The 235 Steps

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DURHAM is a great place for walkers. Excellent paths follow a winding riverside and fork up into the traffic-free city centre, which because of its historical significance has held Unesco World Heritage Site status since 1986. The city has plenty of highlights – but the highlight of the highlights is a climb to the top of Durham Cathedral tower. It’s an adventure that is not for the fainthearted or the week-kneed . . .

Apologies for the slightly ambiguous title to this post. I’m a big fan of John Buchan and a play on The 39 Steps – his greatest novel – was a temptation too strong to avoid. To justify its usage further, Buchan did include a car chase to Scotland through the rural lanes and pit villages of County Durham in his 1936 book The Island of Sheep, before his hero disappeared to the Faroe Islands or some equally cold and remote Scandinavian outpost.

Durham is a beautiful and charming city and its claims to fame are many. Despite being outrageously misplaced on the wrong river by Roger Whittaker in his 1969 song Durham Town (When I was a boy I spent my time, sitting on the banks of the River Tyne . . .) this city on the River Wear is home to one of Britain’s greatest cathedrals, a renowned university, Norman castle, and has history leeching from between every cobble.

It was, until the last colliery closed in 1993, the physical and spiritual centre of the Durham coalfield. On the second Saturday of every July it still hosts the Durham Miners’ Gala, an event attended by up to 100,000 people (figures courtesy of Durham Police). Don’t expect to find a city-centre parking place on gala day. Park and ride costs £2.

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Any views or opinions expressed on this plaque are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone associated with this blog

Any views or opinions expressed on this plaque are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone associated with this blog

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Not many people know this, but when Albert Einstein was developing his theory of special relativity at the turn of the last century he worked part-time as a road mender for Durham County Council. His experimental equations can be found at numerous locations all over the city

Not many people know this, but when Albert Einstein was developing his theory of special relativity at the turn of the last century he worked part-time as a road mender for Durham County Council. His experimental equations can be found at numerous locations all over the city

So, an ascent of the cathedral tower. I’ve been up before, but that was about 20 years ago when I was fitter. I’ve warmed up with a walk along the river and now I’m ready for the challenge. I pay £5 for the privilege of climbing 235 steps. The lady at the door points out that it’s cheaper than the gym. Fair enough. I suspect she’s used that line before.

durham 13Two very long and torturous spiral staircases later I’m sitting in sunshine and freezing wind on the top of the tower. Breathless people are complaining about aching legs. One poor young chap, terrified of heights, is being coaxed from the shelter of the staircase by his partner and led around by the hand.

Gazing west towards Consett and the distant horizon, I unexpectedly spot the farmhouse and fir wood where Buchan’s hero – driving a Bentley – gave his pursuers the slip on his flight to Scotland. Blimey, that was a stroke of luck. Good choice of title after all.

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And finally . . . You can’t wander far in Durham without stumbling across a prison

And finally . . . You can’t wander far in Durham without stumbling across a prison

 

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About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
This entry was posted in Durham Miners Gala, Footpaths, Hiking, History, John Buchan, Religion, Tyneside, Walking and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to The 235 Steps

  1. I wish Durham and York were a bit closer to where I live. Lancaster and Chester are okay, but lack something I can’t quite put my finger on.

    In spite of my acrophobia I went up York Minster’s tower a few years ago and enjoyed similar views (the route up leads out onto a ledge at one point; not for the nervous). Durham’s setting in the river bend and up on the hill is a perfect mix for an Olde Englishe setting.

    And now I can’t Roger Whittaker out of my head. I’ll be hearing whistling noises all day now. (Didn’t he also have a hit with Ferry Across the Avon?)
    Chris

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    • McEff says:

      Ferry Across the Avon. I’ll be chuckling about that all day.
      I’ll put York Minster on my list. I’ve been in the crypt but not up the tower. There are so many entertaining things one can do in a cathedral! Who needs Flamingo Land when there’s a cathedral on your doorstep?
      Cheers, Alen

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  2. Mjollnir says:

    Some nice photos there cuz and I liked the extra info about Einstein! 🙂

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  3. brandybutter says:

    Fascinating post, thanks for climbing those 235 steps. Some great views there. I have added Durham to my list of places to visit this year, perhaps when it is a bit warmer! I bet it was cold at the top of that tower.

