308: Durham

OS Explorer map 308, Durham & Sunderland: Chester-le-Street & Peterlee – I own this map, and had visited it before starting this blog. Visited again for this post 8th May 2021.

Google Maps location links: Durham, Langley Park, Hill Top, Bearpark

As you’ll know from my last few posts regarding my trip down to Dorset with Vesper, in April/May 2021, the UK’s restrictions related to the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic were loosening, and it had recently become possible to travel around and stay in holiday cottages again, as long as one didn’t share the house with people from another household. Taking full advantage of this new-found freedom, just a couple days after getting back from the Dorset trip, Vesper and I set off again; this time to travel up to Durham to meet our dear friend (and once and future housemate) Erithacus.

Erithacus, along with Millicent, used to live with me and Vesper until last summer, when we went our different ways: Vesper and I staying in Cambridge, while Erithacus moved to the Netherlands to start a master’s degree there – as an extremely hypothetical eagle-eyed, elephant-brained regular reader might recall from a footnote to my Peak District post from back then. Erithacus had since returned to the UK in March (she’d be moving back in with us in the summer), so Vesper and I took our chance to go to visit her as soon as we could!

Looking down on the village of Langley Park from the hill to the south

For the moment, Erithacus was living with a friend of hers in the village of Langley Park, around five miles to the west of Durham. As we wouldn’t yet be allowed to stay indoors with her, Vesper and I booked a rental house for a couple of days in Tow Law, eight miles or so to the south-west – and outside this map area, being instead in map 305, which I wrote about previously in my Escomb post.

The two of us planned to drive up to Tow Law on the evening of Friday 7th after most of a day of work, to then meet Erithacus the next morning. We ended up leaving at about 4pm for the three-and-a-half hour drive up, which we broke at a Burger King in a service station near Doncaster, where we were very pleasantly surprised by the range and quality of their veggie options – there were three different veggie burgers and a choice between onion rings and chips, and they were nice enough that if they were just put on a plate with some salad, I think I wouldn’t be disappointed to pay £12 or so for it in a pub!

Vesper and I appreciating our selections from Burger King’s veggie menu

We arrived at our rented house at about 8pm, and found it to be a terraced house with rather an interesting aesthetic – the carpets and most of the furniture were various shades of brown or beige, but the cushions, bedspreads, towels and so on were all in incredibly bright colours and patterns. The kitchen had a fun “grandparents’ house” selection of crockery and strange gadgets such as a faded plastic salad spinner. There was also a welcome hamper that, rather than the usual assortment of fairly useless posh foody knick-nacks (chutneys and the like), contained an endearingly practical, if a little random, selection consisting of a variety pack of cereals, a tin of spaghetti hoops, a tin of chopped tomatoes, about nine eggs and a loaf of bread.

On the Saturday morning, we drove over to Langley Park to visit Erithacus, entering this map area for the first time. It was, unfortunately, raining, but given that meeting indoors wasn’t allowed, we decided to accept the wetness, and go for a short walk: Erithacus led us through Langley Park to a pleasant little wetland and forest nature reserve, before bringing us back past the interestingly named children’s attraction that is Diggerland.

It was an enjoyable walk, as we generally caught up with each other – it had been about nine months since we last met. I’d recently bought a separate hood that can be worn under any jacket to give it a hood, and it was put to its first test by the rain on this walk – it passed marvellously, so I think it’s going to be of great use in future! I have a perennial gripe with mens’ raincoats that the ones that have hoods tend to all be quite short, with the result that they keep rain off one’s upper body, only to dump it all on the top of one’s trousers, resulting in a wet lower bum and upper thighs – which you really don’t want if you’re then going to sit down before you’ll have the opportunty to change into something dry. Longer ones are available, but they tend to be more formal, and so lack hoods. Fortunately, the separate hood seems effective at cutting through this dilemma!

Vesper and I on our rainy walk, with me modeeling my raincoat-and-separate-hood combo

Upon our return, we decided to flex the rules a little, and sit in Erithacus’s conservatory with the doors to the outside open, while she sat inside. We had a pleasant time sitting around and chatting for a couple of hours, before deciding to go our separate ways for the afternoon while we waited for the clouds to rain themselves out, before meeting up again in the evening to go for dinner again sitting outside a pub, when the weather forecast promised at least a lower chance of rain.

Erithacus introduces us to an astonishingly multi-functional toy ice-cream stand belonging to her friend’s baby daughter

After a relaxed afternoon back in Tow Law, Vesper and I returned as planned, and fortunately the weather co-operated for our walk up the hillside to a pub called the New Board Inn, in the prosaically named village Hill Top. The pub seemed to be doing a solid takeaway trade, but we were the only ones sitting in the garden (and the inside was closed, indoor dining not being allowed at the time). The food was fairly nice, though it was of the “have one vegetable mix, put it in different sauces” school of vegetarian cookery (not that this is a bad thing necessarily) – the vegetable fajitas, green curry, and korma that we ordered all looked suspiciously similar in their vegetable selection.

