Elspeth’s Naughty Guide to Durham

Durham Newc BW3

My first self developed photo.

“Grey towers of Durham, how I love thy mixed and massive piles”

Does anyone else think of an intimate bodily dysfunction here? Would it be too rude and childish to say “bum grapes” this early on – though I have called this a naughty guide!

And, Sir Walter, it is not “Half a church of God, half castle ‘gainst Scot”.

But Scott was of the establishment, and this pair of actually quite brown if you look properly piles are definitely of the establishment.

Durham full length

Yes this handy Cuthbert statue’s covering something…

I have just finished reading Durham Cathedral: Light of the North. Its subtitle is hardly appropriate, given the contents and my and others’ experience of the titular church. This official cathedral publication is a catalogue of abused privilege as women-free as the cathedral was for much of its life: women are behind a marble line, a footnote, and in reference to their bishop/prince husbands. I recall only three being mentioned, despite the story of Durham actually going back to Saxon times. And despite the Celtic church being one where women were equal – in the same region, there is a famous abbess of a co-educational monastery.

Yet I’d like to squash right now the idea that Cuthbert, the ‘saint’ who gave us and has often saved today’s city, was a misogynist. And I’d like to do it by recounting a legend about three females, one especially. But you’ll have to wait for that.

Let’s get back to the piles, and the half church. I think this was built with less than half an intent as a house of God. It was not so much castle ‘gainst Scot as castle against your own.

This was the symbol of “you have new leadership”. The Normans, like the Romans (their structures are well alternatively called Romanesque), were building edifices that literally, as per the too oft used phrase, dominated the city. Why the Scots and Northumbrians didn’t bond over this, I couldn’t tell.

Durham was not, as the book says, the biggest Norman church. I know the lengths of the cathedral and abbeys in Britain and there were and are some much longer than Durham. They are all in the south/east (save Glastonbury, which is a bit later). But I can assert that at the time, Durham cathedral was by far the biggest building that North Britain had seen and remained one of that area’s largest churches by far. (I have thrice read that Durham’s 469ft in length, about the same as St Andrew’s, and compares to present York minster’s c520ft. Yes, I’m imperial; times by 0.3048 if you want to know the lengths in metres). And all Norman churches were huge by Saxon standards.

Was the Norman’s God one who was simultaneously worshipped as they conquered, and felt that quite congruent with faith? It’s been a regular tenet in history. But I see Durham’s mother church as little about the glory of God and more about the glory of the Scandinavian descended French invaders, and little mothering, from God or otherwise.

For centuries – I cannot work out when exactly it ceased – a marble line prevented women from entering barely past the door to the nave. Even queens were not allowed; King Edward III’s wife Philippa, it’s said, was asked to move in the night to be further away. From what or whom? Cuthbert, of course. His followers brought his body here – he  was bishop at Lindisfarne, but they needed a new safe home from the previous invaders. Durham cathedral is jointly dedicated to him. And he has been the trump card of the people, being more miraculous in death than in life. He was the source of income from myriad pilgrims.

When it was realised that other saints were inclusive and their shrines were doing better, Durham thought how to get women pilgrims in without compromising their men-only rule. They attempted the now fashionable Lady Chapel in the usual position at the east end, but said Cuthbert didn’t want even the Queen of Heaven near his high altar resting place. The Light of North book says it was really foundation related. Bollocks. They wanted women kept behind the marble line, and they wanted their pink (girls not gay) pounds. So they built the Lady Chapel on the west front, by the women’s area. Now they could get the consolation of the Blessed Virgin, cough up for indulgences and pilgrim badges, and yet still be kept at bay (literally). Although I believe in miracles I think this one was entirely invented for an obvious purpose: whilst obviously on the right side of the black line, a blind lady had a vision of Cuthbert restoring hers.

Why didn’t they do what Newcastle did  with their marble line: dig up and move it?

Why didn’t a woman have a vision (made up if necessary) that Cuthbert – or better still Jesus – had appeared to her and told that the banishment of women was wrong?!

Durham is often called a massive, powerful masculine church. But I see its famous tall round pillars (piers) with their four types of incised patterns (sacred geometry?) as maternal, soft, strong and very very long. Yes that was a tagline from a toilet roll advert, but I am not being facetious. Stone might be solid and hard and even cold, but these piers look huggable. And it endures, it is constant. They hold up shelter, you can escape wind in their lee and sun in their shade. Curvature is an essentially feminine quality.

