Going from A to D(urham)

I’ve always found the term “travelling for work” to be a bit of an oxymoron, or at least a contradiction of sorts. Although there is literal travel involved, in regards to moving from one place to another, it’s not exactly the type of thing that one thinks about when saying “I love to travel!”

After all, many people don’t love the actual journey from A to B, the bus/car/train/plane trip that gets you to your destination.* They love the end point: the opportunity to see new things, meet new people, and experience new cultures.

Travelling for work, however, tends to mean going somewhere else and seeing the inside of a hotel room or event venue. Unless you intentionally schedule time off to explore the location, you could be anywhere in the world. However, a recent work trip to Durham gave me the chance to get out and about—for one morning at least.

I had been to Durham once before, over a decade ago when MrElaineous and I were newly married. My recollections of it were hazy at best: I knew we had visited the cathedral but, beyond that, it was the rest of the trip that looms large in my memory: seeing puffins and seals on the Farne Islands, exploring the incredible castle at Alnwick, keeping an eye on the tides while wandering around the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, and savouring some of the best scones in the UK at the Copper Kettle in Bamburgh (which is also home to a rather fine castle; Northumberland has its fair share of them).

The postage stamp-sized city centre of Durham sits on what would have been a strategic piece of land back in the 10th century when it was founded. The River Wear practically surrounds the heart of the city, serving as both a transportation link and defensive moat. Today, its cobbled streets are picturesque, especially when decorated for Christmas … although, based on my experience, it’s less charming and more jarring when navigating to your hotel with a suitcase.

Meandering through the streets sans luggage, however, can feel like time travel, and narrow alleyways hint at the possibility of secret worlds beyond. Dominating the centre is the Norman cathedral and castle, both of which were started in the 11th century. It was to the cathedral I went on my free morning in an attempt to fill in the vague outlines I had from my previous trip. Although they were preparing for Christmas services and in the midst of unloading extra chairs, microphones, and electronics, I had the place practically to myself.

It was a far cry from my recollection of visiting in the summer when it was full of fellow tourists. Now, I could properly gawk at the massive pillars made of reddish-brown sandstone and take a moment to reflect in front of the shrines of the Venerable Bede and St. Cuthbert. Indeed, the grandeur of Durham Cathedral is in part due to its status as resting place of these two Northumberland icons.

Bede was a monk whose writings throughout the late 7th and early 8th centuries earned him the title of Father of English History. His work even touches upon our lives today: he popularised the use of Anno Domini or AD for dates that occur after the birth of Christ.

Cuthbert, meanwhile, served as a monk, bishop, and occasional hermit; he was considered a holy man during his lifetime, which pretty much ran through much of the 7th century. However, it was what happened after his death that catapulted him into fame. His body was said to be incorrupt—impervious to decay—and miracles were attributed to his intercession. He was adopted as a powerful symbol of the northeast and used to encourage conversion to Christianity.

In 995 AD, several centuries after his death, the story goes that his community fled to avoid a Danish invasion, bringing his coffin with them. Yet the wagon carrying the saint’s body got stuck and refused to budge. They decided to establish a new settlement on the spot, which grew into the city of Durham. There’s also a legend about the monks following milkmaids to find a dun-coloured cow, a tale which has made its mark on the city.

The act of travelling from A to B has never been straightforward, at least as far as Durham is concerned. A stalled wagon is said to have led to its foundation over a millennium ago, and I had my own bumpy journey to get there in the 21st century.* Yet despite these trials and travails, it remains well worth travelling to see.

[RETURN TO TOP] The less said about my own journey to and from Durham the better: three of the four trains ran late, and I managed to pick up Covid somewhere along the way. Apologies to family and friends who were expecting Christmas cards this year and/or a response to emails in December. I’m just now catching up!

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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MissElaineous Travel Blog: Escape, Explore, Discover, Enjoy