Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Durham: Following in the Footsteps of Pilgrims

Bill Bryson, the American author and renowned anglophile, is Durham's greatest fan. In his bestselling eulogy to Britain, Notes from a Small Island he wrote: "I got off at Durham... and fell in love with it instantly in a serious way. Why, it's wonderful - a perfect little city.... If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It's wonderful."

Indeed, Durham must be most Americans' idea of heaven; a compact city which oozes history from every inch of its rich tapestry of ancient buidlings and cobbled streets (plus, as it's so small so you don't have to walk too far...)

Perched on densely wooded banks, high above the River Wear and visible from just about every corner of the city is the magnificent cathedral: one of the best examples of Norman architecture in Europe. It's origins date back to the 10th century when a community of monks were driven out of their home on Lindsfarne by Viking raids. Carrying with them a precious cargo which included the venerated remains of St Cuthbert, they eventually settled on a loop in the River Wear, where they built a monastery as a shrine to St Cuthbert.

When the Normans arrived around one hundred years later, they seized the site, which is almost completely surrounded by water and, recognising its natural defensive strengths they destroyed the monastery and built a cathedral in its place. Incredibly, the Normans continued to revere St Cuthbert and his remains survived the upheaval.

So having endured the Viking raids, the Norman takeover and later, the Reformation and Civil War - the priceless, 7th century relics of the north's best-loved saint remain on display in the cathedral's Treasury.

One of the best vantage points from which you can view the cathedral, and the adjacent Norman castle, is the Framwellgate Bridge. From there, you can take a walk up the shady riverbank path or take a Prince Bishop cruise boat which operates from Easter to October - the perfect alternative for all those weary American tourists!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Three more gems along the Cleveland Way

A final recap is due on this historic, rugged North Yorkshire coastline (A.K.A. The Cleveland Way) and three other treasure towns which cling to it like limpets.

Robin's Hood Bay: Once a haven for smugglers, this adorable place is a cobbled maze of stone cottages which are arranged hapharzardly on the steep cliff. Very popular with tourists, but don't let that put you off, cars are not allowed in the old village so the descent to the gorgeous beach and quay has to be made on foot. A few steps from the beach, the Bramblewick (a 17th century property which was once the village bakery) serves excellent food and drink in the prettiest of locations... beautiful.

Runswick Bay: Nine miles up the coast from Whitby, Runswick Bay reveals its sweeping arc of golden sand and brightly painted fishermen's cottages - a breathtaking sight from the crest of the hill or while enjoying a pint of Black Sheep from the Royal Hotel.
Such is its precarious position on the cliff, in 1664, a landslip caused the entire village to fall into the sea. It was rebuilt and remained a vibrant fishing community for several hundred years. Today, the permanent population of Runswick has dwindled to less than 20 and the fishermen have long gone. It's a place where holiday makers flock (unpeturbed by the bracing winds off the North Sea) to enjoy simple seaside pleasures - and there's not a single unsightly arcade to spoil the picture-perfect view.

Staithes: (Also pictured at the top) Arguably the prettiest of all the cliff top villages, Staithes has been a magnet for artists for hundreds of years. In the 19th century, it became the base for a colony of renowned English Impressionists including Laura Knight - Britain's first female artist to become a Dame.
The village's art scene is still vibrant and Staithes Gallery which sits on the high street is a fantastic showcase of contemporary art which has been inspired by the area. They also run an art school and rent out the original, refurbished studio used by Dame Laura herself.

Staithes Gallery
High Street,
North Yorkshire,
TS13 5BH

Tel: 01947 841840


Friday, 5 September 2008

Wet and Wild in Whitby

I'm trying very hard not to be obsessed by the weather but it's hard when the summer's been a damp squib (again!) and now all hopes of an Indian Summer seem to be dashed as well. Inspite of this, I decided to head to a proper English seaside town this week, attempting to convince myself that I prefer such places in the winter. (I'm not sure when or how i ever reached that conclusion but i'm obviously deluded)

But first I had to traverse the moors: a vast wilderness whose atmospheric, wild charms evoke strong memories of when I was a sixth former, completely engrossed in the study of Emily Bronte's moors-based novel Wuthering Heights. All of this nostalgia is heightened by the mist and driving rain and the helter skelter route which heads up to the coast makes for quite a thrilling ride.

Whitby itself is the ultimate tourist town. Suprisingly unspoilt and genteel, the town features regularly these days in seaside resort top 10's. That said, it's a town of contrasts, at once brash and beautiful - perched on a cliff, pretty stone cottages tumble down to the arcades and tourist shops which line the harbour.

Historically, a great seafaring town, this is the home of Captain James Cook. He served his apprenticeship in Whitby in 1746 and the great ship Endeavour was also built here. More than a thousand years earlier, the town was an important centre for Christianity when in 657, St Hilda founded Whitby Abbey. The abbey's dramatic, windswept ruins overlook the town from the top of cliff, and can only be reached by the 199 steps which start at Church Street.

Today, Whitby is not only a historical tourist attraction, but a goth magnet (see below, two beautiful specimens seen pacing the high street), thanks to its other famous 'son' - the fictious vampire Count Dracula who arrived here on a ship full of dead men. Bram Stoker, Dracula's creator, was apparently inspired by the town and its stark abbey ruins - he penned the novel while staying at the Royal Hotel in Whitby.