I love that God, especially in her female form, was not invited much into the making of this church, but She snuck in anyway.

And I take great pleasure in stepping over that marble, as even my favourite queens could not.


Durham Newc BW2

I was a friend of Durham Cathedral. They were not a friend to me. I am still angry, a decade on. They were rude, stuffy, uncaring, telling me when I asked to join that “Sunday is a bad day, we’re terribly busy. Are you sure you want to join us?” They are the only church – I’ve been to many, including other cathedrals – who have cheese and wine instead of tea and coffee as post service refreshments. Older alumni wear college scarves and enquire in incredulous plummy accents which institution you have possibly got your degrees from if not themselves, Oxbridge, or Caledonia’s equivalent.

The bit that also really winds me up is the long term interior photography ban. It’s been there for 20 years at least. Ten years ago, you had to pay £20 for a permit – that’s for amateurs too. Now there’s twice yearly photo nights at £10 a go. It’s hard to photograph a cathedral without professional equipment – the better your camera, the harder it is: big space, intense light and shade. And we don’t own the photos to put in posts like this! To make up for the ban – which is enforced – there are extra postcards available to buy. Doesn’t that smack of the medieval tricks of indulgence buying and oddly placed lady chapels? Oh and it’s free to enter, but would you like to give £5? And you? Really, would you not like to donate? And if you want a leaflet, it’s £1. It’s several thousand pounds a day to run this place.

Well, pay your senior staff less then, have less golden capes and flash new visitor centres.

Look online, and I’m not the only one who’s found snotty staff. The many positive reviews are for the building, though it can feel forbidding – people related as much as architecturally.

It’s why Durham’s not my favourite and it’s enough to wonder, even having had a prolonged cathedrals/Normans/Celtic phase, if I want to go again.

Castles2 - Durham

Then there’s the castle – the home of a bishop come civic and military ruler with prince like powers – hence the jurisdiction of Durham was known as the Palatinate. This was a stronghold and palace, used for showing off, entertaining (I mistyped and got exterminating – that too, including Cromwell’s Scots prisoners who were held in the cathedral and starved to death). The fat edifices of the Normans take up most of the little peninsula that’s Durham City. So most of the citizens had to live outside the walls, taxable and protectionless, and doubly controlled.

Durham from cathedral tower

The bishops were mostly drawn by the fact that due to its significance in trying to quell the north (that’s you too, Scotland), Durham was a high status, well paid, high powered bishopric. (Note the last syllable). Many bishops barely lived here – a few didn’t even visit. They did little, they had often little aptitude or calling for the role. They had huge salaries, in proportion to other vicars and local workers, and to other bishops. This was the case at least till living memory. (During the miner’s strikes, the bishop was paid – I scrubbed out earned – 700 times what miners got).

Durham had a long relationship with Oxford university, even though it and Cambridge stopped earlier attempts at Durham getting a uni. It seems Durham was finally allowed one to prevent Newcastle getting in first. It was of course, a C of E establishment.

So when at last reform came to the overpuffed and stuffed Chapter, who were more about filling prestigious “stalls” in the choir (ie where you could stand in services if you had a special job), the institution created that killed off the Prince Bishops just started another exclusive hierarchy to look down on citizens and visitors.

If you receive a castle tour, a posh lad takes you round his founding college with lots of in private school/man’s club sorts of jokes. We’re fined £20 if our phone goes off during Latin grace, he quips. We have competitions for who can say it.

Do you care what it means? It’s more for show, and tradition for tradition’s sake it seems, than any thankfulness.

The corridors and entrances of Pudsey, a 12th century bishop, now lead to state rooms of the senate, embellished by those overblown dining club primates inbetween.

I first saw Durham as a student elsewhere, and I didn’t know where to belong – neither town nor gown. I can see why there was such strong anti feeling during labour related struggles.

DurhamMy friend was interviewed for Durham in the late 1960s. “What class are you from?” the panel enquired of her. “A class of my own” she brilliantly replied. One feels that this question is still one posed, even indirectly, by staff and student alike.

As for the rest of Durham – there isn’t much. Take away the Norman monoliths, and you’ve a dun-coloured average market town with far too much space taken up by the university, and with below average facilities – only one theatre-cum cinema, and little other nightlife and not great shops.

This is considered a superlative Norman city by some – but that’s because it’s a small hilly place, surrounded by hills and viaduct, topped with two fat buildings. As I say in my Norman Britain piece – it’s not so Norman; no Romanesque towers, apse, and little of the castle externally. Even the boasted of bridges are mostly if not entirely rebuilt later.

