Apart from doing my usual creative pursuits and living life in a virus endangered , environmentally disastrous, and politically farcical world, along with all of you, I’ve been visiting my home county more often in the last few weeks as big life changes are going on in my small but highly significant family. So I found myself once again driving down across the border to County Durham, listening to my country music collection to top up my supply of good vibrations and excitations, while a full sun rose high in the sky. This time my mission was a more leisurely one, to pay a rare solo visit to Durham City, the town which was the hub of my life in the area until my early twenties, and then to take my mother for a visit to her local surgery for a blood test.
I knew I was excited to be getting the bus into Durham town from the park and ride because I dropped my bag of one pound coins at the entrance to the ticket machine while the bus was waiting and scrambled around to frantically pick up the coins. Ticket soon in hand, I hurried onto the bus while yanking my mask into position and was soon relieved to be sitting by a window and on my way into town on a sunny September day. Durham town is a historical wonder for visitors to the area. The tranquil and leafy fringed River Wear winds protectively around a stately Norman cathedral and an eleventh century castle. A centre of pilgrimage in medieval times, as the shrine of Saint Cuthbert, a miraculous healer of many diseases, was placed behind the high altar of the cathedral, there is a certain irony today in that cases of our modern day scourge of covid 19 are rising in this locale and the whole north of England. Durham is also a university town, and students have always traipsed down its cobbled streets, flocked onto the open grassy green of the cathedral square and flowed in and out of its bars and pubs. But for me, in my early twenties, Durham was a place I wanted to get away from. There is a ballad by crooner, Roger Whittaker, in which the first verse goes like this:
‘I’ve got to leave old Durham town,
I’ve got to leave old Durham town.
I’ve got to leave old Durham town,
And the leavings gonna get me down’.
For me, that last line could easily be: ‘And the leavings gonna set me free’.
Here is the archetypal view of Durham which features on all the postcards.
The cathedral towers over the town, shielded by the river, with a museum at its base which was once a parish church. For a while, for just a few months whilst on a job placement, I trotted down the snaking path that leads from the cathedral on the green to this museum with a heavy bag of medium format cameras, to photograph roman altar remains housed in the basement, for the archaeology department of Durham university. It was a pretty classy job :>) I would then return to the department to process the film and produce darkroom prints. Always an artist at heart, before I really knew it, I enjoyed creating moody dramatic contrast photographs of these relics rather than the requisite evenly toned, but distinctly flat, recordings. I was gently prompted to curb my passion for drama ;>)
There are two arched bridges which span the river where pedestrians have always flowed to the sound of street musicians.
Looking down on the river, there are always boats being rowed and people strolling down the river paths. There are lovers too. This town was where I met my husband, on an earlier work placement. It was youth work and I hated it. No learning how to use a pool cue for me, thank you. But there was a huge compensation. I met my future husband working here and we very soon fell in love. And the town I had hated for so long became our town, where we walked the river walks, had coffee in the cafes, and met up in the cobbled streets. He taught me the photographic processing and printing I later made use of in the job above, which I put to good use during some time apart – some time part which only served to teach us we should never have been.
Here are a couple of views of those well-trodden streets. The second is from my recent visit.
The café culture is creeping into the bones and stones of Durham, and every glance of mine in every direction brought restaurant, bar, and coffee shop fronts into view, some dark and mysterious with rustic wooden tables where you’d imagine a peasant from the middle ages thumping down his tankard and demanding more ale, some sleek with aluminium fittings and branded drink cartons to perch on a high stool with, while nonchalantly scanning the passers-by. There’s a cosmopolitan glow to this town it never possessed in the past, but it carries it well.
I found myself glancing down at the dusty cobbles in one particular street, remembering how I met my partner coming up this very street as I was walking down. His head bobbed into view and I watched him approach with anticipation. When we were face to face, he told me he’d just been to the job centre and applied for a job in the south. ‘What about me?’ I asked, inwardly incensed at the possibility he would leave me behind. ‘Will you come with me?’ he asked. ‘Do you want me too?’ I replied. ‘Of course I do!’ was his response. And with that, our future was set. We both said goodbye to Durham town and drove off into our future together. So for me, the good memories of the town are all about meeting my husband, falling in love, and never looking back.
Here is a picture of the young me, taken by my husband to be, when I was 24 and he was 30.
We’re in a ruined building by the riverside, spotted with sunlight. It’s a typically young person’s pensive pose, where a particular life angst is going on inside and it seems ever so important at the time. It makes me smile today. And my recent visit made me smile. What did you buy? my sister asked me when I got back. I bought a pasty for my mother from the shop she used to bring supplies from for me and my sister after her morning school teaching shift, pasty supplies which we’d grab off her as soon as she was through the front door. I bought some particular biscuits for my mother which family members are now duty bound to remember to get so she never runs out and which she grabs off us as soon as we are through the front door. There was a Paulo Coelho novel in a charity shop which caught my eye, but I managed to resist the Turkish mosaic glass lamps glimmering in the sultry atmosphere of the indoor market hall. And on my return to my mother’s home, she and I made it to the surgery for her blood tests. She’s 82 now and like all of us she doesn’t like getting older or visiting the doctors.
But in the 1950s, Durham town was a place of romance for my mother too. Meeting my father at a dance, she was soon smitten and had to get used to riding sidecar on a motorcycle. Here is a picture from the family album of her standing in front of my father’s bike on the green in front of the cathedral, looking chic in a woollen tweed two-piece.
And here they are together, in a rare picture which was worse for wear when we found it, but which my hubby has restored to some degree of glory, ready to take to the open road and make a life together.
So with these memories, it was a good visit, and I guess whether I like it or not, Durham town will always be in my heart.
I hope you are all staying safe and well in these conflicting times and doing some self-nurturing which we all need right now. Very best wishes from me to you :>)
(Top 3 pictures from pixabay)