3 Days in Durham

DSC03407This is my journal describing my recent short trip to Durham. It was written before this week’s referendum so the comment from my taxi driver on day 1 is very apposite. Despite the apparent similarities between Durham and Cambridge its referendum vote was very different.

Wed 8 Jun 16

0850 and it’s the cat at the door again. Viktor from Poland with his Panther Merc to take me to the station. He’s 10 minutes early but no matter. I’d always prefer to be early for trains. The alternative of being late and having a last minute rush through the barrier and onto the train isn’t consistent with my philosophy of reducing travel stress.

We chat at length about the EU referendum. He complains about the EU being high handed in its dealings with Poland. I begin to worry that he’ll vote ‘out’ but then he tells me he’ll be voting ‘in’ because he wants to give his three daughters the right future.

I’m into the station in plenty of time and at 1001 I’m on the CrossCountry train for Peterborough.It’s a fine day but it’s a hazy sun so the sky’s just an apology for blue. Not so the vegetation though where everything is lush and green. That’s it for colours though because it’s too early for the yellow of rapeseed.

2016-06-08 11.14.54On time into Peterborough and it’s coffee time. The coffee bar at the foot of the stairs to platforms 4 and 5 is now more, it’s a rather posh Virgin Trains help desk, so I end up at Pumpkin which is decidedly down market. But it still changes £2.15 for a small Americano.

The 1116 for Edinburgh arrives on time and I’m now sat in seat 52, one of a group of four and I’m in an aisle seat facing forward. Two of the other three seem like sisters: one about 16 listening to an iPhone and the other maybe early 20s reading. Fellow traveller number 3 is an older woman reading the Times. First Class is full but I guess everyone’s on a cheap ticket like me.

The ladies start talking, together. So I guess it’s a mother and two daughters. And since they have American accents I guess they’re American and doing some sort of grand tour together.

There seems to be excellent free wifi on the train: connects easily and then just needs an email address to complete the process. It seems good for the Internet and email although Evernote won’t synchronise.

First class on Virgin seems pretty good because it’s not just free coffee you also get free food and booze. I opt for a glass, and it’s a big glass but not undrinkable, of Spanish Mala Piera Cabernet Sauvignon and cheese sandwiches aka ploughman’s lunch. I’ve ordered it as we leave York so fingers crossed it comes in time before I get off.

DSC03391We arrive on time and it’s an easy walk to the hotel. I’ve learnt from recent bookings and I’ve gone a little up market so I’m staying at the Marriott. It’s no problem to check-in but I could do without the third degree:

* Business or pleasure?
* First time in Durham?
* Have you come far?

And then it’s do you want breakfast? What about a newspaper? And can we scan your credit card? All I want to do is check in.

I get a nice enough room in the wing upstairs from the health club. I’ve brought my gear so I wander down to check it out. ‘How long is the pool?’ I ask. The lady points it out: ‘From here to there she says’! Fortunately one of her colleagues tells me, and her, that it’s 17m. That means 30 lengths for half a kilometre. Not sure I can be bothered.

To continue a developing theme I’m refused access to the wifi. When I ring up I’m told that my room doesn’t have free wifi. It costs £10. As I prepare to work myself up into a rage the receptionist, she of the questions above, gets smart and suggests that I sign up for Marriott Rewards. She takes my email address and bingo I’m in.

DSC03322Time to get my bearings so I walk into town and find Caffe Nero. I then take the back route up to the Cathedral and it really is impressive albeit less so because there’s scaffolding and a cover on the big bell tour in the centre. Then there’s another disappointment when I see that you can’t take photographs inside. There is a paper explaining why and there’s just about a rationale but I think it’s a bit extreme given that just about every other cathedral allows it. They say you can download photos from the website but that’s not the same. It’s a great pity because it is very, very impressive. I don’t have the words to describe it adequately.

There are steps going up the bell tour and there’s a sign saying tower open. So I head over and there’s two people there and a notice saying cash only. One tells me the tower’s closed. I point to the notice. But they say because it’s a student tradition to climb the tower after exams it’s open. I don’t understand but I hand money over and notice that one of the two records me on a sort of abacus like counting frame. The other marks me down on a sheet of paper. Don’t they trust each other?

2016-06-08 15.26.58So I head up to the top and it’s a long way. There’s no view to speak of but I get to see the bells which are largely hidden and unimpressive. There’s a sign exhorting you to take a selfie with the bells but since I don’t do selfies well I got an attendant to do it for me. So proof I’ve been to the top of the bell tower on a day that it might have been closed.

Back to the hotel and a quick gym with all the problems of unfamiliar machines: 18 minutes on the bike, a hilly 10 on the treadmill and another 10 on the stair master. That earns enough merit for dinner.

