It was Durham today. It was rather a disappointment, and I don't think I will be back for a second look.
I had half-expected it to be a bit 'ordinary' - even though, before coming to County Durham on my present holiday, I had regarded Durham itself as rather special - certainly worth a visit. I'd earmarked a whole day for it. But a chat with one of the ladies serving in Fat Face in Barnard Castle yesterday had put me on the alert that Durham might not be as impressive as I hoped. She had mentioned moving away from Durham for a better quality of life, especially for her children. Hmm. That suggested it wasn't an especially pleasant place. And yet there was the river, and the incredible Cathedral, and the famous University...how could it be a place you'd want to leave? Perhaps it was expensive to live in, because of its perceived cachet?
Well, having already decided that I would go and see it, I'd follow the plan through and see what I thought at the end of the visit. The sun might or might not come out, but it was at least going to be a dry day. I intended to have an extensive walk around the ancient city centre, and blitz the place - especially the renowned Cathedral - with the camera on my phone.
The day's outing didn't begin all that well. First off, I decided to take a quick look at Raby Castle. I had been negative in my last post about the Raby Estates' ruthless car parking policy at High Force. I'd decided to let them redeem themselves at the Castle itself, if they would. A second chance. Well, the car park in the grounds was free: a good sign. But they still blew it. They wanted £11 to see the Castle, or £6 just to stroll in the park and garden - and that was with an age concession. For goodness sake. I sensed another cash-grabbing rip-off. Admittedly, the Castle looked good at a distance, but £11 for a closer acquaintance! I got back into Fiona and went on my way.
Next stop was an ancient Saxon church at Escomb. The church itself almost deserves a post of its own: it was 'different', and made a very pretty picture, in the middle of the leafy, oval churchyard. But it was surrounded by unexciting modern housing, which broke the spell.
It dawned on me that it was a mistake to leave the dales and venture into more urban areas to the east. I'd quickly become accustomed to the high bare fells, the lush, deep river valleys, and all the pretty stone-built villages. My heart lay there. Now I was entering a subdued landscape full of nondescript housing, and mundane out-of-town retail parks, with not much sign of an interesting industrial heritage. It all seemed a bit of a comedown. But surely the centre of Durham would be different?
Arriving at Durham, the first priority was a place to park for up to four hours. What about the station car park? The map said the station was perched on a hill on the west side of the town centre. Well, I knew this was going to be a mistake as soon as I drove up the snaky approach road. There was no one big car park to cater for casual visitors and commuters alike. There was hardly any short-term parking at all. There were two long-term car parks with horrendous charges imposed by Virgin Trains East Coast. A 'choice' of three flat-rate charges: £2.50 for one hour, or £10 for seven hours, or £13.50 for longer, up to twenty-four hours. Talk about milking the rail traveller who needed to park! And surely people did pay up. The train service from Durham station was excellent, an obvious draw. But I only wanted somewhere to park Fiona, and I wasn't going to pay such exorbitant prices.
I backed up, turned around, and drove instead downhill towards the river bridge. There I got stuck for ten minutes. Parts of the riverside were undergoing major redevelopment, and traffic was gridlocked while a lorry delivered materials - concrete, steel girders, who knows. I almost aborted my mission.
Then the traffic began to move again, and I next found myself in a pedestrianised area and had to do a U-turn to escape. Uphill a bit, into a street called Crossgate. Here the gods stopped messing me about, and presented me with a fine parking space. I took it. It wouldn't be cheap to park just there, but it was close to both the river and the Cathedral. It was £3.20 for two hours - a bit over the odds - and two hours might not be sufficient. But it would have to do. At least I could pay in style with Google Pay. An irritating kid watching me from the car next to mine stared goggle-eyed at what I did, as if I had landed from another planet. His behaviour was rude enough to merit a finger in both sockets. But I walked on, like a superior alien who cared nothing for dimwit earthlings. The Romans must have done the same when mixing it with the indigenous British.
The next thing was some lunch. I crossed the river, appreciating the 'classic' view, with the Cathedral peeping over the treetops high up on the left side.
Beaming gods on high directed me into an alleyway and the Riverview Kitchen. This had a decent menu, and was clearly very popular with both discerning tourists and the better-off Uni students.
Packed it may have been, but the friendly staff soon had me seated. I had a goats-cheese ciabatta with salad leaves and a large Americano.
Considering how busy they were, service was pretty good. I saw two or three cooks in the kitchen, working as a team. It was an efficient operation, and the guy who took my £9.10 via Google Pay was brisk but very pleasant. We even had a few words about having a multi-purpose under-skin wrist chip installed, so that one could pay (and do other things too) merely by touching something, or waving one's hand near it. The drawback being, of course, that They (and any hacker) would know your location at all times...though possibly not a bad thing on balance, if you were an older single woman who liked to get about on her own, and investigate lots of out-of-the-way places where strange folk might lurk.
Nicely fed and watered, I now followed university students up a steepish but leafy path to the green in front of the Cathedral, getting glimpses of the River Wear through the trees on the way.
Well, the Cathredral looked very imposing! A pity that the main tower was sheathed in plastic - repair work to the masonry? Or was it stone-cleaning? Still, it was large, and old, and clearly Very Important. It was the main thing I'd come to see. Purple-cloaked staff were saying things to people wanting to enter. There was a service just starting (bad timing on my part!) and a need to be quiet and discreet. Well, naturally. I stepped inside, said wow, and took a good shot of a very tall, elaborate contruction standing guard over a graceful font.
I looked forward to shooting plenty of other things like that. But I was approached by one of the staff, who informed me in a friendly but firm manner that no photography whatever was allowed inside the Cathedral. It was OK in the cloisters, but not here. Ah, sorry...
Oh dear, that was awkward. What was the point of coming here, if the inside of the Cathedral - clearly a very fine one - couldn't be photographed? I certainly wasn't here to worship. I was here to inspect a fine building, a cultural icon, and bring away my own selection of well-composed souvenir pictures. Subject to not being irreverent or intrusive, where was the harm in that? They were asking me not to do what I loved doing most.
They had roped off the main part of the interior while the service was in progress. Keenly disappointed, I hadn't the heart to wait for the conclusion and then look around. Not if unable to take a single shot. I was tempted to try a sneaky photo of the service against the vast backdrop of the high interior. But sensibly I resisted, and went straight out into the cloisters. I made the most of what I could take pictures of, but it was all a bit half-hearted.
There was, in one corner, a way up to where the Treasures were on display. These included, apparently, some relics of St Cuthbert (his coffin. pectoral cross, comb and embroidered vestments); the head of St Oswald; and the remains of the Venerable Bede. Diamond local geezers all. Plus illuminated manuscripts and other things that I would enjoy seeing. But not at a cost of £7.50. And, once again, no photography! I managed one protest shot, from the stairs up, then departed annoyed.
After that, I wandered off towards the market place in the town centre, before getting back to Fiona with just three minutes to spare. It would be the last straw, to get a parking ticket, and I half-expected to find a slavering parking attendant hovering close by, ready to pounce. But I was wrong.
Goodbye, Durham. Goodbye, and not au revoir or auf wiedersehen. I doubt if I will be back. In 1969 there was a song in the charts by Roger Whittaker about his leaving Durham Town and regretting the departure. Moi, je ne regrette rien.