Durham
August 2016
More photos here

Thursday 4th August
Why Durham? Well the Early Medieval course I've just finished at the V&A featured so many lecturers pointing out so many interesting aspects of the history and architecture of the place, particularly its cathedral, that it would've been churlish and disrespectful not to visit the place. I have one of these lecturers to thank (thanks Sally!) for warning me that the original trip booked, in mid-July, might have been before the new cathedral treasury museum reopened, after many months of lottery-funded revamping. It had been cunningly booked, it turned out, so that we came home the day before said world-class exhibition experience reopened. Cue hasty and late rebooking - easy for the hotel but not cheap for the train tickets.

The train from Kings Cross was a comfortable 12.30, so no rushing, and a trouble-free journey too. On the train we chatted with a woman travelling home for the funeral of her aunt who'd died suddenly at 96 still sharp of wit. We agreed that this was a good exit plan. In the short cab ride from Durham station to the Radisson Hotel we noticed that the Cathedral has a box of scaffolding on the top of its tower, but you can't have everything. Hotel check-in was smooth too - our rooms being on separate floors was a problem soon solved, and the rooms are fine and smart in grey and maroon, with a view of the river and the cathedral. No complaints about the WiFi either. Spiff!

An evening stroll over the river and through to the cathedral, picking up some maps and books at the Visitors Centre. We wandered around and into a pretty bit called The College too, with its mysterious octagonal gothic revival Conduit Tower. Heading back down Saddler Street we found this to be suitable restaurant central, with an Indian, a Lebanese, an Italian and a Pizza Express, the last of which we patronised. A cafe nearby claimed to be the only place to do authentic Italian gelato in Durham. Flavours were limited but the vanilla was fine, although 2. 40 for a one-scoop cone was a bit pricey. The forecast rain then began to fall somewhat relentlessly, so it was back to the hotel for an early night.

Friday 5th
Having decided that I've found something close to my ideal hotel room there just remained the crucial breakfast test, which was passed with colours flying. Orange juice and coffee freshness, muesli and milk choices, croissant and marmalade quality, and the genuine
friendliness and helpfulness of the waiter, all A1. Straight to the Cathedral today. Inside it was every bit as impressive and perfectly proportioned as I'd been told, with the Galilee Chapel an especially lovely space. Giles Gilbert Scott's much later pulpit is a glaring riot of cosmati work, and his screen doesn't exactly blend in either, but on the list of later additions that spoil old churches they feature pretty low down. The whole place has bigness without being overbearing.

The brand new Open Treasure galleries were smart and smelt of new wood, but the famous items - Cuthbert's coffin and cross, and the sanctuary knocker - were not yet being displayed. The large specially-built case for the coffin had only just been delivered from Milan, I was informed by a room attendant, and they needed to test it out before trusting it with the coffin for the installation (and the display of the cross and knocker) next year!  Disappointing, having trustingly paid our 7.50s, or what? In all the promotion of the new galleries online and in Durham and in the cathedral it would have been honest to have advertised that the three biggest attractions were not yet on display, I think.
I wrote to complain and point out this dishonesty and got a reply, from a Canon Librarian for some reason, which blamed me for not noticing some small print on the website, offered no recompense, even token, confessed to no deficiency and promised no change in their publicity. I wrote back pointing out that I was now disappointed and slighted, having been accused of being blind and/or stupid, and got a reply which just added the excuse of me being the only person who has complained. I'm used to bland PR-speak replies but this high-handed attitude was its complete and stunning opposite. I gave up.

The day had warmed up a lot, so an M&S sandwich lunch was consumed in the sun on a bench on the river bank facing the cathedral. Then a stroll back through the centre saw the acquiring of a fruit Danish to go with the the afternoon tea. But returning to the room at 2.30 to find it unserviced was a disappointment - I don't mind making my own bed but have had enough afternoon snoozes disturbed by enquiring phone calls and door knockings to experience a certain lack of tranquillity. Finding usb sockets in the wall over the desk, enabling the charging of gadgets without the the need for a mains adaptor thingy, cheered me up though.

Another walk along the river, then an evening visit to the cathedral (specially open until 8.00 this month) just catching the end of evensong with the organ playing and the incense smell and smoke lingering. We then went to Leboneat to eat Lebanese. It was packed and turning people away and the falafel and halloumi wrap was special. The walk back to the hotel involved the passing of many groups of young local females dressed up for a night out, which was not pretty. Or remotely tasteful.

