Saturday 6 July 2013

Another Grand Day Out

It being saturday, and I having done nothing whatsoever of note last saturday, indeed all of last weekend, I decided to be less of a sluggard this time with my days off. Consequently, I forced myself out of bed, no saturday lie-in for me... and out on the road. First, I donated a sizeable lump of my wealth to the oil industry in exchange for a tankful of go-juice for my jalopy, then I pointed my compass to the north, raised the mainsail, lashed the tiller, and headed for the horizon.
I'd decided, on a fairly arbitrary whim, to visit Durham. I think the only time I've been to Durham before, was in my student days, when I went to visit an old schoolmate, see a band... I can't recall what band, but it might have been Lindisfarne, and got disgustingly drunk at the ensuing student party.  I'm not proud of that. Like most teenagers, I went through a phase when I tried to emulate the other idiots around me, regardless of the fact that I hated being drunk. But hey, it was what you were supposed to do, so I tried my best to enjoy it. 
I failed. 

Anyway, over the years, I've been past Durham many a time, always on the way somewhere else, I've even passed through the outskirts a few times. It's always been a place I meant to visit, but somehow never did.

Today I decided to put that right. The city of Durham owes its foundation to St Cuthbert. 
Cuthbert was born in 635 a.d. in the north-east of England. Although, at that time, there was no such country. Let's say "Cuthbert was born in Northumbria". 
During, the Roman occupation of Britain, and after they left, Britain was made up of several kingdoms and tribal fiefdoms, and shortly before Cuthbert's birth, in about 600 a.d., King Aethelfrith of Berenicia joined his kingdom with neighbouring Deira, forming the new Kingdom of Northumbria, which stretched northward from the waters of the Humber estuary to the Firth of Forth in Scotland...
I could tell you more, but I sense that you're yawning, so I won't, I'll just leave you a link, so anyone who wants to know about that era can.
 Anyway, young Cuthbert was trained as a warrior, as befitted a young man of his status, but one night, whilst out guarding sheep, he saw "angels ascending to heaven,carrying a soul of great brightness". Or maybe he saw a shooting star, a meteor, and explained it in the only way he could. 
The night on which the young christian shepherd-warrior saw his vision, was the night on which the abbot of Lindisfarne, Saint Aidan died. Cuthbert saw it as his calling to become a monk, and so he  commenced a new life dedicated to prayer, at the end of his life, he was the master of the community on the island of Lindisfarne, and regarded as the most saintly man in Britain. 
He was soon ordained as a saint, and when, some years later,  Viking raids on the Lindisfarne monastery became frequent, the monks took up the coffin of their saint, and resolved to carry it to a place of safety, at Chester le Street. The saint's remains rested there some time, before further viking raids drove the monks to take them to the monastery at Ripon.Over two hundred years after his death, he was moved again, Ripon being under attack, so the monks decided to return him to Chester-le-Street. The going was hard though, in wintry weather, struggling across a country with few roads, harried by more attacks. After one particularly exhausting struggle through freezing mud, the monks were about ready to  give up, until Saint Cuthbert conveniently appeared to one of them in a vision, and told them he wanted to be buried at 'Dunholm'.

"East of Durham the cart carrying the saint's body stuck fast in the mud of the road. After three days of fasting and prayer St.Cuthbert revealed that he wished his shrine to be at Dunholme, a place unknown. Then it was learned that a great crag in a loop of the River Wear was the place of the dun cow, lost and found, Here at the east end St.Cuthbert was buried exactly where the dun cow had been found at rest, and here was built the present Durham Cathedral Pilgrims to the shrine attested miracles and each All Saint's Day the body was revealed, yet incorrupt."

(the incorrupt bit: for those of us not altogether familiar with how to identify a genuine saint, one easy way is to remember, saints don't rot. Other dead people go stinky, and end up as skeletons,  but saints just lie there, all pink and soft, as if they're just taking a nap. And they smell of flowers, or aerosol air freshener, it's called 'The Odour of Sanctity'. I mean, they already knew he was a saint, but him not decomposing proved it to everyone.)

Let's digress a moment, as I did. I digressed in my route north, zigzagging through small villages, back roads and farm tracks, and passed through a little place called Shildon.
I also saw signs pointing to an attraction called 'Locomotion'. However, I passed through the village, and was turning out onto the Durham road when my brain eventually got around to telling me what I knew about Shildon. Coal mines. And railways. Horse-hauled rail wagons. Birth of the steam locomotive, but.... Ah yes, Shildon, the first ever PASSENGER train set off from Shildon in.... 1825.  Hauled by "Locomotion No.1".
Push button for further anecdotal details on any picture*

So I turned around. Went to look for that sign, followed it to the shiny new shed of the National Railway Museum's Shildon Annex. See those parallel lines? Rail tracks into the building.