The Light of the North book tries to wash off its soot in the final chapter. Amusingly honest about the dirt of its forebears, it tries to show that it now embraces coal dust, that staff are well trained, that since 1990s Cathedral Acts, it’s well run. The lively tone of gentle ribbing narrative turns to advertorial.

The last line is true – there is work to do.

I hope this piece has made clear what some of that might be – or at least, what areas and impressions need addressing.

Durham sketch

I round up with that female, the one that began Durham, and the one that overturns the cart of Cuthbert’s lady hatred. Cuthbert posthumously guided his followers as to where to put his revered body safely. The cart got stuck – Cuthbert himself was going no farther in their direction. Instead, he gave them a word – a place they’d not heard of. In that form, neither have we. Then some of those lesser creatures, women passed, seeking their cow, who might be at Dunholme – a wooded promontory with the river Wear wrapped round it. And the wheels of the Cuthbert cart freed, and they found both dun cow and resting place. We call that place Durham. But I love the cow, who gets a statue on the cathedral and her own lane. Females, human and bovine – the chosen instruments of God and Cuthbert.

Like Sister George, I close with MOOO!

(Don’t forget my novel… there will be updates!)


A Day Out with Elspeth in Chichester

For 20 years, I’ve been visiting the cathedral cities of England. I’m nearly done; so I savour each new city, knowing the pleasure of first arrival, first sighting,  first walking up to the church – how will it appear? is not to be had many more times. In fact, I have been to all but 2 of the large medieval Anglican cathedrals as well as several smaller, Catholic, Celtic ones and those great churches without cathedral status.


I didn’t see the cathedral from the train, and nor as I walked up the Southgate. As I stopped for coffee in a stone vaulted early medieval crypt, I was far nearer the cathedral than I realised – the Vicar’s Hall is built over the crypt and appears to be part of the Close. Sadly, there was no information in the café about its home and I could find no guidebook to Chichester, and little online either.

I decided to leave the cathedral til later and orientate myself generally first.

Rounding the corner into Westgate, I was suddenly confronted with the cathedral, who is naked and unarmed to the street on that side.

As I’ve written on my sister blog, I am passionate about free cathedrals. I explain my thoughts on £10 to get in the gate Canterbury on this one. And as I told staff at Chichester, I am more inclined to come in and open my purse for NOT being forced to pay to enter, and especially for Chichester’s warm statement of commitment to not doing so. I supported the shop and café, though the latter wasn’t very charming service.

Although I like unfettered vistas of the whole church, it means that Chichester’s secrets are given up easily. It – nor its city – felt how pictures expected me to feel. I wish the guidebook explained more about the modern art in the church, which was my chief pleasure. I was especially moved by the post war German-Anglo reconciliation tapestry behind the altar, and the work of the bishop who commissioned it, George Bell.

The Close isn’t one of the best, although the St Richard’s walk (what did he do to get canonised? Think the bishop above did more) is a pleasant way to explore the palace area. The grass in the cloisters is called Paradise, but one may not enter paradise (ironic for a church).

My disappointment at lack of guide to the city is perhaps because Chichester isn’t one of the most photogenic of England’s cathedral cities. It made me appreciate York, Norwich and Canterbury. It reminded me that many of our cathedral cities are small, and that perhaps I’m expecting too much of them in terms of facilities and liveliness.

At least it is devoid of a shopping centre, and I was able to avoid seeing the chain ridden entertainment park.

The most interesting and atmospheric part of Chichester is the Pallants, the mainly residential Georgian quarter around an expensive art gallery with a shocking boxy modern extension to a Queen Anne House. The extension upset me because, unlike buildings I will shortly come to, it’s surrounded by older ones with whom it clashes, with severe featureless lines. It’s £8.50 (without gift aid, don’t start me on that!!) to get in – unless you’re unwaged – then it’s free. It would feel awkward to plead poverty. As I often campaign: the people most needing concessions aren’t those with handy proof of status – and pensioners and students aren’t always poor (but pensioners don’t get in here for free, which I agree with – they need to come into another concessionary category.) It’s reduced on Tuesdays and Thursday evenings. Information from the gallery gives confusing info as to  what is free and who pays when.

Chichester’s churches are little and only noticeable when they’re a gallery (the Oxmarket), a Christian bookshop, or a bar; architecturally, they make little impact on the city scape.

