Durham Cathedral’s stunning central tower reopened to the public during 2019 after extensive repairs. DAVID SIMPSON takes a trip to the top and enjoys splendid city views that include the Newcastle skyline and parts of Sunderland as well as the beautiful county and city of Durham.
It’s many years since we’ve climbed to the top of Durham Cathedral’s central tower. The tower re-opened to visitors earlier this year following extensive much-needed repairs, so a crisp autumnal Saturday afternoon in November seemed a perfect time to go and check it out.
During 2013, an inspection of Durham’s cathedral tower had highlighted the need for extensive conservation work. Fortunately, the cathedral was able to draw on funding from the newly established First World War Centenary Cathedral Repairs Fund which contributed significantly to the £1.9 million needed to carry out the repair work on this iconic North East landmark.
Scaffolding appeared around the central tower in late 2015 accompanied by bright white protective sheeting that locals referred to as the ‘bandage’. Such ‘tender loving care’ was a necessary if a little bit of a frustrating interlude for visitors and photographers wanting to capture the cathedral’s full beauty. Finally, however, the work was completed in May 2019 and the tower re-opened for the public to enjoy once more.
The cathedral’s central tower is 218 feet high (66.45m) and you need to negotiate 325 spiral steps to reach the top. So it’s probably not for the faint-hearted. Opening times can be found on the cathedral website and it costs £5 for the climb (£2.50 for children) with a number of advisory warnings on the website which we recommend reading. It’s worth knowing that the tower has the steepest and most narrow spiral of any cathedral in England and Wales.
Feeling fit and trying to shake off a bit of a discomforting cold from too many hours cooked up in a warm office, I walked into Durham from a village three miles to the east, paid my entrance fee and embarked on the cathedral climb. The spiral steps are quite broad at first, just to get you going and break you in gently. Then you reach a half way point, with a resting room and a long corridor that features displays relating to the cathedral and the tower’s restoration. At the far end of the corridor a sign dated 1783 directs us through another door where the spiral steps are significantly narrower.
It’s exhilarating when you reach the top and there was plenty of company yet still plenty of space. The view is simply sublime. Briefly, however, I must say I felt a slight touch of vertigo but quickly adjusted to the height. Durham looks rather like ‘Toy Town’ from up here, but a very picturesque Toy Town at that. Little cars and little people wander the neighbouring streets such as the Bailey and Owengate and Palace Green. Neighbouring South Street glimmered in the sunlight, with the water mill on the weir of the Wear far below. Here and there you could see preparatory activities for the forthcoming Lumiere festival.
There’s plenty of city landmarks to pick out – and not just Durham City landmarks. To the west we just about spotted the old miners’ hall in Redhills on the fringe of the beautiful woodland of Flass Vale. Here also we can see the city’s viaduct, Durham County Hall and the nearby hospital. A little closer to us we find Redhills Lane leading to the site of the Battle of Nevilles Cross of 1346. It’s known that some of the monks of Durham Cathedral monastery observed the battle from the vantage point of the cathedral’s tower all those centuries ago.
We observed the chapel of Durham School and the former Catholic seminary college at Ushaw. To the east and south east you can pick out Old Durham Farm and Old Durham Gardens near the site of an ancient Romano-British settlement and nearby the yet more ancient wooded hill fort site of Maiden Castle. To the south you see mostly hills, to Ferryhill and beyond.
The loop of the river surrounding the centre of the city demonstrates the importance of Durham’s defensive location. The historic streets, some dating back to medieval times are full of charm. There are long strings of Georgian and Victorian buildings that are brimming with character and various architectural styles forming a lacework along the hill sides. You can see an interesting contrast in style with the more modern buildings in Millburngate; the Prince Bishops Shopping Centre and the Durham University buildings around Mount Joy and Stockton Road.
Much can be seen beyond the centre of the city too. From the suburbs of Gilesgate and Newton Hall you can see out beyond to the neighbouring villages, all bordered by beautiful green patchwork fields and hedgerows broken by numerous russet coloured woodlands.
