Pilgrimage to the ancient twin towers: Tony Kelly is overwhelmed by Durham's castle and its 900-year-old cathedral, not to mention its vegetarian food

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The Independent Travel
I SUPPOSE I cannot be the only person to have drifted through university largely oblivious to my surroundings. The student union, the bar and (occasionally) the library look much the same whichever city you happen to be in. It is only on my return visits to Durham that I have realised just how privileged I was.

If you have never been to Durham, this year is a good time to go. The cathedral is celebrating its 900th anniversary with a seven-month festival of events ranging from a midsummer batwatch to a medieval hunting party, along with plays, concerts, walks and exhibitions. 'The theme is of county and cathedral joining together. Durham people feel the cathedral is very much a part of their county,' says Debbie Conwy, Cathedral 900 co-ordinator for Durham County Council.

The cathedral was built to house the shrine of St Cuthbert, 400 years after his death on Lindisfarne. Groups of monks, fleeing Viking invaders, carried his uncorrupted body around Northumbria for decades before being led by a vision to 'Dun Holm', the hill island. They built their church on the rocky peninsula, where its successor stands today, the finest Norman building in Europe. Cuthbert's bones are still said to lie in a vault behind the altar, though there are rumours among Catholics that they were moved to a secret location during the Reformation. His stole and pectoral cross survived and are housed in the cathedral treasury.

You enter from Palace Green, passing the sanctuary knocker that once provided a lifeline for fugitive murderers. You look down the 200-ft nave, at the rib-vaulting above (an innovation for its time) and the alternating sequence of chequered, spiralled and chevroned pillars stretching towards the choir, all completed in just 40 years. Light pours in through the rose window above the Nine Altars Chapel, creating ever-changing images. Attempts at analysis are futile; just let yourself be overwhelmed. Afterwards you can visit the cloisters, where an exhibition features monastic music and Cuthbert's story in entertaining murals.

For 800 years Durham was the stronghold of the Prince Bishops, who ruled over an area from North Yorkshire to the Scottish border with absolute power, raising armies, levying taxes and exploiting miners in their semi-independent kingdom. Their home was Durham Castle, begun in 1072 and now University College. Students give guided tours of the building, which stands across Palace Green from the cathedral. You can stay here during vacations; there are rooms in the keep and off the main gallery. You must specify if you want one of these or you will end up disappointed in a modern student annexe.

Both castle and cathedral stand on the peninsula, guarded on three sides by a great loop in the River Wear. Walk the mile along the towpath on either side and you will be rewarded with magnificent views of both. The best views are from Prebends' Bridge, built in 1776 and containing, on a stone plaque, Sir Walter Scott's lines that sum up the joint role of the Prince

Bishops:

Grey towers of Durham,

How well I love thy mixed and massive piles,

Half church of God, half castle 'gainst the Scot.

Near here there is a sculpture of the Upper Room, carved out of dead elm trees in 1989 by Colin Wilbourn. Go to Prebends' Bridge in the morning, when the sun turns the 'grey towers' honey-gold and casts their reflection into the water; go again at dusk, and climb the steps behind Old Fulling Mill to watch the sun setting over the houses on South Street across the river. South Street, like nearby Crossgate, contains rows of terraced town houses on a steep hill. Durham is so hilly, and the cathedral so massive, that you see it almost wherever you go.

The Oriental Museum is the only one in Britain and contains an exciting range of eastern artefacts, including a set of contemporary Japanese kites. The other museum of note is the Durham Light Infantry Museum, tracing the history of the former regiment of miners' sons. The 'DLI' has brass band concerts on summer Sundays and is home to the Durham Art Gallery. This autumn the gallery will be showing an exhibition on the cathedral as portrayed by artists down the ages.

Painters, sculptors and photographers have been ringing Debbie Conwy with offers of work, inspired by the cathedral but previously unknown, for display in shop windows. 'The cathedral is acting as a focus, giving people the confidence to discover their talents,' she says. In an area where artists are traditionally diffident, a Morris dance has been choreographed and at least one piece of music written specially for the festival.

Events planned so far include performances of Bach's Magnificat, Verdi's Requiem and Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. In May the jazz pianist Stan Tracey will be playing his Genesis Suite in the cathedral and Macbeth will be performed in the Galilee Chapel, where the Venerable Bede is buried. In September there are mystery plays on Palace Green and in October there is a monastic weekend. In July 900 kayaks will attempt a world record on the Wear. The celebrations, which began last month on St Cuthbert's Day, end on 3 November with a service in the cathedral.

The big event in Durham every year is the Miners' Gala (pronounced gay-la), or 'Big Meeting', held this year on 10 July. Men from pit lodges march behind brass bands and colourful cloth banners; Labour and NUM leaders give speeches; and the day ends with a Miners' Mass in the cathedral, written by an ex-miner. Britain's last great working-class festival takes place against a background of depression: while I was in Durham it was announced that only one Durham pit, Wearmouth, would survive the year. You can celebrate Durham's mining past at Beamish Open-Air Museum, where a full colliery village has been recreated and a 'Black Diamonds' weekend laid on as part of Industrial Heritage Year. But this is a poignant reminder of the plight of Durham's mining communities today. Once there were 150,000 Durham miners. Now there are 4,000 and their only future, it seems, is as quaint period pieces in theme parks.

You can easily devote a day to the peninsula, taking in castle and cathedral and the narrow streets around. Another day could be spent out of town. On Sunday morning I walked to the village of Shincliffe, past the university's Botanical Garden and through forest and farmland, then back along the riverbank to the city. An alternative walk, from Shincliffe, is the Houghall Discovery Trail, a two-and-a-half-mile circular tour taking in nature reserves and industrial archaeology. Four miles north of Durham is Finchale Priory, built in the 12th century. On Sunday afternoon it was crowded with loutish-looking teenagers clambering over the ruins, innocently playing hide-and-seek.