Saturday 6th
To Seaton Delaval today, a country house by Vanbrugh (the architect responsible for Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard) that I've wanted to visit since the 1970s - way back in my country house visiting youth. A train to Newcastle and a walk to the Haymarket bus station was followed by a half-hour bus trip along boring A roads, with a bloke bellowing down his phone to his mate Kevin about tempting deals on betting at Ladbrokes and how he'd won 30 quid last week but blew it at the casino although he'd only drunk drunk 8 pints. The house is reached after much winding around the town of the same name. It would be a fascinating and atmospheric enough pile, with many crannies, even if the spectacular central block hadn't mostly burned down. You can see how the fire melted the banisters in the stair wells in the photo right. The sooty-looking stone helps too. The friendliness of the locals and my visiting on my own made for lots of chats with attendants. There's a sweet little Norman church in the grounds too, opened and kept up by local enthusiasts, one of whom I had a good talk with about subsidence - the reason why we weren't allowed beyond the porch - his long local connections, and travels. The bus back was on time, Newcastle seemed to be gearing up for Saturday night although it was only just after 2.00, and on my way to the station I found a Chinese supermarket/bakery that did coconut butterfly buns.

Our evening walk was more rural than urban tonight, to avoid the Saturday night town centre, and we decided to try the hotel restaurant's veggie options for the same reason. The grilled goats' cheese with pickled veggies starter and the apple and blackberry crumble desert were fine and flavoursome, the barley risotto with vegetables and broad beans main course less so.

Sunday 7th
Yesterday was me passing through Newcastle, today was us both on a proper visit. Getting Jane to the Baltic (to look at modern art) involved an instinctive but somewhat scadgy walk. My walk back to Newcastle Castle along past the bridges and over the Swing Bridge was much prettier. The Castle Keep turned out to be a bit of a treat, for odd staircases, more crannies, nooks too, and a handsome chapel. The Black Tower is better from the outside and the two bits were separated by insensitive Victorian railway engineers. St Nicholas's Cathedral nearby was well worth a wander inside. But I missed the vampire bunny carving I'd just bought a mug depicting, which is perched on
the doorway of solicitors' offices behind the cathedral. Back to the Baltic to collect Jane, via a much nicer route and the craft and food market stalls along the river, where a stall tempted me with a pot of very almondy almond butter. Lunch was taken in Cafe Rouge and involved a goats' cheese and beetroot tart for me. A quick visit to the Laing Art Gallery, which only seems to consist of three rooms: the permanent collection of 19th century stuff for me, an exhibition of abstracts for Jane and an Alice in Wonderland exhibition for neither of us. The permanent collection room had a few by local(ish) lad John Martin, a couple of Pre-Raphs, an Alma-Tadema with some uncharacteristically clothed languid women, and some other very odd stuff, mostly courtesy of the V&A it seemed. The were some more interesting paintings for sale as postcards, suggesting a good amount of permanent collection put in storage to give room to temporary exhibitions. Back to Durham swiftly for a rest.

Monday 8th
We decided to stay local for our last day. Into town first for some essential shopping (a newspaper, books, innersoles) and the incidental discovery of whole new alleys, an indoor market and some less-touristy shopping streets. Back via our hotel to drop stuff off on the way to Crooks Hall, which combines a fine variety of gardens with a house of handsome Georgian rooms and a very atmospheric Elizabethan hall, featuring - you guessed it - crannies! All very pretty and well kept, without that National Trust cultivated perfection. Back into town after for a pair of superior panini at an Italian place specialising in catering for dog owners, it seemed, but they let us eat without one. There was a local charity book sale I had to check out, but nothing tempted, maybe because the art books barely made double figures. The religion books numbered in the hundreds, but the sale was in a hall facing the Cathedral green. Back to the hotel for tea and a rest with a current slice.

Our last evening walk started along the river and ended in the Cathedral. We've managed a visit most days and this evening we lingered in the nave and the Galilee chapel and watched a bat zipping around under the timber roof of the cloister, presumably harvesting tasty insects. Our appetite piqued we went to Lebaneat again, were we did the sharing six starters thing and I tried the Knefeh desert, which was like warm and soft baklava, and very nice too.

Tuesday 9th
The last breakfast (featuring the new fave thing of actual sticky honeycomb with my croissant) and a fond farewell to Kenny, our exceptionally personable waiter of the week. The railway station looks close to the hotel on the map, but it's relentlessly uphill and the walk involves hundreds of steps, so a cab was necessary, and worryingly slow coming. But all else went without a hitch.

As we prepared to leave I was moved to make a list of the 15 things that made my room here perfect.
1. Very quiet.
2. Big enough.
3. A big window with fine view and sunshine in morning.
4. A colour scheme that matches my clothes, phone case and kindle cover - dark and light greys and dark red.
5. USB charging sockets.
6. A bedside light you can read by.
7. Logical light switches.
8. An air conditioning control box that isn't incomprehensible.
9. A slot inside the door to hold the key card, but lights work even without.
10. A face flannel provided.
11. Enough cupboard space and hangers.
12. Daily free bottles of mineral water (still and sparkling)
13. A kettle.
14. A full-length mirror but not positioned so you keep seeing yourself, e.g. in bed.
15. Not too much and/or nasty art.
And the keywords for this trip were, it has been scientifically proven, crannies and goats' cheese.

 

 



 















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