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This Art Pursuits tour was originally happening in sunny early September but had to be postponed to rainy October due to the Cathedral being closed for a presentation ceremony. In addition last week we were told we wouldn't be visiting the castle as they are limiting numbers of visitors. This is my second art-history tour in my own country, after medieval Suffolk back in August. But whereas that trip had nearly 50 people on it this one is back in my comfort zone with 12 of us. I'm also very comfortable with a reunion with tour guide Sally Dormer, a friend after many V&A courses and previous trips to Siena and Milan, who I've only seen on screen these past couple of covid years.
The 10.30 Edinburgh train from Kings Cross was easily caught and was full but not rammed. It was due to reach Durham at 1.25 and at 2.00 the group was to meet up in the (Marriott) hotel lobby for a pre-check-in introductory walk through Durham. So I cunningly equipped myself with a Pret posh cheddar baguette before boarding, knowing that, like on many a school journey, the temptation to scoff swiftly would be hard to resist. But luckily there were no teachers around to enforce restraint. (I made it until 11.30.) Coffee and a slice of fruitcake acquired safely after York. Readers of my past few trip reports will know the history and meaning lurking behind this simple statement.
The walk down the hill from the station into town was a good reacquaintance with busy Saturday Durham and hotel rooms were ready, so a brief settle in was possible before setting out with Sally for a somewhat wet walk around town - a fine and fascinating introduction somewhat spoiled by the Castle only last week informing our tour company that we wouldn't be allowed in. So we were reduced to gathering outside the gate and admiring the fine-looking chapel and halls in photographs on Sally's iPad.
Back to the hotel in time for a couple of hours rest before our group meal in the hotel restaurant at 7.00. Some good and wide-ranging conversation on the our table. The food was fine - mushroom soup followed by pasta with sweet potato for me. But the desert was the highlight, being bread and butter pudding and custard, but with so much cinnamon in the pudding it was like a warm Chelsea bun.
Sunday 3rd October
After a breakfast that easily passed the test - getting full marks for providing muesli (and semi-skimmed) and for the freshness of the orange juice, coffee and croissants - we got on a coach and were taken to Jarrow to visit the church and (ruined) monastery of St. Paul. Here we were met by the first of our helpful attendant locals who were to characterise the day. We also began our Cuthbert 'thing' which was another them. Talk of ultrasound equipment detecting a possible crypt under the choir was exciting, but a trifle unconvincing. The attached monastery ruins served to whet our appetite, nicely sated at our next stop Finchale Priory - some larger and much more romantic remains with much photographic potential. And our more earthly appetites were sated by a fine sandwich lunch provided by the attached tea shop, with coffee and cake too.
Afterwards we continued to an unspoilt and uniquely surviving Anglo-Saxon church in the very unpretty village of Escomb, (see photo right) with another enthusiastic and knowledgeable local to complement Sally's enthusiasm and knowledge. And she waved us off too, as we made for Pittington Church, with its sturdy Romanesque architecture, reminiscent of Durham Cathedral, and some small but worthwhile wall paintings. Here another enthusiastic local and his wife further enamoured themselves to the group by providing reviving tea and coffee and homemade cakes.
Monday 4th October
For the last day of the tour we met at 09.45 Check in the lobby to walk to the Cathedral. Due to current restrictions we were due to be split into two groups for our morning museum visit, but after some negotiation a compromise was reached with the accommodating guide, and off we set. Through the cloister to the Chapter House, a rare treat, and on to the Great Kitchen to see the treasures, which were not on display when I last visited. We had time to briefly preview the Gallilee chapel before heading off for lunch at the Cellar Door restaurant, our last social gathering, which was convivial and tasty - particularly the vegetarian option. And this trip was also unusual for the proportion of veggies: four in a group of fourteen where often, even in larger groups, I'm the only one.
We visited the Cathedral itself in the afternoon and learned lots. You might notice the Moon in the crossing in the photograph. This was an inflatable globe and classed as 'art'. The major argument for its presence being that people who ordinarily wouldn't dream of visiting the cathedral would come to see it. Another source of laffs was the couple taking the photo opportunity for a snap of her holding up the moon. Having trouble getting the perspective right with him standing roughly where I was taking my photo, she trotted nearer the globe. A better example of a failure to grasp the concept of perspective could not be imagined.
Our group broke up around 4.30, happy to have got back on the horse, trips-wise, and enjoyed a good friendly grouping. I headed back to hotel in an unrushed manner, having booked a couple more nights, and discovered that shops in Durham, including the Cathedral shop and the bakers near the hotel, eccentricly close at 4.00.
Tuesday 5th October
My extra day, added so I could have a calm day on my own before venturing home, looked set to be a record breaker. When I checked the BBC website yesterday for the weather forecast it said 100% chance of rain for most of the day, which percentage I had never seen before. Making my way over the bridge and up the hill I discovered that heavy rain makes picturesque rapids of the roads up to the Cathedral. I also discovered that my shoes meshy uppers were indeed mesh. The Cathedral was nicely unbusy so I got some soulful solo wandering done. In the shop I bought an architectural guide, a fridge magnet and some Holy Island vanilla fudge. I resisted the temptation to stock up on Congratulations on your Ordination cards as I have never known anyone I could send one to and so probably never will. The new Archaeological Museum was only a brief paddle away so I thought I'd investigate. It's only one big room of display cases of bits of old stuff. Some of it, the Roman stuff, pretty interesting. Upstairs is some sort of regimental museum, which I skipped. There is also the grandly-titled World Heritage Site Visitor Centre, which you and I would call the gift shop. I then trudged wetly around the market and shopping streets, ending up with some confectionery items, a birthday card and a very tasteful architectural montage print of Durham. I could've got the image on coasters, a tea towel, a tote bag or an apron, but decided on a mounted print (see right, and click on the print to visit the artist's site). I also got lunch from Cooplands, the local bakery, who do a tasty vegan sausage roll, I can report. And then it was an early lunchtime return to the hotel to dry out.
Post snooze I contemplated a walk along the riverside - enjoyed on the last trip but not yet this time. I looked out the window to see if it was raining and it wasn't. But in the time it took me close the net curtains the heavens opened. Oh well. Maybe I'll just get me packing started, I thought. But in the time it took me to do that the rain had actually stopped! I took a chance, and my umbrella, and did the whole anti-clockwise loop opposite 'the peninsular' before it started raining, which made for a solid hour's walk. The views across and up to the Cathedral were as good as I remembered, with the riverside mill-building interest. And as an added bonus the path ended in a nice old church-yard cemetery of no small photographic potential.
I decided to patronise the hotel restaurant tonight, to prevent further personal dampness. The (roasted) tomato soup, veggie burger (halloumi, mushroom and spinach) and ice cream (vanilla and chocolate) were fine. But the coffee proved unwise, getting-to-sleep-wise.
Wednesday 6th October
For my last breakfast I decided to push the boat out and make myself beans on toast, my favourite breakfast waitress having advised me to live for the moment. I walked under a mostly cloudless blue sky to catch the 10.40 to King's Cross which arrived around 1.38 allowing me to get home for a late lunch
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