It's bright and sunny today in Durham, the North East's most scenic cathedral city. Unfortunately I went yesterday. It rained almost non-stop, heaviest in the morning, with the dank clouds parting only as I boarded the train home. Still, never mind.
Take my advice and never book a day trip to Durham at the start of October. It's Freshers Week, which means students everywhere, and they tend to take over a bit. Durham Castle doubles as student digs, so for one week only there are no tours for 'student acclimatisation' purposes. And on the Wednesday they pack out Durham Cathedral for Matriculation, five times over, so don't think you're getting any further than the font at the back of the building. Damn, that was the city's two biggesthitters off the list... and did I mention the rain?
This is the week the university's 18 year olds are finding their feet, making tentative long-term friendships, and thinking about maybe growing a beard. For Matriculation they were also swishing around in gowns, or M&S suits if their college is less traditional, as they processed through the city centre to their first age-old academic ceremony. I had to step aside as a horn-blowing official led a bedraggled crocodile up Saddler Street, somewhat embarrassedly, with those at the rear sheltering from the downpour as best they could beneath the college banner. Elsewhere various young reps were out trying to persuade fresh meat to join their societies and associations, the most impressive of which was the Ski and Snowboard Club who'd dumped a snowdrift in Market Square. For all of us who've ever experienced the wide-eyed optimism of Freshers Week, walking into the middle of one takes you right back.
I wasn't expecting to be writing about students when I pre-booked my rail ticket. I thought I'd be telling you about Durham's oh-so picturesque location on a deep meander on the Wear. The river bends right back on itself, creating a historic tongue of elevated land on which the World Heritage Site is set. Narrow cobbled streets fork south, lined by shops, then ecclesiastical squares and university accommodation. So tortuous is the root-like road network that Durham beat London to introducing a congestion charge by a few months. Meanwhile a main road crosses the neck of the peninsula, where the council have managed to squeeze in a shopping mall and millennialentertainment zone without upsetting UNESCO too much.
The turbulent swirl of the Wear is best seen from a bridge. There are several of these around the loop, most merely footbridges and all the better for it. Elvet Bridge inclines relatively steeply, and feels like a historic hiatus, while Framwellgate Bridge links the shops on either bank and has a fine view of the weir (on the Wear) below. Most of the slopes around the curve remain undeveloped, so the low level footpaths along the banks are somewhat off the beaten track, ideal for jogging but a bit puddly after heavy rain.
Another reason not to visit midweek in October is that the Durham Museum and Heritage Centre is closed. The building's not huge but, in the absence of the cathedral and the castle, it might have helped fill my eight hour itinerary. Crook Hall Gardens were open, but I didn't fancy spending a fiver to see some damp autumnal flowerbeds, The Antarctica exhibition at Palace Green Library doesn't open until next week, a Light Infantry collection rarely floats my boat, and I never made it as far down as the acclaimed Oriental Museum. On a decent day I'd have climbed up to the lofty earthwork of Maiden Castle and enjoyed the panorama, maybe walked a little further, but Wednesday wasn't the best day for independent exploration.
So I gave up on Durham early, sorry, with a pledge to try again some day in better weather. Instead I took a bus and headed elsewhere, because when you're only rarely in Country Durham hell why not. I'll definitely come back to 'do' Durham properly... but not in early October. [10 photos]