Old Durham Town

11 07 2012

Date:   3 April 2003  (Sorry, no photographs of my own during this excursion.  I bought my new digital camera the week after this!)

In addition to England being filled from top to bottom with majestic castles and cathedrals, in every church there is inevitably a round ruddy-faced monk, or patient elderly church volunteer, whose job it is to stand at the base of an antiquated stone stairwell and encourage you to contribute a small donation for the pleasure of climbing to the top.  But more about that shortly.  This time around my exploration of the North East of England led me to Durham and the hallowed and ancient grounds of Durham Castle.

Durham Castle - view from within the Castle co...

Durham Castle – view from within the Castle courtyard. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Having spent a few years as a live-in residential assistant (RA) at University College in Dunedin, New Zealand – a hall of residence for first year university students – I was amused to discover that Durham Castle housed the very first University College in England.  It was certainly a far cry from the two familiar concrete slabs situated next to Otago University in Dunedin.  Spectacular buildings, secret stairways and dark dungeons were all enclosed within the huge, thick and impenetrable castle walls.  In Dunedin we only ever had two large glass swinging doors to keep out predatory teenagers.  Orientation Week was particularly troublesome as randy boys and girls loitered outside seeking a willing participant for a drunken one-night stand.

I used to guard the doors with a fellow RA nicknamed Filthy, and very rarely did anyone get past us on our ironclad watch.  Not even the All Black (who will remain nameless, but who later became Captain!) who pounded on the doors, flexing his calf and bicep muscles, and snorting on the cold glass in desperation.  Not even him.  It was a very entertaining job patrolling those “fresher” halls for three years, but those tales are an entirely different blog!

As I wandered through the dining hall and listened to stories of how Oliver Cromwell used Durham Cathedral as a make-shift prison to house Scottish prisoners of war, I envisaged him sitting at the head table, tearing the meat from a tender leg of lamb with his teeth, then quaffing the remains of his tankard before dragging some unlucky wench upstairs to have his wicked way with her.  Ahhh, the days when men were men.  Thank goodness those have passed!

Durham castle

Durham Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Strolling through the castle grounds and into the cathedral, I appreciated the gothic architecture, the flying buttresses, the fact that it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Shrine of St Cuthbert (?!).  Yes I did appreciate those things.  But on the other hand, how fickle of me to get outlandishly excited when I stumbled across the cloisters and learned that parts of the very first Harry Potter movie had been filmed there.  Of course in my defence the Harry Potter phenomenon was sweeping the world at an unprecedented rate at that time.

Durham Cathedral cloisters used to film the Ha...

Durham Cathedral cloisters used to film the Harry Potter movies.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After entering the cathedral I made my way to the central tower, which I had been assured offered the best views of Durham and the surrounding area.  And it is here that I met the round ruddy-faced monk I mentioned at the beginning of this tale, complete with brown robes and rope knotted around the middle.  I grinned stupidly at him.  Let’s remember, I grew up in New Zealand during the seventies, eighties and nineties.  The only place I ever saw someone dressed like that was in the television series Robin Hood.  “Hello Friar Tuck” I murmured, nodding my head respectfully.

For just £2, he told me, I could climb the 325 steps to the top of the tower for a royal view of Durham.  I plonked my gold coin into his collection box, performed a few limbering stretches at the door to the stairwell and then tore up the steps.  I’ll be up here in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, I thought.

It turned out to be a whole lot trickier than that.  The stairwell was less than a metre wide and spiraled tightly in a very steep gradient, and with people coming down while I was going up, there wasn’t a whole lot of room to move in that space!  Aside from total lung collapse, a spasmodic heartbeat and unrelenting muscle spasms in my thighs and ass, I eventually made my way up to the tiny door at the top.

Keep stairwell.

This isn’t THE stairwell, but this is exactly what it looked like! (Photo: Flickr)

Unfortunately, the manner in which I swaddled my arms and legs around the centre of the staircase as tourists brushed past me was nothing less than an obscene representation of Demi Moore’s pole dance in the movie Striptease.  While women pursed their lips in consternation, men brushed uncomfortably close on their way past.  It seemed that I was the only one making an effort to flatten my body against the curved walls of the stairwell, while everybody else passed by without even so much as a tilt of the torso!  Children were also not faring well, many on the verge of tears at the steep gradient, which was a hundred times worse going down.  One footing error on the uneven and slippery steps would result in a quick fire ascent on your backside all the way to the bottom.  And I know I used to do that as a kid for fun on the carpet covered stairs of the Awamoa Hockey Pavilion, but having a slightly less robust posterior these days, the idea filled me with horror!

While I leaned over the parapet at the top catching my breath, I barely took the time to admire the views, so apprehensive was I about getting back down!

On my descent, the steps were so narrow that I had to step down each one sideways, and since two feet wouldn’t fit on the same step, I had to either step down two with the right leg and one with the left, or cross my legs over each other.  Both options left me precariously unbalanced.  It was slow going, and then there was the required flattening of oneself against the wall to let people pass on their way up.  It was a stroke of good luck if an arrow slit happened nearby that I could press myself into!

When I finally exited the bottom of the tower, my knees were knackered and my thighs burned hotter than two iron pokers pulled straight from a Blacksmith’s forge.  It made it quite difficult to walk and I looked like a malfunctioning robot as my knees snapped backwards awkwardly causing my legs to straighten in a restricted robotic movement.

I forced a polite smile at the round ruddy-faced Monk as I hobbled past him, trying to muster as much composure as I could.

“Did you close the door at the top?” he smiled.

Nice one, I thought sarcastically.  Friar Tuck had a sense of humour too.

And without looking back, I hobbled out the gates of Durham Castle and tottered back to the train station.

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