Farther out is much undervalued countryside, such as the Durham Dales around Barnard Castle, and a stretch of Hadrian's Wall near Hexham. But in a long weekend you will probably want to stick to the city. On a warm day you can hire a rowing- boat, or take an hour-long cruise, for yet more views of the peninsula from the water.

One thing I remembered about Durham was its reputation for appalling food; 10 years ago it was hard to get beyond chip butties, or pie and mushy peas. Now it is full of small, individual cafes and restaurants, and a vegetarian's delight. At the Almshouses on Palace Green I had aubergine and tahini pate, a parsley and leek crepe and a brazil nut tart; while at the Three Tuns I was offered avocado and asparagus soup followed by a main course of strawberries, melon and oranges with toasted nuts and breadcrumbs in a yoghurt sauce.

But, reassuringly, little else had changed since my last visit seven years ago. The city centre, at least, has resisted the drive to uniformity that has engulfed so many others. You can still find one-room bars selling local Castle Eden ale and the sweet, strong Old Peculier from Masham, and rows of specialist shops with family names. Every visit to Durham finds me staring wistfully into estate agents' windows. I only wish I'd known how good it was when I lived there for three years.

Getting there: Train from London King's Cross (return from pounds 25, weekend Saver Return, pounds 67) or Edinburgh ( pounds 17, pounds 36).

Accommodation: The best hotels are the Royal County, Old Elvet (091-386 6821) and the Three Tuns, New Elvet (091-386 4326). Both do 'Breakaways' (two nights' accommodation, dinner, B & B plus one lunch) - Royal County pounds 99- pounds 125 per person, Three Tuns pounds 100. Extra nights negotiable. Also two nights weekend B & B - Royal County, pounds 85, Three Tuns, pounds 75. Rates include use of Leisure Club and tickets for local attractions. I stayed at Colebrick B & B on Crossgate (091-384 9585) - pounds 27 single, pounds 40 double, good views from back. The Georgian Townhouse (091-386 8070) B & B from pounds 20) is on the same street. List of B & Bs from Tourist Information Centre (091-384 3720). Durham Castle (091-374 3863) - B & B pounds 16.75 per person, full board available. Specify room in castle. Other colleges offer similar rates. Details from University Marketing Office (091-374 3454).

Where to eat: The two hotels have imaginative menus. Royal County does four-course dinner plus coffee, pounds 18.95. Three Tuns does three-course lunch, pounds 9.50, and three-course dinner plus coffee, pounds 14.75. Both have extensive a la carte menus, including vegetarian meals. Royal County brasserie has meals from pounds 5. Almshouses, Palace Green (091-386 1054), open 9am-8pm in summer, 9am-5pm winter. Mainly vegetarian/ wholefoods. Three courses for around pounds 7. Licensed. Undercroft, Cathedral Cloisters. Open 10am-4.30pm. Main meals, teas, cakes. pounds 2.50- pounds 4.20. Licensed. And Albert, opposite Victoria Hotel, Hallgarth Road (091-384 1919), open Tue-Sat 6.30-9.30pm. Small, attractive. Three courses from pounds 10.50. Shaheens at the Old Post Office, North Bailey (091-386 0960), open daily. Indian cuisine behind original PO facade. Main courses pounds 4- pounds 8. Rafters, Claygarth (091-384 2909), open daily. Three courses in bistro, including Mexican specials, pounds 6.95. Restaurant does 3 courses plus coffee plus wine for pounds 11.95.

Things to see

Durham Castle: Guided tours only. Daily during vacations, Mon/Wed/Sat afternoons during term (check noticeboard daily for tour times); pounds 1.40. Oriental Museum: 1 mile south of centre. Open 9.30am-1pm, 2-5pm Mon-Fri, 2-5pm weekends; pounds 1. Durham Light Infantry Museum: near station. Open 10am-5pm Tue-Sat, 2-5pm Sun, closed Mon. 75p. Botanical Gardens: near Collingwood College. Open 10am-4pm daily. Free. Finchale Priory - 4 miles north of city. Open 10am-6pm summer, 10am-4pm winter. Free. Beamish Open Air Museum (0207 231811) - 12 miles north of city. Open 10am-5pm. Adults pounds 5.99, children pounds 3.99.

Cathedral 900 events:

1 May - Bach Magnificat in Cathedral; 3-7 May - Macbeth in Galilee Chapel; 29 May - Stan Tracey's Genesis Suite, plus Holy Communion with Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts, Cathedral; 12 June - Verdi Requiem, Cathedral; 18 June - Midsummer Batwatch; 10 July - Miners' Gala; 22-24 October - Monastic weekend; 3 November - Closing service, Cathedral. Details of other Cathedral 900 events from Tourist Information Centre or Events Co-ordinator (091- 383 3715).

Exhibitions: Until 3 November - Durham Celebrates 1093-1993, Cathedral Cloisters; until 30 September - Monks and Masons, Museum of Archaeology, Old Fulling Mill; 31 July-3 October - Artists and Images, Durham Light Infantry Museum.

Walks: Town trail leaflets available from Tourist Information Centre, Market Square. Guided walks ('Views of Durham Cathedral') throughout summer - details from Tourist Information Centre.

Boats: Boat hire and cruises, Brown's Boathouse, Elvet Bridge (091-386 9525). pounds 2 per person per hour.

Special interest holidays: The University organises one-week courses in July and August - 'Christian Northumbria', 'The Northumbrian Walking Experience' and 'Land of the Prince Bishops'; 091-374 3454.

Further information: Tourist Information Centre (091-384 3720).

(Photographs omitted)

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