Sunday 14 February 2016

Less Than The Sum Of Its Parts

The BF and I celebrated the anniversary of the day we met last week.  Yes, nineteen years ago, I got drunk and talked to some random in a pub.  Memories.

Anyway, to commemorate this momentous occasion, I made a suggestion.  "Why don't we celebrate?" I suggested.  "Let's go away for a mini break, a few days in a four star hotel near a historic English city?  Let's indulge ourselves."

...Nope, sorry, that's a lie.  What I actually said was, "I've got to get Durham and Chester-le-Street stations.  Do you want to come or do you want to stay at home?  Up to you."


He picked the "may as well come with" option and we made our way across England to Durham.  Trainspotters will be disappointed to hear we went by car.  I did float the railway option, but after roughly eight milliseconds of thought, the BF said "no."  He loves to drive, always has, and the thought of a trip across chilly hills excited him far more than three hours aboard a Class 185.  I'm not bothered; either way I get to sit back and do nothing while someone else does all the actual work.

After a night's rest in a Durham hotel ("yes, we do only need one room, and yes, we do know it's a double, we've already said actually, thank you") we headed into the city centre for a look round.  I'd been saving Durham because I wanted to do it justice.  I'd passed through it on the train many times, and spotted the colossal edifice of the cathedral perched on top of a rocky outcrop - a stunning view, and part of the World Heritage area of the city.

We got the park and ride into the city centre, alighting opposite the blank brick face of the Gates Shopping Centre.  The narrow streets seemed like any other town, lined with Boots and a second hand video game shop and an ugly Starbucks.  Round a corner, though, the Framwellgate Bridge took you over a wide river, a weir churning wildly downstream.

From there the road rose steeply, cobbled and slippery, clambering up the hill.  Durham's historic centre is surrounded on three sides by water.  A tongue of hard rock forced the river to flow round it, creating an almost-island that was a perfect, easily defended spot for a city.  The Normans built both the castle and the cathedral in the 11th Century, and for hundreds of years Durham existed as a city-state within England.

The Market Square provided a moment of rest, then we climbed another hill, pausing now and then so the BF could have a wheeze.  He has both asthma and dodgy knees (a result of years of football playing, and evidence for my theory that no good can come from sport) so steep climbs are an agony for him.  When we visited San Francisco I basically had to load him on a sledge and drag him round behind me.

Passing a branch of my nemesis, the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and not one but two Waterstone's, we finally reached the Palace Green.  At one end, Durham Castle, and at the other, the Cathedral, with the ancient university library sandwiched in between.  It was undeniably impressive, so long as you ignored all the plant vehicles doing some kind of work on the grass in the middle.

Like the eager little tourists we are, we gamboled up to the Castle to get our fix of Norman fortifications.  We were immediately struck by our first disappointment.  The Castle is in use as a college of Durham University, and about a hundred students actually live there; as a result, the only way to look round is by guided tour.  As unabashed cheapskates we declined the tour and instead turned our attention to the Cathedral.  At least that was free to get in.

This where I should write dozens of paragraphs about the awe-inspiring beauty of Durham Cathedral.  About its huge, calming space, its intricate stained glass, the history dripping out of every piece of stone.  The giant columns holding up the roof, the feeling of dizziness when you stand under the tower and look up.

I'm not going to do that because I spent my whole visit seething.  Photography is banned in the cathedral.  Anywhere.  There's no reason for this, of course, other than they want to flog you postcards.  The website is pretty unabashed about this:

That's shameless gouging, and very disappointing.  I would've loved to have shown you some of the delights of the cathedral, enough to intrigue you and make you plan your own visit, but instead, I'm just going to tell you it was pretty and a bit cold.  There you go.

We wandered out of the undercroft of the Cathedral, declining to spend any money in the huge gift shop, and into South Bailey, a road that snakes its way down to the river. There was a plaque on one of the buildings commemorating the home of Revd. William Greenwell; he was described as a "Minor Canon", which I'm sure is a theological term, but just sounds like the historical society was calling him insignificant.

The main University campus is to the south of the river, so as we walked downhill we encountered a lot of fresh faced students coming uphill.  For a while, as a teen, I fancied going to Durham University.  I wasn't brave enough to try and get into Oxford or Cambridge, so I thought Durham was an acceptable compromise - kind of like I was aiming for bronze.  As it was, when I filled in my UCAS form, I wasn't even brave enough to put it down.  I failed my A-levels anyway, so I would've gone through a rigorous application process for no reason.  (My cousin Lucy eventually went to Durham, because it is the destiny of younger family members to make you feel inadequate).

Walking back round the peninsula at riverside level, the BF and I agreed that Durham was... alright.  It was a bit of a let down.  In our heads, we'd imagined it to be like York or Chester - a non-stop parade of history and heritage.  It turned out it was an island of staggering beauty in amidst a very ordinary town.