I must have been up there for at least a quarter of an hour, probably more and I kept seeing more and more new things. Lumley Castle can clearly be seen and of course Penshaw Monument. The Nissan car factory can be clearly made out and the prominent Department of Work and Pensions office block called Durham Tower near the Galleries in Washington is an imposing landmark. So we can look across from one Durham tower to another distant Durham Tower of a very different kind. Those last three mentioned landmarks are all of course in the city of Sunderland but beyond I could also make out cranes on the Tyne, somewhere in the South Tyneside or North Tyneside area.
In fact the view from up here is a tale of three cities as directly to the north the distant horizon is dominated by the most prominent buildings in the city of Newcastle. St James’ Park and the new Hadrian’s Tower development of course stand out but you can even make out the blue lantern tower of Newcastle Civic Centre. I’d definitely suggest taking a pair of small binoculars so you can make most of this splendid view.
Best of all though is the view of Durham City itself and it’s all well worth the £5 entry fee to the tower. Of course the descent is a lot less hard work than the ascent, though I did have a three mile walk home ahead of me as well. Ah well, it was worth it for the exhilarating view.
Durham Cathedral tower opening times and details here
DAVID SIMPSON looks at the fantastic variety of castles found in North East England.
‘Northumbria’, the historic kingdom of North East England has an extraordinary variety of wonderful castles and fortifications. Even the three cities of the region: Durham, Sunderland and of course Newcastle have a castle each, while Northumberland has more castles than any other county in the whole of England. Several are pretty spectacular too.
The castles range from fortified tower houses called ‘pele towers’ and fortified farms and barns called ‘bastles’ to grand medieval fortresses like Alnwick. Today a handful of castles are nothing more than a mound in the ground but there are still plenty more that stand as magnificent ruins or even as the complete article, though often with architectural additions of differing ages.
Some castles are private residences, some are hotels while others are major visitor attractions drawing people from far and wide. Here we thought we’d take a quick wander around the castles of our kingdom.
Three cities : Three castles
It still takes me aback when visitors express surprise that Newcastle has a castle – yet the clue is there, in the name. Newcastle’s castleof course gave its name to the famed city upon the Tyne and dates from Norman times. Before then the town was known by its old Anglo-Saxon name of Monkchester.
It was Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror who built the first castle here of ‘earth and wood’ on the site of a Roman fort overlooking the Tyne. It was replaced later by another new castle on the same site that was built in 1172 during the reign of Henry II.
Today the castle survives in two parts, namely the formidable Norman keep which dates from the 1170s and the beautiful Blackgate which dates from 1247. The two parts are separated from one another by the Victorian railway that cut the old castle site in two halves. Great views of the setting of Newcastle can be found from the top of the castle keep and logically there is perhaps no better starting point to explore the history of ‘the toon’.
The castle protected the development of the early town of Newcastle but its importance in the defence of the place became less significant following the development of the medieval town walls from 1265. Nevertheless when Newcastle came under siege during the Civil War in the 1640s it was the castle that was the last place to hold out.
Durham Castle in Durham City stands on the neck of the peninsula formed by the River Wear and dates from Norman times. There was an earlier Saxon fortification on the same site and it successfully defended the little city and its neighbouring Saxon minster. It seems to have fulfilled its defensive role rather well as Durham held out against the Scots in 1006 and 1038.
William the Conqueror ordered that a new castle should be built here in 1072 and it developed from thereon with much of the older parts of the present castle dating from the reign of Bishop Pudsey (1153-1195). The castle keep is the most imposing part of the building and houses students of Durham University but the keep is in fact largely a nineteenth century restoration with the original having fallen into a ruinous condition. The keep was rebuilt in the 1840s at around the time the castle became part of Durham University.
