland.

Northumberland Postcard Map

It was my birthday and we began the weekend by driving north late on a Thursday afternoon and staying at a Premier Inn Hotel in Bishop Auckland.  Premier Inn Hotels are my favourite and at £30 for a room for a night, that, in my book awarded them another couple of gold stars.

After a night out at a pub/restaurant we woke early the next day and drove straight to the town centre for a Wetherspoon breakfast.

The pub is called the Stanley Jefferson to commemorate the fact that Stanley Jefferson once lived in Bishop Auckland and attended the Grammar School there.  Stanley Who I hear you ask?  Well, Stanley Jefferson is better known to everyone as Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame.  There is a statue of him nearby on the site of a theatre that was once owned by his parents, long since gone of course.

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I remember Laurel and Hardy from Saturday Morning Pictures at the Granada Cinema in Rugby where I lived as a boy.  They were my favourites then and they remain my favourites now.  Surely there has never been a finer comedy double act in entertainment history?  In the UK there are a seriously talentless pair of chumps called Ant and Dec who for some reason known only to the morons that vote for them, regularly win comedy duo awards but take my word for it these are dwarfs in the land of comedy giants like Stan and Ollie!

After a brisk walk around the town centre we left Bishop Auckland and County Durham and made our way north to Tyneside.

It was rather overcast when we emerged from the northern exit of the Tyne Tunnel and paid our £1.70 toll and disappointed by this we made our way to the small town/village of Tynemouth.

At Kim’s insistence (to avoid car parking charges) we left the car in a residential area and I worried about being clamped and then walked along the promenade to the ruins of a Priory on a craggy and windswept headland where by all accounts the queens of Edward I (Eleanor of Castile) and Edward II (Isabella (the She Wolf) of France) stayed in the while their husbands were away campaigning in Scotland. King Edward III considered it to be one of the strongest fortresses in the Northern Marches but not much of it remains today following its abandonment during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII.

Tynemouth Priory

It remains in an imposing location however set on a headland separating two magnificent sandy beaches.  To the north, King Edward’s Bay and to the south Longsands, an expanse of fine sand which in 2013 was voted one of the best beaches in the country by users of the world’s largest travel site TripAdvisor.  

They voted the beach the UK’s fourth favourite beaten only by Rhossili Bay in Wales, Woolacombe Beach in North Devon and Porthminster Beach at St Ives, Cornwall. The beach was also voted the twelfth best in Europe.  I am not sure if all the people who voted have ever been to Europe however!

Beyond the Priory and commanding the attention of all shipping on the Tyne is the giant memorial to Lord Cuthbert Collingwood, Nelson’s second-in-command at Trafalgar, who completed the victory after Nelson was killed on board HMS Victory. Collingwood is largely forgotten in the wake of Nelson’s tsunami of hero worship but his column in Tynemouth stands equally as tall and as proud as that of his boss in Trafalgar Square.

Collingwood Monument

Travelling north the next village is Cullercoats where a crescent of caramel sand shaped like a Saracen’s sword was once a fishing village and a hundred years ago home to several impressionist artists but is now a rather run down day trippers magnet for people from the city.

Everywhere I go seems to have a story to tell.  The most interesting fact about the place is its association with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) because following disasters in the mid nineteenth century and loss of life at Cullercoats the Duke of Northumberland financed a competition for a standard design of a lifeboat.  The winner was a larger self-righting boat that had a narrow beam and was much longer with higher end-boxes containing the air-cases tested to self-right when capsized.

The sea was calm today and we sat on the sand outside the lifeboat station but no one was called into action in the hour or so that we spent there.

Further along the coast was Whitley Bay which has a fine beach and a funfair and entertainment centre called Spanish City which featured in the Dire Straits song Tunnel of Love but which is closed now and undergoing extensive renovation. We stopped for a while at St Mary’s Island, just long enough to kill some time until our caravan was ready for us at four o’clock, where there is a redundant lighthouse and rock pools where children fish for crabs with small nets just as I used to fifty years ago give or take a year or so.

We checked in and I have to confess that I was a little disappointed. I had been spoiled a couple of months previously in an especially fine caravan in Great Yarmouth but where that was a gold star van this was only bronze but I am told by my travelling pal Dai that caravan allocation on these sites is always a bit of a lottery!

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Journey to the North – Durham

Durham Postcard

“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.

Vikings

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.

Dun Cow Durham

 “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.

Durham Cathedral Door Knocker

* 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!