The city of Durham is one of my favourite places. The medieval castle and cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site standing high up on a wooded peninsula above a bend in the River Wear, and the steep, winding streets below form an historic centre the equal of anywhere in Europe. Bill Bryson, in his Notes from a Small Island, famously said ‘if you’ve never been to Durham, go at once. Take my car. It’s wonderful’. I couldn’t agree more, although I’d take the train as the view over the peninsula from the high vantage of the viaduct is one of Britain’s iconic railway vistas. Like Bryson, my own relationship with the city began in the 1990s when I moved there to study, and I ended up living there for nearly six years.
Every now and then I get to go back, and was lucky enough to travel up there last July, in the middle of one of the finest summers we’ve had in years. I was attending a conference in my old department, which just so happened to be on the same weekend as the annual Miners’ Gala too, when the town is filled with people, banners, music and politics (and beer). In between conference sessions (and during one, I’ll be honest) I had time to wander a few parts of the city and reacquaint myself with it a little. And inevitably I took far too many photos.
After watching the marching bands and looking at the banners of the Miners’ Gala I left the throng of people in town centre at the base of Saddler Street and started to walk up towards the castle and cathedral on Palace Green. This was entering the truly ancient part of the city, the legendary foundation of which dates to 995 when monks carrying the body of the seventh-century saint, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, were led to this spot in a story involving a cart which wouldn’t move, saintly visions and a lost cow (you’ll have to look it up).
Keeping on up the hill took me onto Palace Green, the cathedral standing at one end, the castle at the other. The castle was once home to the Prince-Bishops of Durham, in the medieval period one of the most powerful positions in England, and is now one of the university’s colleges. The cathedral is obviously dominant, and it’s position at the end of the peninsula draws all you attention to it. It’s a vast building and now some 925 years old.
Built over several decades from the late eleventh century in the Romanesque style, it’s truly my favourite building. Its sheer scale and antiquity, its position at one end of a large open space and the warm colour of its soft sandstone architecture combine to something utterly irresistible. I’ve never found another cathedral quite like it. Inside (no photos allowed unfortunately but also no entry fee) the long nave and high stone-vaulted roof are framed on either side by vast circular columns, cut with geometric designs, and their height constantly draws the gaze upwards. At the east end, up behind the high altar is the rose window and the St Cuthbert’s tomb, his body allegedly still uncorrupted while the west end houses a tomb to another monk, the Venerable Bede, who wrote a history of the ‘English peoples’ in the 8th century. Seeing those two is always a bit of a pilgrimage.
Attached to the south side of the cathedral building are the cloisters, a square walkway used by the medieval monks off which are rooms including the dormitory, kitchens and chapter house. It would be recognisable to many people as one of the locations used for Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter films. I was still living in Durham when they filmed the first one, and one day I happened to be in the cathedral for a wander, and walking through the cloister I was entirely alone and, owing to a quite stunning lack of security, was able to walk around the whole ‘set’- so I’m very lucky to say I had a good nose around Harry Potter’s classroom (set up in the chapter house).
All around this wooded loop in the River Wear are pathways, on both banks, and walking them I was soon in the quiet of the trees next to the water. This is a part of the city I miss enormously. I loved walking these paths, crossing the river at the Prebends Bridge which takes you up to the Bailey near the cathedral and many of the university’s colleges.
So, although I didn’t get a lot of time to explore as I wasn’t there for a holiday, I was able to re-connect more than I’d expected. It was quite a treat. Durham’s a special place – and special to me in more ways than one, it’s played a big part in my life – and I always love to go back. I’ll look forward to my next visit, whenever that may be.