On Monday night I went to bed thinking that I'd like a little trip out in my new car and the forecast for Tuesday was perfect for such thinkings.
I settled into bed with a Twix bar and my Readers Digest "Big Book Of Grand Day's Out" (actually it was called "Places To Visit In Britain" but that's a bit dull I think) and then glanced across at my bedside table and saw that Bill Bryson's "Notes From A Small Island" was still there from when I'd been reading it for the 40th time last week.
I remembered that he said he'd been to Durham and thought that the Cathedral was one of the best, if not THE best, in all of Britain.
That was a good enough hint for me and I put away the RD book and decided there and then to go to Durham.............well, in the morning, of course.
So that was why, at 10:30 yesterday morning, I put a couple of drinks and a few ice packs into a cooler, packed my camera equipment and MP3 player into a backpack and set off for parts north.
I reset all the displays on my car's trip computer and hoped that this trip would finally allow the various numbers to sort themselves out and become more meaningful. I guess the poor little computer couldn't make much sence of two trips totalling 7 miles so far.
Well the drive itself was wonderful. The car was smooth and quiet and the music was rough and loud. Perfect. As I got to Wetherby and onto the A1(M), the computer was doing it's calculations and inwardly thanking me for actually clocking up some decent mileage for it to work with. I was doing 48.5 miles per gallon at just under 70 miles per hour. Wooooohoooooo.
Just before setting off, I'd managed to make contact online with a friend who lives in Bishop Auckland and she said she'd meet me in Durham at 13:30 for lunch and also give me directions where to park in the town centre. Having never been to Durham, I was very happy to accept both offers.
Durham must be one of the easiest major towns to get to from a motorway as within 3 mins of leaving the A1(M) on the A690, I was there. The very simple instructions (straight across 2 roundabouts and then left at the lights and left again) took me to the car park under a shopping centre and within a couple of minutes walk, I was out in the middle of the town.
I'm a big one for first impressions and I immediately loved Durham.
I exited the shopping centre and this was the view before me. There was a picturesque pedestrian bridge over the River Wear with the Castle and Cathedral towering over both. Sadly at this time of day the sun was in my face, literally, and so it's not a great shot.
I went left onto the bridge as this initial view had shown me where the Cathedral was and with 90 minutes to go to my lunch appointment, I felt I had time to at least see the outside of the building even if I had to return later for an inside visit.
Part way across the bridge was this colourful chap making balloon creations for the passing children.
I took this photo looking back the way I'd come and just across from the yellow van was the entrance to the shopping centre.
My immediate thoughts were that this part of Durham was very similar to Whitby and even York. Whitby for the steepness and York for the cobblestones and narrowness of the same streets. As I explored further, these initial thoughts were strengthened as ALL the streets were steep and all were narrow and cobbled.
Yes I loved Durham. It's a famous University town and students from every corner of the world were there in droves. It has a large Asian college and this was reflected in the faces of many of the locals out enjoying lunchtime in the sunshine.
After 'climbing' up to what I'd have to assume was the town square (and even it wasn't flat), I walked on up towards the Cathedral or "The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham" to give it it's full name.
On the way I paused for breath and took this view down one of the streets to the left.
Despite the dark shadows, you can see the narrowness of the street and those familiar with York should see the similarity.
Continuing up the street, I followed the excellent signposts and took a right towards the Cathedral and Castle.
As I looked up from the cobbles and glanced ahead of me, I saw the twin towers framed by the houses on both sides. It was a beautiful way to first see the Cathedral and as I approached the crest of the steep street, the whole area before me opened out into a stunning quadrangle with the Cathedral taking up one full side and the Castle nestled into a corner across from it.
I walked around the quadrangle and took in the serenity of the location for a while. Apart from a few students sitting in small groups on the raised grass banks nearby. all was peaceful and quiet.
I was slightly surprised by the lack of tourists but then I had to remind myself that despite the unseasonably warm weather, it was May 1st and a weekday.
I was just glad that, busy as the streets below may have been, things were very different up here and somehow that seemed very fitting.
I sat on the grass bank myself and passed the short time before lunch watching people coming and going around the imposing Cathedral. Then I had to leave and walk back down into the town centre where I met up with my friend for a simple meal. Afterwards she volunteered to be my guide and took me up to a park high on the other side of town which gave stunning views across to the Castle and Cathedral.
It was one of those classic times where you climb up to a viewing point with that wonderful sense of anticipation - knowing that something spectacular will be visible at the top which will have made the getting there all worth it.
And so it was with this view. The cherry blossoms and general tree lines shielded the town in such a way that you could only see the Castle and Cathedral. Not that Durham was in any way an ugly town but when you have a view like this, you don't want to see Burger Kings, Yorkshire Banks and rows of terraced houses getting in the way.