Much of the main body of Durham castle is, however, genuinely medieval, notably the great dining hall, though later parts of the building date from the Tudor and Georgian eras. Of course today, the castle is part of a World Heritage site that includes the neighbouring Durham Cathedral. A curious fact is that the whole river peninsula of Durham was once considered to be ‘the Castle’. So, the cathedral technically lay within the castle which is why the castle bailey that now takes the form of two streets called the Baileys runs along the cathedral’s eastern flank.
It is sometimes forgotten that the City of Sunderland has a castle too though it lies away from the city centre to the west, where it gives its name to one of the Sunderland suburbs on the north side of the River Wear. Hylton Castle was built around 1400 by a William de Hylton on a hill overlooking the Wear and guarded a nearby ferry that was in operation from the 1320s.
Hylton – the hill settlement – was the name of the nearby village from which the Hylton family took their name. Currently the castle is undergoing an exciting transformation into a living, working building that will benefit both the local community and visitors. The Hylton family had owned an earlier manor house on the site and became a powerful local family of note. Interestingly one member of the family later became a Governor of Tynemouth Castle.
Castles of the Coast
Tynemouth Castle is one of four splendid castles to adorn the North East coast between the Tyne and the Tweed. It stands high above the mouth of the Tyne and forms a splendid backdrop to the neighbouring sands of King Edward’s Bay. In a similar way to Durham Cathedral being enclosed within Durham Castle, the castle at Tynemouth enclosed the Priory of Tynemouth.
In the reign of Henry VIII when Tynemouth Priory was closed for all time, the castle remained an important place of defence against the threat of Spanish, French or Scottish forces. Today, the priory and castle form a magnificent romantic ruin and a superb historic focal point for the fabulously genteel and lively seaside town of Tynemouth.
However, as far as romantic coastal ruins go Tynemouth has a great rival further north up at Dunstanburghnear Craster on the Northumberland coast. This enigmatic castle was built in 1313 by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and was extended by John of Gaunt in the 1380s. It occupies the largest site of any castle in the region and is a strong rival to Tynemouth for being the best-known coastal castle in the region. In truth both are overshadowed by the stupendous Bamburgh Castle, which is arguably one of the best-known castles in the world. For its setting, history and occasional movie appearances, Bamburgh is hard to beat when it comes to the North East castle hall of fame.
Built on a site occupied since prehistoric times, Bamburgh can only be described as iconic such is its fame and magnificence. It was the site of the northern capital of the Northumbrians, consisting of a communal fortress and citadel but the building we see today is not the Bebbanburgh of Anglo-Saxon times as the place was refortified as a castle in Norman times.
The huge keep at Bamburgh is twelfth century and much of the surrounding walls are medieval though the castle underwent much-needed restoration during its ownership by the famed Victorian industrialist William Lord Armstrong who also resided at Cragside. One unusual feature of the castle is that it has its own windmill (though no longer with sails) which can be seen at the western end of the castle.
Of course, equally romantic to Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh is Lindisfarne Castlefirst built in 1550 on Beblowe Rock, the highest point on Holy Island which lies off the coast to the north of Bamburgh. This castle was beautifully restored and converted into a private residence by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1903 and seems to almost grow out naturally from its rocky base. It is now owned by the National Trust.
Percy and Neville
The grandest castles were often the homes to the most powerful barons and in the North East the Neville and Percy families ranked highest of them all. Brancepeth Castle near Durham was a Neville stronghold and one of the places at which the family plotted the Rising of the North against Queen Elizabeth I along with the Percys. However, it is Raby Castle with which the Neville family is most famously associated in the region. Situated near Staindrop in County Durham, Raby Castle stands within a beautiful deer park in Teesdale and is a quite breathtaking site when seen passing on the neighbouring road.
Raby is stunning but is rivalled by Northumberland’s Alnwick Castle, the famous stronghold of the Percys who were the Earls of Northumberland. Famous Percys included Harry Hotspur (1364-1403), the war-hungry son of the First Earl of Northumberland.