Returning to the town centre only reaffirmed our view.  The buildings built across the river were almost aggressively ordinary, no doubt the result of successive planning committees refusing anything slightly interesting so it wouldn't "detract".  After a couple more circuits, we decided we'd had enough, and got the Park and Ride bus back to the car.

After a brief visit to some statue or other...

...we went to Chester-le-Street.  I had two stations to collect in this part of the world, and, unless I took a train, it didn't count.  The idea was that the BF would drop me off in Chester-le-Street, I'd get the train south, and then he'd pick me up at Durham station.

Before that, we thought we'd have a look round.  As its name implies, Chester-le-Street is threaded along a main thoroughfare, and we wandered up and down it, looking in shop windows.

It was not great.  The shops were small and grim.  The pubs were "boozers".  The regenerated market square at the southern end of the town, all new brick and stone, ended up looking like a bare windswept expanse without any stalls.

After a moment of horror where I misread a shop called Nelglo as Negro (a misread that probably says more about me) we turned and walked back up the main road.  There was an "arts space" called Willy Nilly, and a closed nightclub called Soda still advertising its New Year's party ("comedy drag show/male stripper/karaoke" - surprisingly queer for a town in mining country), and an e-cigs shop with banners outside and posters in the window calling for free parking in the high street:

I do love a shop with an axe to grind, and the BF and I stood outside and read the entire rant until the owner appeared in the window and stared at us.

The highlight of Chester-le-Street was the post office.  Make of that what you will.  It was a clean, 1930s brick building, nicely styled:

The real highlight was in the corner window:

A rare Edward VIII insignia, showing that the post office was opened during that brief period between him becoming king and abdicating.  I found that far too exciting, to be honest, which probably shows you what a disappointing day it was turning into.  It was time to draw and end to the visit.  I waved the BF off and headed for the station.

Chester-le-Street has a booking office and a waiting room, but they're not run by Northern Rail.  Instead, the responsibility for the facilities lies with Chester-le-Track, a private organisation.  It's a weird set up (they also run Eaglescliffe station).  It's hard to shake the idea that it's a lot of boys playing trains, an impression not helped by the staff in the ticket office both looking like teenagers.

It's all missing the polish and the professionalism you get from a proper train company.  Bless them for trying and everything, and let's be honest, if they weren't running the booking office here there wouldn't be one at all, but it was a couple of degrees off what you expect from a 21st century railway.  It was all a bit 1980s British Rail.

I'm not 100% sure why Chester-le-Street is a Northern Rail station at all.  Both it and Durham are mainly served by a combination of TransPennine Express and trains, with the odd service from CrossCountry and Virgin East Coast.  Northern trains are restricted to the odd stopper in the morning rush hour.  They seem to have been given responsibility for the station because no-one else wanted it.

Pleasingly, the train that arrived to take me one stop to Durham was the Liverpool train.  It was odd getting on board a train headed for my home city and not slumping, exhausted, into a seat with a three hour journey ahead of me.  Instead, in a matter of minutes, I was hopping off again.

Durham station has been conspicuously smartened up, with ticket barriers and plenty of staff.  It's at the top of a ridge on the edge of the city centre, so glass walls have been installed to minimise the winds, and also to give you a perfect view of the cathedral:

All very nice, I'm sure you'll agree, but absolutely nothing as far as I'm concerned because it doesn't have a station sign.  Not a one.  There are signs saying "station" on them, and a big British Rail logo on a staircase -

- but nothing that actually said Durham on it.  I ran around in a slight panic - the BF was double parked, waiting for me to get in the car so we could go back to the hotel - looking for anything that would pass my strict station sign criteria.  In the end I headed back inside.  The ticket barriers meant I couldn't go onto the platform, so I ended up squatting on the concourse, capturing a platform sign through the glass wall.

A bit of a let down.  Not quite as good as it promised on first glance.  Underwhelming.  It seemed an appropriate way to finish my Durham visit, somehow.


Robert said...

Not a huge fan of Chester-le-Track because for a few years they had a side business in cybersquatting, buying up transport-related domain names and redirecting them to their own site where they had affiliate links to ticket retailers.

I think that's largely in the past now, but it is partly why Merseyrail's website is rather than the more obvious or .com.

Jamie said...

You missed out on the college tour - my mum and I went on it about 10 years ago and:

(a) the history of the place is fascinating;

(b) the presenter was very funny;

(c) the presenter was extremely fuckable.

diamond geezer said...

On my one trip to Durham (and Chester-le-Street), it rained all day, the cathedral was closed and the castle was closed. I fear you've summed the place up rather well.

David said...

Apart from the Cathedral, the Palace Green and the streets leading down from both to the river, Durham is grim. The site, on the bend in the Wear is the principal redeeming feature.

I liked the CLS Post Office. Good public building design.

Scott Willison said...

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who found Durham disappointing. I'd wondered if it was me.

I had no idea Chester-le-Track were such committed cybersquatters. I knew they'd done it for Network Rail, but as that was within their interests, I wasn't too surprised. But all the others... shameless.

Anonymous said...

I like Durham. So there.