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
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.
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.
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 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.
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 grimy 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 parts remaining 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 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.
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 numbered few. 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.
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
1. Very quiet.
A big window with fine view and sunshine in morning.
A colour scheme that matches my clothes, phone case and kindle cover -
dark and light greys and dark red.
USB charging sockets.
A bedside light you can read by.
Logical light switches.
An air conditioning control box that isn't incomprehensible.
A slot inside the door to hold the key card, but lights work even without.
A face flannel provided.
Enough cupboard space and hangers.
Daily free bottles of mineral water (still and sparkling)
A full-length mirror but not positioned so you keep seeing yourself, e.g.
Not too much and/or nasty art.
And the keywords for this trip were, it has been scientifically
proven, crannies and goats' cheese.