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 weak-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.
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.
Two 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.