Today, however Alnwick is perhaps more closely associated with another Harry, Harry Potter, ever since the famous quidditch scenes of the movie were filmed here.
The Percys also owned Warkworth Castle near the mouth of the River Coquet, a castle that features in Shakespeare’s Henry IV and with which Hotspur has the strongest connection. Another castle, Prudhoe Castle, where the Tyne Valley meets Tyneside was yet another Percy stronghold and holds the distinction of apparently being the only major medieval castle in the North East that was never taken by the Scots.
Lumley Castle in County Durham and Langley Castle in Tynedale, Northumberland are two particularly beautiful medieval castles which now serve as hotels. As hotels both often celebrate their historic roots by holding themed medieval banquets. Interestingly both also have a similar square-shaped design with four corner towers.
Langley Castle’s owners in medieval times included both the Percys and the Nevilles although other powerful families included the Radcliffes and Umfravilles. Lumley Castle once belonged to the Lumley family who were often involved in political intrigue in times past.
Another lesser-known castle that now serves as a hotel is Walworth Castle near Darlington which was built by a Thomas Jennison, Auditor of Ireland in 1603 but traces its earlier origins back to 1189.
County Durham castles
On the whole castles are much less numerous in County Durham and the Tees Valley than they are in Northumberland to the north because it is that bit more distant from the Scottish Borders.
Barnard Castle in Teesdale is the best-known ruin in the county of Durham. It was historically associated with the Baliol family whose members included Bernard Baliol from whom the castle and neighbouring town both take their name.
A lesser-known Durham castle is Witton Castle in lower Weardale which now forms the centre of a caravan country park near the pretty village of Witton-le-Wear. This castle was commenced from the conversion of a manor house around 1370 but much was rebuilt around 1700.
Fortified tower houses or peles, which are so numerous in Northumberland are rare in Durham, though we can see the ruins of such houses at Ludworth east of Durham and at Dalden near Seaham.
Several castles in County Durham were historically associated with the powerful Prince Bishops. Durham Castle, we have mentioned but others included Bishop Middleham near Sedgefield of which only a small mound remains. The bishops also held a castle at Stockton of which there is nothing remaining and of course they owned Auckland Castle, often termed Auckland Palace which is still one of the most stunning buildings in the county. Another site of interest is Bishopton, a village near Stockton which has the rather impressive earthworks of a ‘motte and bailey’ castle nearby but which despite its name belonged to a baron called Roger Conyers rather than the bishops.
In 1415 a list of over one hundred castles was compiled in Northumberland showing the importance of defences in that county in medieval times. These castles varied in scale from simple fortified tower houses to grand castles on the scale of Alnwick and Bamburgh.
Amongst the list is Aydon Castle near Corbridge, which is still one of the county’s finest medieval fortifications but on a larger scale are castles such as Fordand Chillinghamboth in the valley of the River Till in north Northumberland.
Chillingham, a fine medieval castle is a popular attraction today as a rather unusual castle noted for its rather eccentric ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ displays and its exhibition of medieval instruments of torture. Chillingham is also noted for its ghosts – the most haunted castle apparently – though many Northumberland castles such as Blenkinsopp and Bellister in Tynedale also claim to have resident ghosts.
Pele towers and bastle houses of note in Northumberland include the vicar’s peles at Corbridgeand Elsdon. These kind of pele towers (pele is pronounced peel by the way) were built specifically to protect local clergymen who might have been seen as easy and relatively wealthy prey for raiders in times since past.
Many other pele towers throughout the county were associated with local Border Reiver families. The same was true of the bastles of which examples can be seen in the main street in Haltwhistle or at Black Middens in North Tynedale where we can be impressed by the thickness of the defended walls.
Many of Northumberland’s castles lie in ruins, notable examples being the impressive remains of Norham Castle which overlook the River Tweed and neighbouring village of Norham. Surprisingly Norham Castle belonged to and was built by the Prince Bishops of Durham as Norhamshire formed an outlying part of their territory.