There’s a few more modern buildings that Chichester boasts of: the new Novium free museum and tourist information centre, the round (1960s?) library next door, and the isolated, concrete Festival Theatre with its atmospheric café (not – when I was there) where I could overhear a staff meeting. I won’t repeat the figures, but I do know exactly what annual budget the theatre has and how much the surprisingly high water bill is. If you don’t want the public to hear (it did make my lunch go down much better for knowing) – have your meetings elsewhere. New Park Cinema and community centre had an extension to the little Victorian school core, and they’ve build a 13 seater mini picture palace – which I think is the world smallest cinema. (Nottingham’s Cinema 21 claimed to be the most diminutive globally, and this room beats it). The brochure does include some interesting films not on the usual supposed arts circuit, but the café was another experience. I will save further thoughts for a full visit and my cinema blog – suffice to say, they were alien to the notion of providing food in the café. “We sell cinema food,” they said patronisingly. I can think of towns a fraction of the size of theirs whose cinema has a full restaurant menu, all day and evening. Have they not heard of pretheatre?!

I was surprised that there is little else to comment on in Chichester. The four main streets were quite ordinary, and only Eade House and the Council House, Corn Exchange and Buttermarket stick out as anything like a landmark worth mentioning. The side streets felt like simply back thoroughfares rather than anything worth walking down for their own sake. I’m not sure I saw anything medieval outside the Close, save the Market Cross and city walls; and I shall now come to those.

Like other promenadable city walls, they are shorter and less fortified looking than when built, because the tall towers and battlements are shorn to create polite walkways. They’re almost complete here, but with few towers and no gates. A nice way to walk round and snoot on people’s gardens – especially the Bishop’s, which you can also do from ground level, but the walls are visually less interesting than other towns’.

Overall, I found a market town atmosphere and nothing to note that wasn’t in the rather short brochure. (The best guide was found at the Council House, which also sold Walls books). I thought I’d struggle to choose refreshment stops, but all were just OK and chosen out of need to eat/rest rather than being especially tempted – only the Buttery at the Crypt was anything unusual, and that was mostly down to the building.

So back to the scuzzy station earlier than expected… no visit to Sir Patrick Moore-ville (the planetarium) this time.

Things to note: Monday is gallerys are closed day (except the uni’s Otter Gallery); and the Guildhall/Greyfriars isn’t normally open at all.

A Day Out With Elspeth in Canterbury

I’m not one to often speak of road numbers – I’m very conscious of Bill Bryson’s observation about that as a British past time – but my thoughts of Canterbury begin at the A2, the London to Dover road. You have the same view from the Eurostar – it’s the sight of the hunched up shoulders of Canterbury cathedral that warns you’re about to go into European turbo mode. The tower seems tall from some angles and not tall enough from others, for the cathedral that seems scrunched from the front is huge length ways, I believe within 10 feet of Europe’s longest medieval cathedral (which is Winchester, should you care, 556 ft). Canterbury’s like an over stretched slug with too small a steering wheel from the south/north.

Yes, like the Volkswagen indie cinema adverts, I see things differently.

It is pleasant to be in a walled city, and one with little traffic within them. I’m not a huge car-banner but it was so much more tranquil and safe. It’s even nicer to have a major medieval gate to welcome you – something that only a handful of British towns have. I consider Westgate as a burley but friendly door keeper.

Unlike Winchester, there’s a bit more to Canterbury than the obvious main street that presents itself both for shopping and exploring (of course Winchester has other streets but perhaps few with attractions and cafes?). Canterbury is good for cafes. The high street changes its name a few times and extends beyond the Westgate to St Dunstan’s street, which is also pretty and full of inns of pilgrims who missed the curfew.

The city side of the gate, it’s St Peter’s Street and this is the more attractive end with independents and eating options, becoming High Street briefly around the Eastbridge where there’s a medieval hospital you can visit (with a volunteer in the mould of the man in Duckula who recited the digits of pi) and the much pictured weaver’s tearooms (where you pick up a punt tour). Boho cafe here lives up to its name – there is a quite a streak of this in Canterbury, as was evidenced by a literary and music festival which was on when I visited.


As you head down (south east) the high street, towards where Westgate’s twin gate once was, you get to the post war high street shopping. This used to feel ugly and incongruent, but since the mid 1990s, it was mostly rebuilt in that short window when planning was sensitive. Gone is the multistorey car park that dominated the city as much as the amphitheatre on its site must have. Whitefriars shopping is a warm red brick; what was Gap clothes shop is in the traditional local pantiled c1600 style, and New Look nearby has a modern twist on a Dutch gable. This was all gratifying to someone who knew Canterbury during the modernist era and saw that most blights have gone.

