Darn that Bill Bryson – it seems the secret is out about Durham being the most awesome place in England. I am using the word “awesome” in its original sense like when one finds oneself speechless, jaw dropped, in a state of awe.
Although American, Bryson is every Brit’s favorite travel writer and they take his advice seriously when he suggests they take notice of something incredibly fine in their very midst that no one is talking about (Notes from a Small Island.) The place was overrun with vacationing Brits! What’s more the 11th century castle where I was staying was overrun with wedding parties both days and both nights!
As a solo traveler in a castle packed with guests, I was, as usual, offered the Harry Potter death trap room reached by climbing 105 stone steps where the walls were so thick there wasn’t a shred of wifi or 3G signal. I politely declined the room and packed my stuff to transfer to a room in another part of the castle that was very similar but at least had a view of the magnificent thousand year old cathedral and only 52 stone steps.
Alas, I had just unpacked when a red-headed lad knocked on my door and in a broad Yorkshire accent asked if I would mind moving to the “potter’s lodge” since this room had been promised on the following night and I was staying two nights.
With ominous visions of packing up my gear just to find myself in a potting shed, I wearily asked if I could see the room first. The young man guided me through a gaggle of wedding guests in the courtyard (I dressed in a kaftan and flip flops) eventually leading me, not to the potters lodge, but the porter’s lodge at the impressive castle gate. We climbed a mere 30 winding steps and I found myself in the coolest place I could imagine spending a night in Northern England. I was in a big tower with three huge gothic windows. See photo above.
My views included:
(1). The huge, extremely photogenic castle courtyard featuring the exquisite entry of the magnificent great hall,
(2) a view of the keep and the 300 stone steps leading to it (where, presumably, the University of Durham dons live in splendor),
And a view of the cathedral.
I spent the first night just dreamily looking out at the illuminated views from my exquisite tower vantage point. Every now and then I would feel compelled to pull away from a window when I saw someone pointing a camera at me. My porter’s lodge was part of the photogenic castle entry.
The next morning, I discovered that I couldn’t go on the official castle tour which is always canceled during weddings, but in a way, I’d already had one what with my three moves and breakfast in the great hall.
Still I was free to wander about through the public rooms and lovely old chapel. The porter on duty at the lodge told me about a much older Norman chapel (1080 AD) in the castle. When he saw my excitement, he gave me the key so I could run have a peek. What I saw made me feel I had stepped onto the set of The Lion in Winter.
I did get to go on official tour of Durham Cathedral (pronounced by the well traveled Bill Bryson to be “the finest cathedral on planet earth”.) Built in the 10th century, the cathedral was intended to be the final resting place of the bones of St. Cuthbert but was also an important part of William the Conquerer’s “shock and awe” campaign against the northern Saxons, something a little more positive than burning all their villages and poisoning their fields. This was the “awe” part of shock and awe.
This colossal structure had the first stone vaulted rib ceiling ever built anywhere. It was an absolute miracle of architectural engineering then as it is now and there is nothing under that roof to spoil the effect. Our tour guide was a marvelous story teller. He showed us the hidden bricked in window above the sanctuary knocker where two Benedictine monks from the attached monastery would watch for accused criminals on the lam and let them in where they were guaranteed 37 days of safety and care after which they could either face trial or be escorted to the dock and placed on the very next ship headed for a foreign port. Our guide said that the records show that out of hundreds of prisoners, not one opted for trial, so harsh were the penalties for the pettiest of crimes (e.g. losing a head or hand.)
I particularly liked the tales of shenanigans and intrigue that went on over the relics having to do with St. Cuthbert and St. Bede and even the head of a local military hero later known as St. Oswald. Apparently you could kill people and still become a saint; his skull can be found alongside St. Cuthbert’s in the very same coffin. Almost all depictions of St. Cuthbert show him tenderly holding a severed head. While these matters might seem like high comedy to modern day cynics, they were nothing to laugh at in the Age of Faith.
Two items of interest to Americans:
(1) There is a plaque and coat of arms on a wall in the cloister wing of the cathedral that once housed the Benedictine monks. It commemorates the generous support of generations of Washingtons. Six generations later, this same family produced America’s first and greatest hero.
(2) As one exits the great hall of Durham castle, there is another plaque honoring an anonymous “American citizen” who between 1930 and 1939 financed the renovation of the castle foundation which saved the castle from imminent and complete destruction.