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!)


Elspeth’s Quest for Britain’s Best Castle

There’s a little season coming of Elspeth Quests – I’ve not got out much in a while, not to anywhere new 😦

However, the mind, the net and books are ever here to do the walking for us…

LIKE WINTER, PICTURES ARE COMING! (and are now here! Keep scrolling)

I’d first like to state my issues with castles – symbols of domination, feudalism, torture and military.

Why are so many castles lumps of stone and decay that in no way convey what they used to be like? I prefer something that a ghost would recognise.

I don’t like Georgian and Victorian remodelling or the chintzy sofas of some lived in castles.

Defining castles against fortified houses and palaces is difficult and there may be overlap when I have a quest for those.

Castles1 - HeverI suppose I have a list of favourite castle qualities: setting, silhouette, tall walls and gates,  alive – recent reconstructions are my favourite; being part of national history and featuring people I care about – so Hever, pleasant as it is, means more to me for being Anne Boleyn’s family home. I like palatial splendour and pre 1700 architecture; lack of horror and military; a large great hall, chapel and kitchens, and square Norman keeps.

I haven’t been to all Britain’s castles yet so I may miss off some obvious ones, but they may also be precluded for other reasons, so there will be elephants not in the room.

Here’s a few castles I recommend:



The Great Hall and chapel from my scrapbook

The craggy rock with its backcloth of hills is surmounted by a dour and frankly, not very fetching fortress; but I don’t see that. I see David Simon’s illustration from the Historic Scotland guide – a 15-16th Century gold renaissance palace, entered through a gate over twice the height of the existing one and flanked by satisfyingly round drum towers. I see the King’s Building as James (Johnny Depp lookalike) IV’s bachelor pad, not the military museum hotchpotch it is today. I focus on the building that cheers across the city from the train, peeping slightly awkwardly from afar, but now comfortable and proud and rather large. The Great Hall has been returned to its fetching yellow, “King’s Gold”, with crow step gables and turrets and lions and two big bay windows. It is Scotland’s largest secular medieval room and must be among the largest anywhere. Inside (sadly a little plainer than I’d like to see), the hammerbeam roof is back, so’s the minstrel’s gallery and Queen and King seats – can you resist?! And lots of green sort of voile curtain. You feel as if they’re between banquets and the tables will come out later (you can hire this castle for just that). The large chapel doesn’t please me outside, but it’s more gold within, and some early 17th C friezes round an annoying modern ceiling, but it feels like a place you’d actually want to attend a service.

The Palace, though small by other countries’ standards, is bigger in life than in pictures and the Auld Alliance with France is very obvious in its flamboyant external decoration. Inside are 6 rooms, recently refurnished – the only 16th C set of state rooms in Britain. I love to walk where Mary Queen of Scots did. I’d like it even more if her Dad’s rooms weren’t so sparse (did they run out of money and pretend it’s because it’s the year he died?) and yet a little over the top – I was looking forward to more David Simon pictures made real, with panelling and not too many colours in one room.

Me in my newly refurbed apartments, and during the revamp

This is my favourite Scottish castle and a contender for the whole of Britain

Other Scots castles I like or want to see:

Crathes and Craigievar for their names and for the painted and plastered decoration inside – and for looking nice and Scottish and turreted;

and fortified Linlithgow palace for being much like Stirling but contained all in one square. I amuse myself trying to put the things of one palace into the other. Shame about the lack of roofs. Again – I see this as it was, not as it is, though the great hall has power even as a ruin. Anyone else worked out that Linlithgow fits with the theme tune of The Simpsons?! I’m also intrigued by Dirleton and Crichton, whose eggbox patterned courtyard I’m sure is a sign of the Illuminati…

Moving down into England…


or Dur–ham as an American friend pronounced it. Do I like this better for being a snob university instead of the seat of Prince Bishops?

Castles2 - Durham

As a castle, it ticks many of my boxes, save its Gothickisation: it is on a peninsula and ridge by its cathedral, it has a gatehouse, a large (but annoyingly restored and Oxbridge-ised) great hall, a medieval kitchen arch where students stand to get their food; a C17 tall black wooden carved staircase; a Norman chapel and two corridors of that era which are especially superb, including a ceremonial doorway. There are unseen rooms for university dignitaries.

Other good castles around: large and high walled Bamburgh has a square keep, great hall and a sparse beach location, but it was home of a Victorian magnate who got rich on making armaments with sticky and overzealous architectural fingers, and is filled with armoury.

Newcastle’s little keep is one of the few Norman castles with rooms in it; the best two are in the basement, with stone vaulting. It has excellent city views from the top.

While we’re on complete keeps, Castle Hedingham in Essex also has four storeys all with roofs and the biggest Norman arch in Europe. A ghost would be happy here – so so am I.

The Marches and Wales have many potentially special castles but too many ruins; I’d single Ludlow out as a better one though I’m sad only Caerphilly in Wales has a major room with a roof. Stokesay has a large open roofed great hall and carved panelled solar. I like the contrast of stone and timber framing – more of that gold at Stirling. But I think the best castle on the west side is


(pronounced as in Sesame Street’s dog). I can’t get away from the horror with Edward II, but otherwise this is a welcoming looking red/pink stone family home. Well done to the Berkeleys for keeping chintz out and making it look like a real castle (and not doing an Alnwick) and yet still comfortable. There’s a large enough great hall which still feels usable and homely, and other rooms – one with medieval paint traces. Shame I’ve not yet been.

Tower of London

Tower of London1 - Copy - Copy   Tower of London (2)

medieval palace in St Thomas’ Tower and a bit of Byward Tower

It surprises and delights how this rather shiny remnant of medievalness sits amidst Europe’s biggest and most impatient city. It has two sets of full height walls which can be walked on with big towers. It’s interesting to know who was held in there, such as seeing Walter Raleigh’s rather comfy room; and for me, the high poignancy of knowing that Anne Boleyn both was crowned and executed here, and her daughter held possibly in the same room. There’s Tudor timbering, gate houses, a redecorated medieval palace (though alas no great hall), and one of the best Norman keeps – outside. However, there’s no rooms in it that look anything like what William evil eye of Normandy would have built himself – and much of this early stone tower is filled with armoury. There is also the horror factor, which can be avoided, though the official guide claims there was less torture and execution here than in public imagination. The ravens and beefeaters add to the mix, though my military views and dislike of ridiculous ceremonies (the nightly keys) – and having to be bag checked do cast a shadow of a raven’s wing over this. And I’m not sure how much standing on a Generation Game conveyor belt trying to recall which sceptre and orbs you’ve just seen appeals either.

There’s two great halls in the South East that I wish still had castles to go with them – Winchester (with its Arthurian link) and Eltham (with a rare monogram of Henry and Anne – Boleyn, did you need to ask?)

Of Kent’s many castles, I think


is the most special. It sits on cliffs as a symbol of entering the country; and its edifices go from Iron Age bumps, Roman lighthouse, Saxon church, late Norman keep to World War II control station hidden in the cliffs. Best of all, the Keep had a makeover, Henry II style, and you can see just how bright 13th C furniture was. Wish T of L had one, because empty rooms – however many drawings and virtual computer animations are displayed – don’t feel very exciting. It’s when I visited Stirling after the refurbishment that I realised that no amount of imagination and illustration was a substitute for standing in the recreated rooms of the period.

I realise that despite Britain’s many and various castles, most are dismissed (by me) as being too ruined (majority) or chintz fests. I would love it if more got the Stirling treatment.

If you want to know why the elephants aren’t here, or to recommend me somewhere, please drop a comment