Dinner is at DH1, presumably named after the postcode, which is highly rated on TripAdvisor and for which I made a reservation on-line. It was a good mile from the hotel and I was reminded how hilly Durham is, a bit like Rome built on several hills. I had this strange sensation when I went in, as far as I could see I was the only man there. The restaurant itself was small and along with me there was a table for 2 (mother and daughter Chinese In think), a table for 8 women from the same business and me. There was one more table which would be occupied by 4 guys half an hour or so later.

2016-06-08 21.44.12DH1 does set menus with and without wine and the 8 women were doing one with wine and seemed to have ordered extra bottles too. Every so often 3 of them got up to go outside for a fag (an intercourse cigarette). Lots of fun generally but nothing got out of hand.

Full marks there were only two waitresses who also looked after the bar. The food was interesting to good. I had a half menu viz beef tartare, smokey hogget (which was superb) and a chocolate dish. Plus an Estrella, two glasses (125ml) of Shiraz and an Erazuriz sweet Sauvignon Blanc. The hogget came with a little bowl of mashed potato. When I asked about this the younger waitress reprimanded me in her best Wearside accent. It was pomme purée!

End of day 1. Largely positive with one abiding impression: they do speak funny here.

Thu 9 Jun 16

Amazingly I sleep until 0820 although it was a bit of a restless night. Despite it not being so hot in Durham the bedroom could have been cooler and although I had 6 pillows on the bed I only had one duvet and it was a bit too heavy.

2016-06-09 09.07.32I headed off into town to get a newspaper and then breakfast at Caffe Nero. It seems a good start to the day: a little exercise and then a leisurely breakfast with time to read the paper. I then pop up to the ticket office by the Castle and buy a tour ticket for 1615.

I decide to walk out of town to the Botanical Garden and Oriental Museum. That’s two places but reasonably close together out in the university sector.

That’s the big difference between Cambridge and Durham, Although both are ancient universities and have developed along college lines little of Durham University is actually in the city. It’s more of a campus, a holiday camp with books, a mile or so out of the city.

DSC03337En route I meet a group of six or so horse-drawn caravans. I guess it’s a bunch of travellers. Lots of cheery good mornings all in north-eastern accents.

The gardens were super. Nice rambling footpaths, lots of seats and a very natural, unforced layout. In fact there’s lots of evidence around Durham of natural open space with verges, graveyards and river banks simply being left as wild flower space. Within the gardens there’s a science trail which I largely did backwards but which reminds you of the sort of valuable work which such places do. It wasn’t crowded but there were plenty of visitors: a mix of older people, young mums and small children and school groups. The latter especially seemed to be having lots of fun.

DSC03372At 1200 I headed over to the museum and if possible that was even more super. Not big, you could walk round easily in an hour (I did) or, I imagine, you could spend a day in just one part of it. It’s compact, superbly presented and fascinating. In just 4 compact floors it covers China, Japan, Korea, SE Asia and India. For some reason it also does Egypt. Absolutely super. It’s made me think I should check out a few of Cambridge’s museums so see if they’re any thing like as good.

I took lunch at the New Inn. It was convenient and adequate. Friendly place with a standard burger etc menu and an array of beers on tap. I fancied a Blue Moon, an American ‘craft’ beer which tasted good but at 5% it would knock me out for the afternoon. I went instead for Fosters which quenched at first but after a few mouthfuls you wondered why you were bothering. The burger was similar. Well/over cooked minced beef, not enough cheese and a cotton wool bun. Adequate and no more so back to town and an espresso in Starbucks (!) because it’s in the hotel. The New Inn did rack up a first though: barman took my payment ‘contactless’ without asking me first. I guess it’ll become the norm.

1515 I head off to the Castle for a cup of tea before joining the 1615 tour. All the tables at the Cafe on the Green are occupied but I invite myself to join a couple of ladies. This gives the waitress big problems. It seems their system only allows for one bill per table so she has to mark me down as table 999. The two ladies I find out are both over 70 and one has done most of the travelling that I’ve done.

DSC03388We’re 25 or so on the castle tour and it’s worth the money but I’m surprised again that there’s no photography inside. Can’t understand this time because there’s no worshippers to disturb. I sneak a couple of shots. We hear that the Castle is home to the University’s oldest and most formal college with a dining hall very like one in a Cambridge college. Out of term the college offers rooms for bed & breakfast which sounds like a good deal.

It’s only 1700 and the Cathedral is still open with evensong at 1715. There’s a rope at the top of the nave apparently keeping people away from the action with a jobsworth making it clear that mere visitors are not welcome. He’s soon replaced by a woman and I ask why it’s not encouraged to go in and sit down and so appreciate the event. She tells me it is so I go down to the front and get a half hour or so of blissful music and quiet contemplation. Well worth doing and a bonus.

I’ve been planning dinner at Restaurant 17 but last night it was already shut down at 1000 and today when I asked if I should book I was told it was not necessary. So I decided to check out the Courtyard which I’d seen advertised in one of the guides.

