Co Durham, England

Seaham Hall, Durham, 1815

Lord Byron married Anne Isabella Milbanke

 

Author bill Bryson writing in ‘notes from a small island

‘Why, it’s wonderful – a perfect little city – and I kept thinking: ‘Why did no-one tell me about this?’ I knew, of course, that it had a fine Norman cathedral but I had no idea that it was so splendid. I couldn’t believe that not once in twenty years had anyone said to me, ‘You’ve never been to Durham? Good God, man, you must go at once! Please – take my car’.’

Durham Cathedral, 2000

Filming for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone takes place.

Geography

County Durham is bordered by Northumberland in the north and by the River Tees in the south. The western edge is crossed by the high ridge of the Pennines, an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with Hamsterley Forest stretching for some 5,000 acres across its central plain. The rivers Tees and Wear wind their way across the county, down from the Pennines between gentle hills, towards the abandoned coal fields of the eastern lowlands and the coast. The River Wear encircles a small hill in the centre of Durham City, on which stands its cathedral and castle.

Durham is unique being both a county and a town. First recorded in 1000 as Dunholme, a Scandinavian word meaning ‘hill Island’, later modified to its modern form by the Normans.

History

Throughout history, County Durham has been strategically important to settlers ranging from the Romans to the Angles, Saxons, and Normans. Northumbria became the leading centre of the Christian church in Britain with the foundation of Durham Cathedral in 1093 acting as a lasting reminder of the County’s legacy to Christian worship in Britain.

Following the Norman Conquests, William the Conqueror invested the Bishops of Durham with combined secular and spiritual powers to control the modern counties of Cleveland, Durham and Tyne and Wear. The Prince Bishops levied taxes, raised armies, minted money, controlled the courts and were effectively ‘kings’ of North East England until their powers were dramatically diminished by Henry VIII in 1536. Durham is still known as ‘The Land of the Prince Bishops.’

The Prince-Bishops of Durham ruled the north-east from their Cathedral in Durham and from their castles in both Durham and Auckland. Durham is now a city of learning and the arts; its Oriental Museum being a treasure house of worldwide works of art.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, County Durham became a world leader in the Industrial Revolution, with the county’s development based upon coal and iron production. The area’s influence on the world was demonstrated by the development of the world’s first passenger steam railway at Stockton and Darlington in 1825.

Durham Cathedral and Castle

Built in 1093, Durham Cathedral has been a place of pilgrimage, worship and welcome for almost a millennium. Its full title is The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham.

As the former monastic cathedral for Benedictine monks, it has some of the UK’s most intact surviving monastic buildings. The Cathedral also acts as a guardian of unique objects, from the treasures of St Cuthbert to copies of the Magna Carta. Relics include St Cuthbert’s, transported to Durham by Lindisfarne monks in the 800s; Saint Oswald’s head and the Venerable Bede’s remains.

The Durham Dean and Chapter Library contains sets of early printed books, some of the most complete in England; the pre-Dissolution monastic accounts and three copies of the Magna Carta.
In 1986 the cathedral and adjoining Durham Castle were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area with legal protection by an international convention administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The sites are judged to contain cultural and natural heritage considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. It is also considered to be one of the most beautiful British buildings.

Durham Castle sits at the heart of Durham’s World Heritage site and has been occupied continuously since the 11th century. It is now home to the students of University College, part of Durham University.

It is thought that a Saxon fortress existing on the castle’s site from around the 10th century. The earliest surviving parts of the Castle date from around 1072 when William the Conqueror ordered the construction of a new fort.

Durham University

Durham University was founded in 1832 and is among the best universities in the UK. Internationally, Durham regularly finds its way into the top 100 ranked schools. Studying at Durham guarantees an experience in a grand setting – many of its roughly 60 buildings are often described as some of the most beautiful university structures in the UK.

Like Oxford and Cambridge, Durham is a collegiate university, and students attend the central university for learning, but are also part of a college, which is the centre for accommodation, meals, sports, clubs, and other aspects of non-academic life.  Many Durham colleges still have formal dining, where students wear gowns or black tie.

One of the most exciting ceremonies for new students is matriculation, which takes place in Durham Cathedral, and is where students officially become members of the university.

Myths and Legends

Like most ancient places, Durham has its share of myths and legends.  Just a couple include the tale of the Lambton Worm and The Devil’s Lapstone.

The story of the Lambton worm revolves around John Lambton, an heir of the Lambton Estate in County Durham, and his battle with a giant worm (dragon) that had been terrorising the villages of County Durham.  

The story starts with young John Lambton missing church one Sunday to go fishing in the River Wear. On his way, he receives a warning from an old man that no good can come from missing church.

 John doesn’t catch anything until the church service finishes, when he fishes out a small, eel-like create with nine holes on each side of its head. The old man reappears, and John says he has caught the devil.  He disposes of his catch by discarding it down a nearby well.  John forgets about his catch, grows up and joins the Crusades.

 Eventually, the worm grows extremely large and the well becomes poisonous. The worm terrorises the nearby villages, eating sheep, preventing cows from producing milk and snatching away children.  All efforts to kill the beast are thwarted, and Lord Lambton (John’s Father) has to sedate the creature daily with the milk of nine good cows.

 After seven years, John Lambton returns from the crusades, and, recognising his responsibility for the worm, decides the fight it.  He seeks advice from a wise woman who tells him to cover his armour with spearheads and fight the worm in the River Wear. The witch also tells John that after killing the worm he must kill the first living thing he sees, or else his family will be cursed for nine generations. 

John arranges with his father that when he kills the worm he will sound his hunting horn three times, providing a signal to release a hound, which will run to John, and he will then kill it and avoid the curse.

 Unfortunately, John’s father is so excited when John does defeat the worm that he forgets about the signal and rushes to his son to congratulate him.  John cannot bring himself to kill his father, and so they are cursed so they shall not die peacefully in their beds.

 The Devil’s Lapstone

 Castle Eden Dene is a site of special scientific interest and national nature reservice, found near the Durham Heritage Coast. 

This ancient dene is North East England’s largest area of semi-natural woodland and a place to truly experience the ‘wildwood’ that once covered much of Britain. Well-known for its majestic yew trees and ancient oak trees, Castle Eden Dene is a magical place full of legend and folklore. 

If you choose to follow the Yew Tree Trail through the dene’s ancient woodland, you will uncover the legend of the Devil’s Lapstone.

It is said that the Devil himself offered to help build Durham Cathedral. His evil intention was to construct foundations using crumbly rock which would cause the building to eventually collapse, killing anyone inside. Being the Devil, he had the ability to fly, and time and time again he would fly up and down the length of the Dene, collecting stones for his project. 

One day, as he navigated his way up the Dene, the leather apron he was using to carry a big, heavy stone snapped, and the stone hurtled towards the ground. As the giant stone fell, the Devil snatched at it, trying to catch it again and again. All he managed to do was leave scratch marks in the rock and spots of his own blood on the rock surface. 

If you stumble across the Devil’s Lapstone whilst exploring Castle Eden Dene, take a closer look, as you can still see those very marks and the blood stains he left behind.