06 June 2006

england trip, part two

england trip, part two

On Saturday, 27 May, we decided to stay in Durham itself and visit the magnificent cathedral and other historic locations in a leisurely and extended way.

Above is the sanctuary knocker on the main door of the cathedral, a reproduction of the original that dates to 1140 and is now housed in the "Treasures of St. Cuthbert" museum at the cathedral. The museum houses a variety of treasures: the coffin made in 698 and used to transport Cuthbert's remains from Lindisfarne, silk vestments presented to Cuthbert's shrine by King Athelsan in the early 900s, St. Cuthbert's pectoral cross that was crafted of gold and garnet between 640 and 670.

Durham cathedral itself was first built between 1093 and 1133 in a Norman Romanesque style, with the addition of the Galille chapel in 1175 (which now houses the body of Bede), the two western towers in 1217 and 1226, and a Gothic-style chapel on the eastern end between 1242 and 1280. Nevertheless, the cathedral is essentially an intact Norman building, making it both rare and unique among English cathedrals.

The central tower of the cathedral, already atop a steep hill, soars 218 feet in stone, granting a spectacular view of the surrounding city and countryside, if one is willing to climb the 325 narrow, winding steps and brave the bracing winds. The view above is of the two western towers, overlooking the River Wear.

The western end of the cathedral also houses the Galilee chapel, once a worship space for women (recall that the cathedral buildings were, until 1540, also a Benedictine monastary). The chapel houses not only the tomb of the Venerable Bede, who has rested there since 1022, but also a variety of artwork, ranging from 12th century wall paintings to a couple of modern stained glass masterpieces.

It's impossible to summarize the beauty and grandeur, let alone the details, of Durham's cathedral, but I can attest that it is among the greatest cathedrals of Europe and, moreover, one that has retained its spiritual identity and the centrality of worship in a way that not all have in the face of secularism and the tourist industry.

We spent the rest of Saturday wandering around the city of Durham, the cathedral always in view, as it is in the picture above from across the Wear, with the university's museum of archaeology in the foreground. We picked up some groceries on the way back to our hosts so that I could cook them dinner - Thai red curry over jasmine rice.

The next day was Sunday, 28 May, so we attended morning eucharist at the closest parish: St. John's Neville's Cross, where the new rector we had seen installed on Wednesday now preached and presided. The service was enjoyable, a nice mix of old and new, following the liturgy as found in the Church of England's Common Worship. As we had all along since we had arrived in Durham, we found the people very friendly and welcoming.

After lunch we decided to go for a Sunday drive and visit a couple of historical sights in the vicinity of Durham, beginning with the ruins of the Roman fort at Binchester.

Most of the site remains unexcavated since it sits within working farms, but the fort, at one time, was one of the largest in this part of Britain, located along Dere Street, a Roman road running from York to Edinburgh, which was the main supply route for the building of Hadrian's wall. The fort itself was begun around AD 80, though the visible remains date from the early 2nd century and include the remains of the bath seen in the picture above.

From Binchester we travelled out to Barnard Castle, set along the River Tees on the southern border of county Durham. Though a ruin now, the castle was original built just after the Norman conquest and rebuilt in the late 12th century by Bernard de Balliol.

After visiting the castle, we returned to Durham where we enjoyed dinner at a nice Italian restaurant along the river in the shadow of Durham Castle which now, incidentally, serves in large part as dormitory space for the university.

On Monday, 29 May, we journeyed to North Yorkshire to the town of Whitby, which sits around a harbor on the North Sea. Our day in Whitby was by far the most windblown of any of our time in England, especially given the town's location atop high bluffs overlooking the whitecapped sea.

Whitby, of course, is best known as the location of the Synod of Whitby in 664, which brought the Celtic church (which, at the time, included the north of England) into conformity with Roman practices on issues such as the dating of Pascha and clerical tonsure.

We were fortunate enough (and unfortunate, given the crowds) to be visiting Whitby on a bank holiday and thus were able to see a re-enactment of a Viking encampment, including some fellows acting out a battle between the Vikings and the native Celtic population.

The main attraction, however, were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a massive 13th century structure built upon the site of the earlier, pre-Norman abbey that had been founded by St. Hilda in 657 and which had served as the site of the Synod. The foundation outlines of the original abbey are marked out within the ruins of the later one.

St. Hilda was the powerful abbess who headed up the twin male and female communities that once occupied the site, who hosted the Synod of Whitby, and who is known also (at least to students of English literature) as the one who "discovered" the cowherd turned poet, Caedmon.

As we returned towards Durham, we made a brief detour into the heart of the North York moors (see below), to a get a good look at the desolate landscape that has so haunted certain sorts of English fiction and poetry.

The next morning, Tuesday, 30 May, we packed our bags and boarded the train back to London where we arrived mid-afternoon, in time to do some last minute shopping along Oxford and Regent Streets. Eventually we made our way down to Trafalgar Square, with the well-known facades of the National Gallery and St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

We found an absolutely wonderful Thai restaurant just off of Trafalgar and enjoyed a dinner of spring rolls, chicken panang curry, and a prawn green curry. After dinner we decided to wander around a bit and took the tube over to the old city of London where the Tower of London and Tower Bridge are located.

While both places were closed for tours by the time we got there, they were, nonetheless, quite pretty in the evening light.

On the way back to our hotel we stopped by a pub to get a drink and to celebrate England's victory over Hungary in the World Cup. We were exhausted and fell asleep almost immediately, only be awakened at 5am by a fire alarm, fortunately, a false alarm. After some shopping the next morning, we headed back to Heathrow and our flight home, though not until picking up some gin, whisky, and Pimm's in the duty free shop.

We enjoyed our trip immensely, particularly visiting various places of importance in the history of the Christian faith in early England, as well as all the kind and gracious people we got to meet and spend time with.