There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 24 April 2015

Durham and the Angel of the North

A rare visit, for us, to the north-east was occasioned by a social gathering in Stockton-On-Tees on Saturday. Having never been to Durham we thought a visit would make a pleasant starter to Saturday's main course.

With 80,000 inhabitants Durham is hardly a metropolis, but the old city, sitting on its hill within an incised meander of the River Wear, is tiny. A place of narrow lanes and old houses, it was not built with parking in mind, so we took advantage of Durham's efficient park and ride system.

The bus dropped us off a short walk from the market square, a pleasant flowery corner between the town hall and St Nicholas’ Church. The square was full of people in short sleeves so Lynne felt she needed a pullover and a fleece.
Durham Market Square
The three statues in the square are all of some interest. By far the biggest is the equestrian statue of Charles William Vane Tempest Stewart (did he really need so many names?), the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, a coal owner and the builder of Seaham Harbour. Completed in 1861, the story is told that the sculptor, Raphael Monti thought his work perfect until a blind man noticed that the horse had no tongue, whereupon a distraught Monti committed suicide. The story is more interesting than the somewhat routine statue, but sadly (though not for Monti) it is entirely untrue.

Charles William Van Tempest Stewart (to name but a few)
Durham Market Square
The second statue is a memorial to those who fought and died as members of the Durham Light Infantry. On July 27th 1953 it was a bugler of the Durham Light Infantry who signalled the armistice in the Korean War. (As we well know from our visit to the Fatherland Liberation Museum in Pyongyang, it was an armistice not a peace treaty, the war continues.) The statue depicts that bugler.

Bugler, Durham Light Infantry
Durham Market Square
The third is an eighteenth century statue of Neptune who stands over the outlet to a pipe that brought fresh water to the market square. Demeaning as it might be for the God of the Sea to stand over a mere water pipe, he was intended to promote a plan to turn Durham into an inland port by rerouting the River Wear. A brief glance at the relatively wide but shallow Wear suggests this plan would have been doomed to failure had it not been swiftly abandoned.

Neptune, Durham Market Square
At least the planners knew which river they were dealing with. Roger Whitaker in his 1969 hit clumsily entitled Durham Town (The Leaving) sang (link to Roger singing on YouTube)

When I was a boy, I spent my time,
Sitting on the banks of the River Tyne.
Watching all the ships going down the line, they were leaving,
Leaving, leaving, leaving, leaving me.

As a poet Roger Whitaker may not be in the same league as Rudyard Kipling, but both happily ignore geographical reality when it suits them (see The Road to Mandalay, Kipling's Version).

Sadler Street  runs southeast off the market square. Unsurprisingly saddles were made here, but the end nearest the square, shown in the photograph, was once called Fleshergate and was home to the city's butchers. Knee deep in blood and entrails it could not have been a pleasant place.

Sadler Street, Durham
We walked south down Silver Street, possibly the former site of a mint where Durham coins were struck. The street drops down and turns to the Framwellgate Bridge. Just before the River an alley leads down to the 9 Altars Café, where sizeable baguettes filled with ham and mozzarella and bacon and melted cheddar provided us with a reasonably priced lunch. Café Nero, Costa Coffee and Starbucks are all nearby, but we chose to support an independent local business, and were glad we did.

Silver Street, Durham
From the end of the alley a footpath angles up sharply from the River. Turning through ‘Windy Gap’ we emerged onto Palace Green outside the cathedral. On a sunny day the green was covered with students, sitting in groups chatting or revising - though mainly chatting.

The cathedral (along with the nearby castle a UNESCO world heritage site) is huge. Easily seen from miles away it is far too big to be satisfactorily photographed from the green. The castle belongs to Durham University and is sometimes open, but not when we were there.
Durham Cathedral from Palace Green
(I am not ignoring the castle completely, there is a photo later)
A modern copy of the sanctuary ring adorns the main door of the cathedral. Anyone accused of a crime could seek sanctuary by grasping the ring. This gave them 27 days to prepare their defence or to leave the country by the nearest available exit.

Lynne seeks sanctuary, Durham Cathedral

Although there are some later additions, most of the building was completed between 1093 and 1133. The pillars along the nave - ‘mixed and massive piles,’ according to Sir Walter Scott - are the stoutest we have seen since the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Most are  richly and differently decorated, as are the semi-circular Norman arches above. The ceiling is a fine example of medieval vaulting. As I overheard one of the guides saying, Durham Cathedral is like all of us in the northeast, solidly built to withstand the local climate and full of charm.

The Galilee Chapel is a 12th century extension at the western end of the church containing, among other things, the tomb of the Venerable Bede. You have to admire a man regarded by one and all as 'Venerable'. Among other works he wrote a 'History of the English Church and People,' the first book to use the AD dating system.

Bede died in 735 and was buried in Jarrow Abbey. After visitations from the Vikings his remains were moved to Durham in 1022 and placed in this shrine in 1370. Given that Jarrow Abbey had three hundred years under pressure from the Vikings to misplace his bones, and Durham Cathedral had another three hundred before they built the shrine, it is not unduly cynical to wonder how many, if any, of Bede’s bones are actually in it.

Bede's tomb, Durham Cathedral
Photograph by Robin Widdison, sourced from Wikipedia
The graffiti incised in one of the pillars looks 19th century. The authorities are stricter today and carefully enforce their ban on photography, so I have borrowed a couple of pictures from Wikipedia.