After spending a while up on this lofty perch above the town, we made our way back down to the cobbled streets as it was time for my friend and local guide to leave me to my own devices. I returned to the Cathedral and went in. I knew it was free to enter but I hadn't expected the signs warning us that all types of photography were banned.
Seconds after reading the sign, I was approached by a robed steward who seemed to think English wasn't my first language as he told me that photography was not allowed. I told him I'd read the notice already but he kept glancing at the camera hanging over my shoulder and obviously wanted to re-enforce the message.
'Don't mess with us stewards, matey' seemed to be the threatening message he wanted to get across.
I removed my camera from over my shoulder and noticed that it was still turned on and so there was a bright display visible in the gloom of the interior of the building. I clicked the off button and did this just in time as a 2nd robed steward appeared as if he'd teleported from some room where they all gathered to be sent to various locations whenever a camera wielding tourist might just be preparing to violate the rules. We never stood a chance.
I counted over 20 stewards in this Cathedral and assorted others who would gladly take your money to go to the secret special places, answer any questions you might have or simply to badger anyone even carrying a camera around. Apart from a few visitors who were kneeling in the pews deep in prayer or thought and these overwhelming stewards, there were only a handful of people walking around taking in the magnificence of the place. The website says it gets 600,000 visitors a year so maybe they were having an off day too.
But I took issue with Bryson's comments as I didn't think much of the interior of Durham Cathedral. The stained glass that he so admired was dirty and let little light pass through. The supporting stone columns were ridiculously bulky and each one had different designs on them which I found annoying. I like my religious buildings to have symmetry. It just didn't have that feeling to it that I've felt in other religious buildings.
Maybe having those robed stewards shadowing my every move had something to do with it.
I decided to pop next door and visit the Castle only to discover a sign saying it was closed all day.
As I was now 'into' signs, I took this as a sign to go back to the car and head home. It was close to 4pm so I thought I'd try and get back to the parking ticket machine before 4 hours were up and not have to pay more for a 5th. I got there to discover hours 1 to 3 were priced individually but hours from 3 to 6 cost the same.
It was another sign and it was telling me to get my money's worth and go back out and explore a bit more. And what a wonderful sign it was and I'm so glad I got it.
This time I left the car park a different way and avoided the shopping centre. This brought me out on the path that ran alongside the river and would take me under the bridge I'd been on before and also past the towering Castle and Cathedral up on the hill.
Well what a delight it was. I had the path to myself and strolled it's length enjoying the river, the weir and of course the stunning views across and up to my left.
You'll have to enlarge this photo to see details like the bridge. It was great to see it all from this different vantage point - at sea level so to speak. The Castle suddenly looked imposing as a Castle should and the Cathedral looked very impressive and worthy of the title - the greatest Norman building in England.
As I walked along the riverside path, I saw a bird drying it's wings in the sunshine.
It wasn't flapping it's wings in the fashion of a swan but was simply extending them and waiting for nature to do it's thing.
It held this 'look at me' pose long enough for me to have time to switch lenses and snap on the telephoto but it was well out in the middle of the river and this was as close a shot as I could get.
Walking on, I kept looking across at the Cathedral and every few feet provided new photo opportunities. Rarely have I ever walked along a river with such beauty close at hand.
Jumping ahead a bit to Tuesday night when I went to bed to rest my weary bones from all the walking I'd done around Durham, I picked up the RD book again and went to the section on Durham Cathedral and was pleased and somewhat amazed to see they had a sketch of the place from the exact same point of view as I'd taken in this next photo.
I often get frustrated when I see views of places in travel books and magazines which we mere mortals can rarely find when we get there. So to suddenly see that I'd been where the RD artist/photographer had been was very satisfying.
It has to be my favourite VIEW of the day and it's easy to see why it would be chosen for the book.
To be there on such a lovely warm Spring day was a delight.
It was a sobering thought that here I was only 75 miles from home and I 'd never been there before.
We may live on a small island but even after nearly 40 years in England, I've so much more of it still to see.
I was almost at the end of the path by now but there was time for one last photo - and in the time honoured tradition of keeping the best till last, I include it here. The previous photo my have provided the best view of the day, but this last one is my favourite.
Being able to review digital photographs immediately is a blessing and this was a case where the camera showed me a view I didn't see myself at first. I took a photo looking across at the Cathedral right at the end of the path and was so busy composing the image to best show off the building that I missed the fact that it was perfectly reflected in the water !
When I reviewed it, I saw I'd only got part of the reflection as I'd zoomed in too far to get closer to the Cathedral.
I zoomed back and got the image you see here and what a stunning view it is. The light blue cloudless sky and the deep clear blue water provide natural borders for the best structure that man could achieve in Norman Britain.
I loved it and stood for some time taking it in before heading back to the car and the drive home.
In all it was a round trip of 156 miles and I did it using only 3.2 gallons - so wooohoooo for my new car.
All in all, a grand day out.