Durham and River Wear walk

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Passing the ornate door of the University's illustrious non-college

Christopher Somerville (1971) whose vibrant pen has sketched an idiosyncratic entry under Member’s News, has written widely on walks around Britain. In The Times Online on February 28 2009, he stepped out in our favourite city.

Another of this winter’s bitterly cold days, with Durham under a sky lemon-yellow with unshed snow. The River Wear slid smoothly under Framwellgate Bridge, its surface ruffled by cat’s-paws of wind. The riverside trees leaned bare and silent, ankle-deep in last autumn’s leaves. At Jesus Weir the medieval mill stood over its own mirror image, a perfect foil for the great west towers of Durham Cathedral high overhead and the three tall arches of Prebend’s Bridge beyond. All was still and calm, with a single deep-tone bell striking nine over the ancient fortress city cradled on its narrow peninsula in a bend of the Wear.

From St Oswald’s Church above the river a succession of footpaths and bridleways took me up along a ridgeway at the crest of Great High Wood, then plunging down the bank to return along a muddy pathway at the bottom of the wood. Up on the mossy ramparts of Maiden Castle I walked to the promontory point of the Iron Age hill fort and stood looking sheer down between twisted oaks to where the River Wear curved at the foot of the cliff, a broad ribbon of silver shining dully in the weak February sunlight.

Rowers were splashing upriver, pulling lustily against the current, as I walked beside the Wear back towards the city. One of the most striking river views in the north opened out ahead: the grim grey bulk of Durham Gaol under its giant roof and chimneys, a cruel parody of a domestic dwelling, dwarfed by the misty towers and battlements of cathedral and castle, twin citadels of God and man, dominating their peninsular knoll beyond.

The narrow stepped passageway of Drury Lane Vennel led up to Palace Green and the splendours and wonders of the greatest Norman cathedral in Britain. Foursquare, massive and strong rather than graceful, the church with its round pillars as thick as forest oaks shelters the tombs of the great scribe Bede and of Durham’s favourite saint, the shepherd hermit Cuthbert.

Cobbled South Bailey ran down the nape of the peninsula to pass the ornate door of St Cuthbert’s Society, Durham University’s illustrious non-college, famed as much for high jinking and deep drinking as for academic laurels. Down on the riverbank near Prebend’s Bridge the three-foot-tall Polish émigré Count Jozef Boruwlaski dwelt in a cottage early in the 19th century. By all accounts Boruwlaski, a talented violinist, was a wise and warm-hearted gentleman, who enjoyed strolling these riverside paths with his man-mountain friend, the outsize actor Stephen Kemble. Thinking of dwarves and giants, saints and scribes, I made for Framwellgate Bridge along the quietly chuckling river.