Vesper and I would be returning to Cambridge on Saturday afternoon, this being a fairly short trip up north since neither of us took time off work for it, but that meant we had time to meet once more on Saturday morning. For this meeting, we decided to walk into Durham together. Vesper and I drove to and met Erithacus in the amusingly-named village of Bearpark, partway between Langley Park and Durham; Erithacus had walked there along the Lanchester Valley Railway path, which we then continued along together to take us into Durham.

The viaduct that carries the East Coast Main Line through Durham. It may be hard to see in this photo, but I like how, the viaduct being too narrow to fit the overhead electric pylon bases on at either side, they’ve extended them down the side of the structure and attached them to the side. (Maybe this is quite standard – I’m not a railway structures expert!)

It was a hot day, but we took plenty of breaks, and the walk into town was very nice – I’d forgotten just how three-dimensional Durham is, with the cathedral and castle sitting a whole lot higher than the river that surrounds them on three sides, and the railway pushing its way through the city at a significant elevation (incidentally giving every London to Newcastle/Edinburgh passenger a great view!). When we arrived in the city after an hour or so of walking, we walked along the river for a bit, before climbing up to sit on the grass in front of the cathedral for a while, idly chatting and people-watching. It being a Sunday morning, there was a service on in the cathedral (for which people were allowed to enter, unlike tourists, who were barred at the time), so people were filing in for that.

Unfortunately this was the only photo of the Cathedral I took that day – but see the Previous Visits section below for some better ones!

After that, we moved on to sit outside an Italian restaurant and lunched on its pretty mediocre vegetarian selection – I had a very plain roasted pepper and cheese panini, while Vesper had an extremely salty vegetable soup. And that was it for the trip: after lunch, we escorted Erithacus to the bus stop from where she’d travel back to Langley Park, and Vesper and I walked the hour or so back to the car in Bearpark, then travelled back to Cambridge. Quite a short weekend for all the driving it took – at another time I’d much rather have come on public transport, though we avoided it on this occasion due to lingering pandemic-related caution – but it was very nice nonetheless, not least for getting to see our friend for the first time since the last summer!

Previous visits

Durham University open day, July 2011

I’ve visited Durham twice previously, the first time being in summer 2011. This was the summer between Lower and Upper Sixth for me in school, so university applications would be coming up soonish, and I therefore went to several university open days at around this time. Durham was one of the last of these that I went to, and the date was somewhat inconvenient in that it came immediately after the end of my practice Duke of Edinburgh expedition in Snowdonia (the assessed expedition a few weeks later has featured on this blog before, but not the practice one). Nevertheless, the arrangements were made: Mother Dearest co-ordinated with my school to collect me partway along the minibus journey back down to Northampton, and drove me on to Durham from there, bringing cousin Guacamole along for the ride.

Guacamole relaxes in our Durham hotel room!

An unfortunate side effect of my not-very-fit self having just walked 40 miles carrying my life on my back was that I had developed some issue in one leg that made it painful to put my weight on. It only lasted a few days, but it did mean that, during those days, I could get around on foot only by using the hiking pole that I conveniently had with me as a walking stick. We checked into a hotel for the night, and I duly went around Durham University the next day, attending some talk in their physics department I assume, since that’s how it usually went – at this time I was looking for universities for my first undergraduate degree, which was in physics – and being shown around one of their colleges. Logically enough given my walking stick, people kept giving me leaflets about disability access to their facilities, offering to show me the accessible rooms and so on.

I don’t particularly remember what I thought of the university. I considered it my third preference when applying (behind Oxford and St Andrews, and ahead of Manchester and Southampton), so presumably I liked it reasonably well. I also don’t remember anything else about this trip, so I’ll leave it here – and I’ll spare you the one other photo I have of this trip, which is of my disgusting post-hike feet!

ASNaC Trip, January 2017

ASNaC Trips, namely the annual trip arranged by the student society affiliated with Cambridge University’s Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, have featured on this blog previously, not least the 2018 trip to Argyll which I organised. 2017’s trip was focussed on Durham, seeing us stay there for a couple of nights, as we both explored the city, and travelled to various sites of interest further north in Northumberland, some of which have made it onto the blog before.

As the schedule that I shared at the end of my Lindisfarne post tells, we arrived in Durham on a Friday evening, having spent the day exploring up on Hadrian’s Wall, and checked into the Travelodge that would be our accommodation for the next two nights. Dinner that evening was had in an Indian restaurant whose name I don’t remember, but whose food I distinctly remember as being really impressed with!

Hanging around in our Travelodge accommodation. I always thought this photo looks like it’s a mattress advert!

The next day was spent mostly out of Durham, on a trip to Lindisfarne and Jarrow – though we did dine in a Durham Italian restaurant in the evening – so it was on the Sunday morning that we explored Durham itself a little.

Durham Cathedral’s cloisters. As you can see, one of the towers was being restored at the time we visited

In particular, we were treated to a tour of the cathedral by an ex-ASNaC who now lives in Durham, so that was fun! The cathedral is very impressive, and particularly resonant for us medievalists as the resting place of St Cuthbert and Bede. After the Cathedral, we all piled into our trains or cars back home.

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