Further north still the town of Berwick upon Tweed was once the site of medieval castle that stood on a site now occupied by the town’s railway station but the main remaining historic defensive feature in that town today is a system of defensive walls that date from Elizabethan times.
Castles, bastles, towers and peles are of course just as much a feature of the border landscape when we cross the border into Scotland to the north: Floors, Duns, Smailholm, Hermitage, Ayton, Cessford and Fatlips are notable examples of castle and peles and there is a similar variety of fortifications to what we will find in Northumberland.
The biggest difference is that across the border we will find many fortifications that have been modified over time to take on that distinctly Scottish, architectural style which has echoes of castles found on the continent in Germany and France but which are not a feature of the Northumberland and Durham landscape.
As part of our continuing series featuring creative people in the North East DAVID SIMPSON talks to 64 year old Peterlee-based watercolour artist, Stuart Fisher.
Where in the North East are you based?
Our home and studio in Peterlee.
How would you describe your work?
Architectural landscapes in watercolour.
Tell us how you first started out as an artist?
Thinking my job in architecture was at risk, I revisited painting, something that I hadn’t touched on since secondary school. In the late 1990s I produced a watercolour of a young colleague who had broken his neck in a competitive motocross competition.
This helped to raise funds to assist with his drastically altered lifestyle as he was paralysed from the neck down. I doorstepped Dunlop, one of his sponsors and sold the original for £1,000 after which I raised a further £1,000 from the sale of prints. That same colleague remains a firm friend and incidentally, is an official mentor to the unfortunate victims of spinal injuries and those in the military who have suffered life-changing battlefield trauma.
Following this I was invited to mount a solo exhibition in a gallery in Corbridge in 2000 and have exhibited almost every year since, turning professional in 2010 with the launch of my website.
What work are you most proud of?
The commissioned painting depicting The Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in North Norfolk. It was a great honour to be invited to produce this work for a shrine of global importance to the Anglican Church and I was especially pleased to be invited to its official unveiling attended by The Shrine Guardians in March of this year.
What inspires you?
There’s potential in almost everything I see and hear.
What influence if any does North East England have in inspiring your work?
I don’t think that the North East is necessarily any more inspirational than any other region of Britain. That said, it is my base and as such has to be the source of my subject material. However with all my work, I attempt to add drama to subjects which have been done to death and which might otherwise be jaded to the eyes of the observer.
What has been your most challenging creation?
Watercolour is not a forgiving medium and as such many paintings have been consigned to the waste paper bin after hours of toil. There are new challenges to face in every painting. No matter how simple the subject may outwardly appear, there is always a hidden trap waiting to catch you out. The more you paint, the more you become aware of the potential pitfalls, the easier it gets.
The recently completed commissioned painting for The Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham had a number of challenges, very large size not the least of them. The fact that I’d never before attempted a garden of flowers was the most daunting aspect of the picture. I tiptoed around that section of the painting until I could no longer avoid diving in.
Do you have any tips for up and coming artists?
Be diligent, work hard and don’t expect art to make itself. Find one person you respect to critique your work, a person you can accept criticism from without being offended. Take inspiration from the greats and aim high.
What other artists or photographers inspire you.
During my early years in architecture, we received calendars at Christmas from local reps. The most sought after of these depicted the work of Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) a man who in my opinion is the Genius of the art of watercolour painting. Perhaps most famous for his depiction of scantly clad ladies peppering his architectural landscapes, his style inevitably went out of fashion in the 1960s. However subject matter aside, his technical ability was and in my mind still is, unsurpassed!
What are your ambitions for the future?
Apart from continuous improvement, I’m not really sure. The 2016 commission to produce a painting of Durham Chorister School for its 600th anniversary is a past highlight. The then school Principal Yvette Day was recently appointed Head of Kings College Cambridge Chorister School. Without prior knowledge of the Chorister School building, the idea of eventually producing a portrait of such an iconic establishment definitely appeals.