DURHAM: BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
Durham City is a truly spectacular place.
To the people of north-east England, that may seem like a fairly fatuous thing to say, akin to asserting to the people who live in its shadow that the Taj Mahal is stunningly beautiful. It goes without saying. We all know how spectacular Durham is and we don’t need a reminder.
But I think we do.
It is the way of things that people who live cheek-by-jowl with great monuments tend to get so used to them that they don’t give them a second look; most of the time, Londoners are not to be found gazing with wonderment at St Paul’s Cathedral, Parisians hardly see the Eiffel Tower, even out of the corners of their eyes, and Sydneysiders, I imagine, cast only the occasional glance at the Harbour Bridge or the Opera House.
In this perfectly understandable way, some of the world’s greatest works of architecture are taken for granted by the folks who are lucky enough to live near them. And I’ve often thought that we are the same with Durham City.
I’m as guilty as anyone else. Perhaps moreso, as it has always been a matter of family ‘honour’ to accord Durham a special place in our affections. A love of the city - and an intimate knowledge of its buildings, its history and its folklore - have been passed down from generation to generation. When it was my turn to inherit this love, I absorbed it almost from the air around me, so intense was my family’s affection for ‘the City’. I’ve been thoroughly besotted with it almost since I could talk.
Lately, though, I’ve got to feeling that I haven’t been paying Durham the respect it deserves. In short, I’ve been doing what I so often resent and regret other people for doing - I’ve taken it for granted. Having grown up loving it - having been lucky enough to go to school there - I’ve started to feel guilty that I’ve neglected the real love of my life.
So a few days ago, I devoted the whole day to it. I caught an early train from Newcastle and, within minutes, that astonishing view laid itself out before me - the finest view on Britain’s railways.
I walked slowly down from the station through the lush growth of trees on Station Bank - hawthorns heavy with flowers, ash and rowan beginning to blossom too, and huge sturdy old beech and birch trees reaching above all of them for the sunlight and air. And, all the way down, I kept pausing to look across at that stupendous vista which we’ve all seen so many times before but which we really ought never to tire of.
For me, Durham City’s magic has always lain in its ability to be both overpoweringly majestic and almost other-worldly whilst, at the same time, managing the intimate, everyday friendliness of a regular English market town. I have been lucky enough to visit every cathedral in England and none of them - or the cities that contain them - manage to be as unselfconscious about their beauty as Durham does.
I think that this may be because Durham’s feet are firmly on the ground; its roots are deep within the local coal-seams, railways and shipyards. So the people who prize and admire Durham most as their local iconic city have been from environments where, until very recently, life was ‘poor, hard, brutish and short’ and who therefore have a greater capacity to appreciate the beautiful things in their midst.
As I happily re-acquainted myself with its streets, lanes and vennels, I realised how much ‘my’ city had changed while I wasn’t looking. Walkergate (a name stolen from the vennel that used to twist down from the Market Place to the river) is awful. The Gala Theatre and City Library hardly redeem a space of unspeakably dreary modern architecture which succeeds in being neither a foil nor a compliment to its surroundings.
It reminded of the uproar that followed the opening of the National Savings Bank directly opposite it - the planners and architects of which have never been brought to justice. They ought to have been taken out and shot.
It seems that Durham City Council never learns its lessons. Every development in the city over the last 30 years or so has been catastrophically philistine. You don’t need to spend much time in the ‘Prince Bishop’s Shopping Centre’ (full of those cursed, ‘identikit’ shops that besmirch every High Street in England) or ‘The Gate’ (cheap discount tat and empty shops) to see the truth of the matter.
Try as they have, however, the Council has not succeeded in spoiling Durham City. When I was there a few days ago, a busy Continental Market was pitched in the Market Place; German sausages, French crepes and breads, Italian sweets, Spanish paella. I loved it, despite the regrettable gaze of the hateful Marquess of Londonderry, the removal of whose statue is, I now acknowledge, a lost cause.
If I had the energy - or thought it might be a battle I could win - I would campaign now for a second statue in the Market Place. A miner should stand there looking across the square at the Marquess, reminding him forever of the many pitmen he murdered.
Many of the changes in Durham are to be welcomed, of course. I love the virtually complete pedestrianisation of the central area; when I was young, double-decker buses trundled across Framwellgate Bridge, up Silver Street and Saddler Street and over Elvet Bridge, all controlled from the Market Place police box.
As I sat there, I tried to remember how it used to be. And - being that sort of person - all I could remember were the liveries and names of the buses I used to see there as a child.
Let me see now….red and cream for United buses, green for the DDS (Durham District Services), deep blue and white for the SDO (Sunderland District Omnibus), grey for the Diamond buses (which used to run to Sacriston, I think), beige for the Gypsy Queen (to Langley Park), blue and white for the TMS (Trimdon Motor Services (Tarzan’s Meat Sandwiches or Trimdon Muck Shifters, depending on your point of view and your age)), brown for the G&B (Gillett Brothers - buses from Coxhoe and Quarrington Hill)….
I’m sure you can imagine the many, many childhood memories all that brought back!
The real heavyweight nostalgia, however, was reserved for Durham Cathedral - the only building in the whole world which is, I think, impossible not to love. Its siting is incomparable; the river’s ravine, thick with mature woodland, hemming it in on three sides with the castle guarding it on the fourth.
Up close and personal, its majesty on Palace Green is mixed, subtly and subconsciously, with a sense of rest and calm to those pilgrims, like me, who have wandered so far uphill to say Hello to it. It feels very much as if the peninsula over which it presides was designed specifically for the Cathedral, rather than the other way round.
And its air of reassuring permanence is a deeply-felt invitation to its visitors to lay down their cares and worries, however temporarily, and to find tranquillity and peace in a profoundly unhappy world. Thus has the Sanctuary Knocker changed its significance.
To be inside Durham Cathedral is, for me, the most uplifting and liberating experience I am ever likely to have. That a single building can, at one and the same time, dominate and overawe with its power and yet feel so comfortable, intimate and ‘human’, has astonished me for decades. It is surely the most appropriate conceivable resting place for our two, very deeply human, local saints - Cuthbert and Bede. Their care for, and love of, the people around them, and for the animals and birds that lived alongside them, were genuinely ‘saintly’ - and centuries ahead of their time.
Even cathedrals must try to keep in step with the times. At Durham, three new stained-glass windows have been installed in recent years - you can get an admittedly rather poor idea of what they look like from these pictures.
The ‘Daily Bread’ window is a view of the last supper from above.
The Millennium Window represents the historic trades and industries of the county.
And the Transfiguration Window - installed only last year - is the most powerful of its type that I’ve ever seen.
So my visit to Durham City ended not in movement but in stillness and silence - which is, I think, no more and no less than my ancestors would have expected. There, in the great open space of the nave, I realised that the personal significance of this place - that its symbolism and memories for myself, my family and the people I grew up with - was simply too much to cope with...
Sometimes, though, it’s good not to cope, isn’t it?
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