Durham and on into the far North

This morning I decided to set off straight after breakfast instead of heading back into York city centre for a visit to Clifford’s Tower and, as the driver, I get to make such decisions unilaterally. The location of England’s worst pogrom in 1190, this site has a significant place in our history. No-one can deny the horror of the events which caused 150 Jewish townspeople to die at the hands of an enraged mob but it was over eight hundred years ago. As I’ve travelled the world I have heard people from other countries claim that the British deny any history of anti-Semitism: well, it’s in Chaucer, it’s in Shakespeare and from my childhood I have known all about it. I believe that there is a proper Jewish history walk in York and to do it justice it is probably best left for an occasion when I have more time.

So our next destination was Durham and Zoltan’s map reading got us there in excellent time and without mishap. Without mishap, that is, until he disappeared at the top of Castle Hill to get some more photographs. Realising that the castle was part of the university and only accessible by guided tour I bought two tickets only to discover that this tour set off in minus one minute’s time. As the rest of the group disappeared though the gateway I searched frantically for somewhere to tie Molly and tried call the wayward Hungarian on my mobile phone. Somehow he did manage to catch us up in the courtyard and we began what was to be a fascinating tour.

For hundreds of year the castle has been more of a palace than a fortification as befitted the official residence of the Bishop of Durham, who in the early middle ages held power and wealth almost equalling that of the King. We were treated to a view of the kitchens whose great, eight hundred year old hearths are now lined with stainless steel. Then it was through to the great hall where the settings for a formal dinner were in preparation and on past the “flying” staircase into the Tunstall Chapel where Zoltan set off one of the “thunderclap” misericords. These particular choir stall rests were designed to catch out anyone who dozed off during the service by collapsing with a hideous clatter as soon as someone put their full weight onto one of them. Well, at least he helped by giving a demonstration even if it did make the rest of us jump out of our skins.

There is some absolutely stunning Romanesque architecture hidden within the building, some of it believed to be as early as the eleventh century and in a wonderful state of preservation due to its concealment under layers of plaster from later building work. It echoes the starkly primitive style of the earlier parts of the cathedral and for this reason the whole site has been granted World Heritage status. I’ve never ventured into Durham castle before but was extremely grateful that I took the opportunity to do so particularly as it turned out that so little of the cathedral was on show this Summer.

As we left the castle I discovered that my dog was not where I had left her but she quickly emerged from a nearby office with several admirers who had apparently taken pity on her. On the other side of the Green the cathedral volunteers were waiting to ask whether I had found my “nephew” and were keen to suggest that Molly be safely tethered in the cloisters while the service took place. I don’t know where Zoltan had gone to by this stage but I found my way to the undercroft which has been fitted out with an absolutely immense shopping and dining extravaganza since my last visit. “Good heavens” I said “this is even bigger than the shop at Canterbury, you must really need the money”. And they do: Durham cathedral may tower above the bend in a river to be regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in England but it is built on a sandstone escarpment and its foundations are far from secure.

The whole building is now festooned with scaffolding, digging machinery, hazardous material warnings and men in hard hats. Neither the library nor the treasury can be visited for the next couple of years and I met an elderly chaplain who complained mildly that he felt like a stranger in his own home with so much noise and confusion going on around him. Great as the characters from Durham’s early history are I’m afraid it is getting late and so they must wait until my next post from Holy Island, one of England’s most northerly outposts.


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