New ones have arrived. The yellow 1930s cinema made a nice theatre, but now the Marlowe is all glass and shines blue at night, vying in attention with the cathedral from Tyler’s Hill at the university. Canterbury still has little by way of the arts, and save the Gulbenkian at UKC (read my visit here) which isn’t easy to access for non drivers all year round, there’s the two screen Odeon or this receiving Theatre Royal-like all rounder named, as many things are, after the locally connected playwriting Christopher. Yes Canterbury’s only about 40,000 people, no it’s not Kent’s county or largest town (that’s Maidstone), but being a famous cathedral and university city, one would hope for a little more perhaps, especially as it does serve much of east Kent as a retail/entertainment destination.

The other new cultural bit which was an unwelcome change was the Beaney extension. The heavily Victorian museum, gallery and library has a modern wing onto Best Lane, and has NO tourist information centre worth speaking of – for one of Britain’s most visited cities?! Thinking of getting guides, leaflets, things to do, places to eat ideas or souvenirs? Wrong. Thinking of planning a trip in the area or getting a holiday brochure for the rest of the country? Forget it. I really don’t know where this scaled down TIC trend is coming from, but it’s stupid. Where do the tourists go? The TIC used to be huge and multilingual, and its former site by the Canterbury Tales is now a tearoom with prices higher than the 17th C newelled staircase but fare that is less fancy.

Canterbury’s been good at tidying in my absence elsewhere, including scruffy Stour Street, or has my taste just changed? I quite liked wandering the back streets which seemed a little more industrial than twee (I found a bonded warehouse or two). The only bit that seriously needs doing, and I understand is earmarked, is opposite the modern Sainsbury’s and Kingsmead leisure centre, which feels more of a dump than ever since so little of Canterbury is now.


Go down the side streets. All of them, and keep wandering. There’s quite a network. If you hit the city walls but see old beyond them, keep walking. You find interesting Northgate, St Augustine’s abbey ruins to the east, and even Wincheap’s worth a little wander, or the area just off New Dover Road. One of my favourite streets is Palace Street, which leads to Northgate and runs to short but sweet Sun Street (now with a shite marketing name I won’t repeat). Timbered fronted Conquest House and no 8 appear in guidebooks (if you can find one, mine are old) but there’s more to view, such as the Palace gate that’s had a staircase put where the entrance arch is. Like much round here, it’s part of the King’s (cathedral private) school, and there’s an Oxbridge/Eton parallel, not wholly welcome. Peek round the corner past the wonky house to St Radegund’s hall, a cool pub currently known as the Parrot with a lovely open timbered dining room upstairs.

Canterbury3 Canterbury9

Want to see these? Pay up or lose out forever

Now I must start my cathedral whinge. £10.50, not just to go in the church, but to ENTER THE PRECINCT. It means if you don’t pay, the nearest you’ll get to seeing the Anglican mother church is through the back windows of the cathedral café (by the main gate, in a building more interesting than the food) or by the new cathedral shop’s back door. Even locals who qualify for a pass can’t wander through the other entrances as they once could. I was shocked by the amount of prohibitive signs and directivity. I wanted to reply that for £10 (only London’s great churches charge more in the UK), I should be able to wander where I wish in what order I want. I contrast with Norwich, where you’re thanked for not parking here and people sit and even kick balls on the grass and wander the labyrinth in the cloister. And then when I asked for a annual pass (not offered) I am required to fill in my details and have them verified and retained and to prove myself. I realised I may have walked into the gates of that once favourite cathedral for the last time. (Read my thoughts on Keep Cathedrals Free and on the 2016 gun guards)

Canterbury would feel weird without going in the cathedral, as the precincts (as the Close is called here) takes up almost a quarter of the walled city and is by far the tallest and most noticeable building. There is much to linger and enjoy in this city, though for holiday purposes, I’d say you’d need only a couple of days to get round the museums (it’s better value to buy a joint ticket for the Heritage and Roman ones) and try some cafes or do the river walk, for there’s not much far beyond the walls to explore. It is one of the most medieval feeling and atmospheric towns of Britain if not the continent, it’s charming, safe feeling but lively, and no French school parties squirting Kentish people this time. But for that £10.50 do I retain a sourness…