In front of the font a long slab of local Frosterly ‘marble’ - actually a black limestone - forms a line across the floor.  Until the mid-16th century, the line marked the closest women were allowed to the altar.

From here we entered the cloister, passing a woman sporting a clerical collar. According to Samuel Johnson a woman preaching, like a dog walking on its hind legs is remarkable, not for doing it well, but for doing it at all. We should not judge the ever-quotable doctor too harshly, he was a man of his time, and at least it was a time when women were tolerated at the front of the church. Women priests are now a commonplace, and although all 80 Bishops of Durham from Aldhun in 995 to Paul Butler today have been men, it cannot be long before Durham has its first women bishop. At the end of the cloister is a café with another magnificently vaulted ceiling. In the café is a Lego model of the cathedral. Now there, Dr J, is something to marvel at, not because it was made well (though, to be fair, it is) but because it was made at all.

Durham Cathedral from the cloister

Back in the nave we saw Father Smith's Great Organ Case (make your own joke), a splendid 17th century clock and the Miner’s Memorial, placed here in 1947. The Book of Remembrance was open at the Easington Colliery disaster in 1951 when 83 miners were killed by underground explosions. County Durham is now green and pleasant, but for centuries coal mining scarred the landscape. Once the county’s major industry, the last pit closed in 1994.

There are many more tombs and statues, some of the older ones damaged in the Civil War or the Reformation.

The original Quire Stalls were replaced in 1660.  The brochure calls the replacements 'finely carved'', I might call them 'fussy'. I am also not a fan of the 18th century 'Rose Window' on the east wall. Fine in itself, it does not seem at ease with its surroundings. The 1986 UNESCO citation describes Durham Cathedral as ‘… the largest and most perfect monument of 'Norman' style architecture in England’. And so it is; later work, though sometimes necessary, never quite grasps the medieval vision.

Durham cathedral nave and rose window
Photograph Oliver Bonjoch, sourced from Wikipedia 
Behind the altar is the Shrine of St Cuthbert. The greatest saint of northern England, Cuthbert was a monk who became bishop of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. After his death in 687 Viking incursions ensured his relics led a peripatetic existence. In 995 monks carrying his remains were following two milkmaids searching for a dun cow. When they reached a peninsula in a loop of the River Wear the coffin became immoveable. Recognising a sign, they stopped and built a shrine which in time became a cathedral and the surrounding area became the city of Durham. Cynics might point out that high ground almost completely surrounded by water is a strong defensive position, and this may have influenced the choice of location. A site of pilgrimage throughout the middle ages, the shrine was destroyed during the Reformation, but restored in 1542. It remains a place of pilgrimage, quiet reflection and prayer.

Shrine of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral
Photograph JBA Hamilton, sourced from Wikipedia
Behind St Cuthbert is the Chapel of the 9 Altars, which may be only of specialist interest but explains the name of the café where we had lunch.

Outside the cathedral we walked through the old streets and down to the river at the end of the peninsula. Many of the buildings are owned by Durham University and the large number of young people among the old buildings gives them life and stops the place becoming a museum.
Walking down to the river, Durham

At the end of the road we crossed the Wear and walked beside the river on the sort of country path that should not exist in a city. The path gives the best views of the imposing bulk of the cathedral, which probably looks better without the spire digitally added between the towers when the cathedral posed as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Us, the River Wear and Durham Cathedral

Returning to tarmac, the Framwellgate Bridge gives the best view the castle.
Lynne on Framwellgate Bridge with Durham Castle behind
A bus carried us out to our car, and we drove back into the city to the Travelodge. Later a walk down Gilesgate and Claypath showed that even outside the old centre Durham is a city of charm and antiquity. I particularly liked the terraced town houses in Gilesgate, each painted in a different pastel colour. The effect maybe spoiled by the parked cars outside, but the residents have to put their cars somewhere and garages were not in the builders' minds two hundred years ago.

Gilesgate, Durham
 Stepping into the Bistro Italiano on Claypath transported us from northeast England to a surprisingly successful facsimile of generic Italy. The Bistro had been recommended to us by friends Brian and Hilary and I happily pass the recommendation on. We ate well at a reasonable price.

The following morning, with a little spare time we made the fifteen minute drive to see the Angel of the North beside the A1 on the outskirts of Gateshead.

The Angel of the North
Controversial during planning and building – it was completed in 1998 at the cost of £1 million - the 20m tall Angel is now a source of local pride. When asked 'why an Angel?' sculptor Anthony Gormley said 'because nobody has seen one and we have to keep imagining them,' which sounds good to me. Weighing 200t and with a 35m wing span he stands in a exposed location where winds of 160kph are not unknown and is anchored to the rock 20m below by 600t of concrete. Traditionally in County Durham much of what is important is beneath the earth.

Lynne sits at the feet of the Angel of the North
The car park is a little behind the Angel and, not for the first time, I found viewing a sculpture from this angle to be instructive. From the front he is stylised, from behind the contours of the Angel’s body are strangely lifelike.
The Angel of the North
On so on to Stockton and a convivial lunch, afternoon and evening, thank you Richard & Jacqui

1 comment:

  1. I am an expat Geordie living in Canada. I visited all those places in Durham 18 months ago, especially the cathedral, and the Angel of the North. Your photos bring back great memories, thanks.