Durham a place full of surprises

PUBLISHED: 23:11 14 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:14 20 February 2013

Durham Cathedral and the Museum of Archeology reflected in the water of the Wear

Durham Cathedral and the Museum of Archeology reflected in the water of the Wear

A vertically challenged lothario, a bronze ruminant and a bridge with invisible arches - Durham has some surprising features


Apparently, there's a bit of rivalry between the two big cities of Tyne and Wear. Something to do with football, or so I've been told.

However, what both Newcastle and Sunderland lack are the mortal remains of a vertically challenged Polish lothario, a metal ruminant and a bridge with invisible architectural features. To see all these and more you need to travel to the third city in Tyne and Wear, Durham.

To start this month's walk, go to the east bank of the River Wear on Silver Street and follow the signs for the Riverbank Footpaths and the Archaeology Museum.

The Durham University Museum of Archaeology is housed in the Old Fulling Mill, which nestles on the banks of the River Wear.

The manufacture of cloth was once an important part of the economy of the city and fulling refers to the process in which cloth is cleaned and beaten in water. This shrinks the fibres in the fabric, so clothing made from this material would be more dense and therefore warmer to wear, something to be thankful for during the long northern winters, before the invention of central heating and home insulation.

The Museum made its home in the mill in 1975, the permanent collection opening in 1986. If we weren't on a walk it would be all too easy to be diverted by the museum's collection of archaeological finds from the city's environs, including medieval objects found during a major excavation of Saddler Street in 1974.

From the museum continue along the path, passing the eastern end of Prebends bridge. Just beyond the bridge is the arresting sight of a small Greek temple nestling between the trees.

This was the summer home of Count Jzef Boruwlaski, a Polish adventurer who settled in Durham in 1791. A hit with the ladies, and much respected by the men of Durham, he was buried in the cathedral after his death in 1837. The curious will find his grave just inside the main door, a 15 inch square stone tablet marked JB. Not a particularly generous tribute, you may think, until you discover that Jzef was only 3 feet 3 inches tall.

The path now curves gently northeast, following the loop of the river that surrounds the oldest part of the city. Hidden in the trees above the river are the campuses of St Johns and St Chads, two of the colleges of the University of Durham. It is claimed that Durham is the third oldest university in England after Cambridge and Oxford, and like those two venerable institutions it is collegiate in structure.

Fortunately for us mere mortals there are no entrance requirements to pass through the arches of Elvet Bridge as we continue along the riverbank path. The bridge was built in 1160 and it has ten arches across the Wear valley. Or could it be 14?

The disputed arches were mentioned in passing by the 16th century antiquarian, John Leland, and now no-one knows where they are. Either Mr. Leland had one too many in a pub nearby or, more charitably, the other arches are now buried under the streets on either side of the bridge.

Continue under the bridge, passing the boat-hire dock as you do so. Boating is a popular sport on the Wear and it would be a strange day indeed not to see someone sculling through the water. Indeed, Durham has one of the oldest amateur rowing clubs in the country. We'll be passing its clubhouse a bit later, but for now keep to the tree-lined river path, unless you're tempted to mess around in a boat for the afternoon.

Follow the path along the river for one mile to a splendid modern suspension footbridge over the Wear. Cross over the bridge, turning immediately right to take the path that follows the edge of a wood. Continue past playing fields through a second wood to a road. Turn right and follow the path passing the clubhouse of the rowing club mentioned earlier.

We soon come to a bronze sculpture of a cow by the artist Andrew Burton. Durham was founded, so legend has it, by monks looking for a place to lay the remains of St Cuthbert to reSt In a vision, one of the monks was told of a place named Dunholm, a place unknown to him or any of his brethren.

It wasn't until they overheard an old woman being directed to Dunholm in search of her lost cow that they found what they were looking for. Burton's sculpture commemorates this legend, though, sadly, the story doesn't relate whether the old woman ever found her errant animal.

Now pass the modern buildings at the end of the grassed area to come out onto New Elvet. Cross over at the lights and walk along New Elvet to Church Street and the grounds of St Oswalds. Follow the path as it drops back down to the riverside, passing through the grounds of the church as it does so.

Carry on to Prebends bridge and from there keep to the path that skirts the river, through a cluster of buildings to the weir on the Wear.

This spot is undoubtedly the most photographed view of Durham. Across the river stands Durham Cathedral, an architectural masterpiece that has dominated the life of the city since the 11th century. Built in the Romanesque style, it is commonly regarded as one of the finest Norman churches in Europe. Little wonder that it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After a suitable length of time admiring the scene, continue along the path back to Silver Street Bridge. If all this history hasn't exhausted you, stop on the bridge for an absolutely splendid view of Durham Castle.

Marvel at the fact that the keep is home to over 100 students, making it the oldest student hall of residence in Britain, and then finish the walk by crossing over the bridge.


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