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Norman. It was the coldest place I’ve been for a long time.
      Durham is a small but very beautiful city. The best way to visit is park and ride at Belmont, if you’re coming up the A1M or the A19. Parking’s free and the bus is £2 return, or free for pensioners.
      All the best, Alen

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      • brandybutter says:

        Durham is not that far from where I live, but for some reason, I rarely visit it. Thanks for the inspiration and the tips. I must remember that I am a pensioner now!

        Regards, Norman

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  4. beatingthebounds says:

    Great photos. I’ve been to the Cathedral (my wife is a County Durham girl) but never up the tower. One for the to do list.
    I’ve also made a mental note to keep a look out for ‘The 39 Steps’ – which, in one of those odd coincidences which seem to happen so often, I was just reading about elsewhere. (In, ‘The Novel Cure’ a lovely book to drop in to in odd moments of quiet time.)

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  5. Superb! Still haven’t been to Durham despite passing over the railway bridge several times on the way to Newcastle and commenting, each time, I really must go there! It looks really beautiful. Definitely a must-visit.

    I’m okay with high towers if there’s a decent parapet (looks like there is there). Can’t believe it’s £5 to climb the tower though! It looks a good viewpoint.
    Carol.

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  6. Hanna says:

    Great post, Alen. I love the towers and turrets with spiral staircases. It is a unique view you have from Durham Cathedral tower. It is very interesting to see the architecture which only looks like something I’ve seen on film.
    Once when I was going up in the Church of Our Saviour, I was told the staff that I did some blogging. So, don’t pay anything, was the answer. I think you should mention it next time. Particularly if larger amounts 🙂
    PS Under the bombardment of Copenhagen England used The Church of Our Saviour and aimed for the spire 😀
    All the best,
    Hanna

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    • McEff says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Hanna. And I recall that you’ve done one or two similar pieces involving high towers and spiral staircases. That’s a great idea about mentioning the blog to the staff. I must try that next time I’m in a similar situation. I should get some business cards printed.
      Nelson can’t have been the good shot he was cracked up to be if the spire of the Church of Our Saviour’s still standing. Mind you, he only had one eye.
      All the best, Alen

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  7. David says:

    A fiver “t climb tower” bloomin heck! Last time I had the pleasure of visiting Durham cathedral was years ago when they were shooting the film Elizabeth. I was one of the Duke of Norfolk’s (Christopher Eccleston) gang wearing a false beard and marching around in yellow trying to look threatening.

    The sound of a dozens of northern blokes shouting “Tis heresey” at Cate Blanchett is a surreal memory, as is the memory of one bloke who got carried away and shouted bollocks. Thanks for reawakening a trip down memory lane Alen 🙂 I must head back and visit the place again.

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    • McEff says:

      That’s a fantastic story, David. Next time I watch the film (it was on the telly quite recently) I’ll keep an eye open for you with your false beard. It’s not everyone can say they’ve shouted at Cate Blanchett. I had a laugh at the bit about the bloke shouting bollocks. I bet that hasn’t been heard very often in Durham Cathedral.
      Cheers, Alen

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  8. mandala56 says:

    Wow. I guess I’d better start using that stair-stepper at the gym, as it looks like climbing that tower has got to be on my list when I get back there. I wonder how that compares with St. Paul’s (I’ve done that one a few times, but not since post-middle-age hit me).
    Great photos, thank you!

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Jeanne. No worries. St Paul’s Cathedral, at 365ft, is much taller than Durham Cathedral, which tops out at 217ft. You should zoom to the top.
      Cheers, Alen

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  9. Beautiful set of images and a stunning place.