 And it's full of bustle, because there's a model-railway fair going on, lots of sellers of shiny new and battered old rail stuff, model cars, aircraft, books, photos, posters. I'm not a model rail person, I like to look, but I don't want one. It reminds me of being a kid, in a good way. I like to see the work that people put into their attempts to recreate tiny worlds of the past. 

What I like most of all is the real thing, real locos of the past.

 Remember this stripy beast? I've photographed it before, at the NRM's main museum in York. The collection moves around.
Duchess of Hamilton streamline display at York.

Bored yet?
One of the world's very first passenger rail carriages. Clearly showing its relationship to horse-drawn stagecoaches. This one has a luggage rack on top, where third class passengers also travelled.

I'll post this now, and add more, because the Red Dirt Girl wants to see it. Be patient, its one in the morning here in the future.

So then I went to Durham. And Durham had a street Brass-Band festival going, which was great fun, so, before I get back to Cuthbert, here's a few minutes of slightly wobbly fun.

So, Cuthbert? Dunholm, Dunholm grew, a church was built over his tomb, then, the Normans arrived. They'd defeated Harold, King of England, not least because poor old Harold, knowing the Normans were poised to attack, and readying an invasion fleet, was informed that a huge force of vikings  under Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson, strengthened by a large number of Scots, and was advancing toward York, King Harold marched his army 185 miles in just four days, met the vikings at Stamford Bridge, and defeated them in a very hard-fought, bloody battle. 
Harold left a small band of warriors to secure the area, and turned about marching his exhausted, wounded, depleted army the length of England, just in time to meet the Normans at Senlac Field, outside Hastings. 
The Normans were a disciplined, tightly drilled, excellently equipped army, well supplied, and ready to fight. The battle was close, and in the end, a Norman tactical ruse won the day. That and an arrow striking Harold in the eye.

Maybe if there had been no earlier carnage, no long fast marching, the outcome would have been different. As it was, William, Duke of Normandy, also known as William the Bastard, became, on that day, in 1066, William the Conqueror, and King William I of England.
His first acts were to send soldiers to secure his new kingdom, and to put down rebels, bloodily, to build strongholds in all the regions. This meant castles, and of course, hearts and minds, if you're the conquering army, you need to control a hostile populace. If you can assure the populace that god is on your side, and that god requires their obedience to their new overlords, then you truly hold the reins of power. William and his barons were great churchbuilders. And, in Durham, they had a steep hill, protected on three sides by a river, on the summit, they had one of England's most revered saints, a church, a place of pilgrimage. William appointed a Norman, William de Carilef, as prince-bishop of Durham, and it was he who commenced building a great new cathedral over Cuthbert's remains.
There's no doubt, the Cathedral, and the castle together at the top of the hill, are a tremendous statement of power, and Durham is one of Europe's greatest cathedrals, whose significance is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

This aerial view is not my picture.

The Cathedral does not permit photography inside. I will steal pictures off the internet, because they would not let me take any. I don't know why. There was a photographic exhibition in a chapel of the cathedral. Irony?
I did take a clandestine bit of video, forgetting to hold the phone horizontally, when a choir was practising. There was a Royal School of Church Music Choir event scheduled for  later in the day.

In that same chapel is the tomb of The Venerable Bede. Bede. Can you imagine? Bede, 673-735 A.D., monk, historian, translator, the man whose writings shed light into what would otherwise be a lost period of history. The first historian of Britain. I remember, long ago, as a schoolboy, reading a translated excerpt from Bede's history, fascinated that a man from so long ago could speak to me. 
“It seems to me that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while – but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”
Bede was one of St Cuthbert's early teachers. It's fitting that both should  share space in the cathedral, though their tombs are at opposite ends of the building.

I'm not religious, but I do have a very real appreciation that this is a sacred space. I'm not sure how to explain it, I have no doubt whatsoever that Bede, Cuthbert, and many others buried in  this church were extraordinary people, people whose lives lit the world around them, people whose goodness, beliefs, and steadfast dedication are revered, still, after many centuries.
You might call me an atheist, but I'm not sure I want to fly any "ist" as my banner. I try to live my life in the way that I was taught, to be good, true, honest, and tolerant. If there is a god, then if he is the good and all-merciful god (as described in the parts of the bible that don't describe him as a nasty psychotic vindictive god), then I think he'll judge me by my overall behaviour, rather than my adherence to the prayer book. Nobody'll carry me around for two hundred years though, to keep me safe from the vikings.

Cuthbert's Tomb 

The Cathedral green.

Castle Gatehouse

 Ha! The nearest you'll get to a self portrait from me!

 Amazingly detailed and accurate model.
Data captured from helicopter camera stereoscopic images then digitised and the model produced in sections on a 3D printer. The level of accurate detail is mind-boggling.

(*Experimental non-functioning button)