The City of Durham Trust - fighting for Durham's future

PUBLISHED: 17:00 27 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:26 20 February 2013

The City of Durham Trust -  fighting for Durham's future

The City of Durham Trust - fighting for Durham's future

One of the North East's most historic cities is again facing a battle to stay special, as Chris Titley discovered

Its not simply good fortune that has preserved Durham as one of the great experiences of Europe, in the words of renowned architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner.

The city has survived thanks to the many layers of protection laid down by civic-minded citizens over the years. Their efforts have seen the centre declared a conservation area, a whole list of Durham landmarks granted Grade I status, and the cathedral and castle designated a World Heritage Site in 1986.

One of the most active movers in conserving the citys fragile glory is the City of Durham Trust. It was set up in 1942 by the dean of the cathedral and scored an early victory two years later when, in defiance of the unions, mine owners and planners, the trust successfully overturned a plan for a power station a mile down river from the peninsula.

You might think, with all the protection historic Durham now enjoys, that the trustees could sit back and relax. The opposite is the case. Dr Douglas Pocock, trust secretary since the neolithic era or more specifically 1974, says that Durham now faces a new threat that is the biggest by far.

The county council has drawn up plans which it argues will transform County Durham into an economic powerhouse. In the city itself this would require the building of 5,000 new homes and two bypass roads.

Leading environmental campaigner Jonathan Porritt, who lived in Durham for three months last year, described the project as unbelievably damaging. Dr Pocock agrees.

If the planners have their way the green belt will be given over to urban sprawl and the cathedral will find itself not at the heart of a small historic city but in the centre of a very large urban area, he says.

So youll pass through a lot of the ordinary before you get to the extraordinary. That isnt Durham.

If there were half a dozen Durhams in the country it might not be so important, but this is totally unique.

He says the citys specialness rests on the man-made response to a wonderful natural setting. Its as if the cathedral and castle rise out of the rock, Dr Pocock said.

Durham doesnt reveal itself at a stroke. It pays to walk around. Theres no straight or level street. Being a heavenly city its built on seven hills the vista is always changing.

Theres the monumental the cathedral and the castle up on the hill then theres the domestic surrounding it. Much of it is not great architecture, but together it makes superb townscape in places. South Street is a clear example of that.

Dr Pocock stresses that the City Of Durham Trust is not there to stop progress. There have been examples of more modern architecture that have enhanced the city he points to a whole series of wonderful buildings by the university, as well as Kingscape Bridge designed by acclaimed architectural structural engineer Sir Ove Arup.

He is moderately hopeful that the county council will compromise on its proposals for Durham. That optimism makes sense when you consider the trusts impressive track record of protecting the city.

Ask John Wilkinson, the 410th Right Worshipful the Mayor of the City of Durham, what is exceptional about the place and he begins with the cathedral described by author Bill Bryson as the best on Planet Earth.

It held the first stone-vaulted ceiling, built in the time of the Normans and its fabulous, Cllr Wilkinson says. Its not all that big. It feels like a lovely home. And the people who work there have the same characteristics as the man they try to follow.

He talks with pride of a university which is in the worlds top 100. There are people all over the country who smile when you mention Durham. They say I used to go to university there. Theyre so proud.

And, he adds, weve got a fabulous Town Hall, the main part of which is a copy of Westminster Hall in London.

Theres something special in the character of the people too. In his mayor making speech, Cllr Wilkinson said: The overall spirit of Durham is one of a living, learning, historic city that transcends any architectural value. Our villages reflect self-esteem and self-worth.

Arrogance, vanity or self-importance have no place in the character of Durham people. We believe in satisfaction through achievement, self-respect and dignity.

Durhams citizens also offer a genuinely warm welcome to the many tourists who visit each year. The twin attractions of the cathedral and castle aside, what are the hidden gems of Durham that visitors should seek out?

Without doubt they should visit Crook Hall, which is a medieval manor house, said Dr Pocock. It is in a series of delightful gardens, some with views towards the cathedral, and it really is an unknown gem.

They could visit Flass Vale which is just under the rail viaduct. Its a nature reserve and although it is a city park, there are no benches, there are no Tarmac roads, youll share the ground with foxes and badgers. Its a gigantic wild garden and its right in the heart of the city.

Most agree that the best way to see Durham is on foot. But you neednt go alone. The city teems with interesting and informative walks. Among them is an art walk, led by local artist Sophy Nixon, where you take a pad, pen and pencil and stop along a two mile route to sketch the landscape. Or you could embark on the Death, Dirt & Disease in Durham City walk, one of several guided history tours offered by David Butler.

But dont bank on having the pavements to yourself. Durham is busy at this time of year. Durham is a magical city, said Cllr Wilkinson.

But at Christmas it is even more so with carol services at the cathedral, Christmas lights all over the city and our wonderful Christmas market which brings numerous people from far and wide who all remark upon the wonder of Durham and the friendliness of its people.

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