I used Google Maps to take me there and instead of taking me to the front door it routed me via Drury Lane, actually a narrow step access from down by the river more or less to the back door. However when I worked my way round to the front and looked in it seemed busy and pleasantly light and airy so I decided to stay. But first another of those surreal encounters which seem to dog me.

After confirming that I was a potential customer who was interested in dining the exchange went something like this:

‘We’re full but if you leave your name you can come back at 2030’ (it was 1945 at the time)
‘But what about that table (I point to an empty table set for three)?’
(checks with manager) ‘It’s reserved’
‘So what about that one (I point to an empty table for four)?’
(checks again with manager) ‘That’s reserved too’

Then I note a table for two with no food and the diners with a body language which says we’re about to go.

‘That table’s about to become free’
‘No it’s not. We have a system. It’s on an iPad’ (honest she said that)

Then someone else takes a bill to it

‘It is about to be free. I can take that one’
(checks with manager again) ‘you’ll have to wait 10 minutes’
‘what about offering me a drink whilst I’m waiting’

2016-06-09 20.48.49So at about 2000 I sat at a table and have a pretty good meal. I start with the usual overpriced scallops but then I have an excellent saddle of lamb. Plus a Flying Dog US pale ale (didn’t like it that much), a glass of Chilean Chardonnay and another of Ribero del Duero. And a real espresso from boss lady Rachel. Good enough for 4 stars.

On the way back to the hotel I check out house prices in estate agents’ windows. I’m not sure where some of the houses are but there prices below £100K and even bigger detached houses are ‘only’ £200K or so.

So that’s the end of day 2 and I decide that you really don’t need much more than a day in Durham although if you’ve got a car there’s also some interesting stuff round about.

Fri 10 Jun 16

I don’t sleep well and I’m up soon after 0730. It’s a dull and overcast day with some rain forecast.

I note that I haven’t had my 5 a day fruit and veg so I’ll have to get some clementines at M&S. Before that it’s breakfast at Caffe Nero: regular Americano and two croissants. The barista asks me if I’m sure I want a small and shows me the cup. It really is small. He tells me that some places only have regular and large. I guess that must be the case in Cambridge. So I opt for a regular.

DSC03393Now’s time to walk again. I take the walk down by the river around the Cathedral and Castle. It’s super. Good walkway and a few boathouses but otherwise undeveloped so lots of vegetation and more evidence of wild flowers blooming. Not just flowers but lots of rhododendrons as well.

1100 and I’m off to the gym again. Same workout as Wednesday evening but then my card doesn’t work to get me back into my room. Soon sorted but it did involve a sweaty visit to reception.

1245: check out and off to lunch.

2016-06-10 13.41.56I have lunch at Bill’s. Every other pub/restaurant is either a chain, I know Bill’s is too, or is simply offering the same burger etc menu. Bill’s is a bit different. I’m served by the manager, Steve, who tells me a bit about the company. It’s privately owned and it pays above the national living wage. It’s a bit upmarket and Steve says it wouldn’t work in Sunderland. He knows because that’s where he’s from. I enjoy, I really do, a tomato/cheese/rocket tart, sea bass (very small) with avocado and a mini strawberry Pavlova. Plus a Camden Hells beer and an espresso. First class.

I’m back in real-time now at 1415 with my train at 1544. I’m sat in the lobby at the hotel so time for a little reflection. Five highlights:

* Evensong at the Cathedral
* Dinners at the Courtyard and DH1
* The Botanical Gardens and the Oriental Museum.
* Two good workouts because I’d chosen a half way decent hotel
* The wild open space especially down by the river

I note however that there is a bit of a traffic problem and yesterday’s ladies did refer to ‘town/gown issues’.

There’s an advert in the lobby for student gym membership: £45/month! OK there’s a pool and you also get 25% off in the hotel’s restaurants but given that Durham is in general much cheaper than Cambridge it compares unfavourably with my £30/month at the Barn which is 3 or 4 times bigger.

1445 and I head off to the station. It’s a bit cooler and there’s a light drizzle. For pedestrians there’s no signage to the station until you’re there and then it requires you to cross the main access road without any protection. But I make it safely and now I’ve got a wait. I note that the coffee bar here is run by Costa.

1545 and I’m on the train for Peterborough. So is Gareth Malone. And as I leave I get a good view, albeit a drizzly one, of the Cathedral.

1820 and in real-time again. I’m leaving Peterborough sitting in the back of the train this time. It’s a bit cooler now and we’ve passed through some heavy rain as we’ve travelled south.

1855 and we’re in Ely with a good view of the Cathedral. It looks splendid and is without the scaffolding etc that lessened the impact of Durham. And we’ve got a watery sun coming out. Then just as we go over the bridge at Clayhithe we see the top division of the Bumps waiting to start.

And finally to round off the day and to complete a day of some celebrity I meet Andy Campbell at the bus stop and ride the Guided Bus home with him. End of a couple of days in Durham. Probably enough but worth it.

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