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  10. EchoohcE says:

    Thanks for the post Alen, I’ve never visited Durham but your photo’s and writings make it appealing. Might go there one day soon with the missus to look in the charity shops (sigh) -_-
    I wouldn’t dare go up the steps to the tower top yet, it would take too much concentration, and if I trod badly I’d be back to square one! Better off limping on the level for the time being 😉
    Mike

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Mike. I’ve often thought about writing a blog dedicated to charity shops I have stood outside. Durham has plenty. Some of them sell chairs and sofas, which is always a bonus because you can sit and snooze. Cheers, Alen

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  11. Now that is quite spooky, since only a fortnight ago I had expressed a desire to His Lordship that we have a trip to Durham and, in particular, the Cathedral, since I haven’t been there since I was about seven.
    And Mark, I didn’t know your wife was a Co Durham lass like me? Just where is she from? Is she a Monkey Hanger like all my family are???

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    • McEff says:

      Spooky or what? It’s funny how things happen like that.
      I think to ask Mark that question, Chrissie, you’ll have to click the “reply” tag on one of his comments. Please do because we’re all dying to know. It’s a small world and getting smaller all the time.
      Alen

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      • Will do! I’ve just been passing a very pleasant hour too, marking your Christmas walk in the N Yorks Moors and your Mardale to Shap Corpse route on my maps, with a view to backpacking them in the not too distant future. Hope you don’t mind me using your routes…. 🙂

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  12. Tynemouth Anonmous !. I have many memories of Durham…I was born at quite an early age. I attempted to shoot both parents so I could be eligible for the annual orphans outing. They must have held a bit of grudge against me I told my father I would like to read Philosophy & Politics at Magdelin College Oxford. “Ye kidden me son..noon of this educashun crap yere gannin doon the pit!” Well I was taken aback. I suggested I wouldn’t mind even the bacon counter at the local Co-Op. “Were havin nee moar agree bargee it’s THE PIP..report to the Deputy 6am the morro” Well,the next day I arrived sharpish.I asked ( in a polite manner as is my wont)for my helmet and Davy lamp. The deputy said “Did yer father not tell ye this is a Poverty Pit ?” Gan owner there and lower tersel doon the rope..it’s a Poverty Pit. Nee helmets nee lamps or owt like that..heors yer candle,two matches.and ya pic..gan on and divent mess about.” As I walked over to the shaft his Poverty Pit, Poverty Pit kept resonating in my mind. I somewhat,awkwardly descended into the gloom,my flickering candle in on hand and the pick in the other.I half crawled to the coal face and began feebly picking.After a while I became aware of a flapping sound….it got nearer and in what feeble light I had,I made out it to be an enormous bat. I continued picking to the reccuring chant within my head poverty pit poverty pit.Suddenly I heard the flapping sound approaching,right,I thought…I’ll get the bugger this time! I waited and just spot on I impaled it to the roof seam. Somewhat happier I began my picking…poverty pit poverty pit it was just the right rhythm. Suddenly I heard the dulcet call of the Pit Deputy…”Every body oot….the bloody fans packed oop,” And that is why I am Tynemouth. Pip pip

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    • McEff says:

      Peter, I wouldn’t mind a pint of whatever it is you’re drinking up there in Tynemouth because it wouldn’t take much to keep me laughing all night. That’s a great tale. If there’s a single word of it that’s anywhere near the truth I’d love to know.
      Cheers, Alen

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  13. Tynemouth calling. admission. I told alie about the co-op bacon counter it was in fact the surgical goods counter! I just did not to appear to be so vulgar to your myriad of followers. ( mind even that counter gave you your ‘divi’ never how embarrassed you were.(How the family fortune was made and I have not forgotten the Admilarity manual) So little time and so many memories! Or was that women? Sadly…….I can’t remember. Pip pip (for now)

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