Friday, 29 July 2016


We went to Durham today. It's about an hour away from where we are. Everything seems to be about an hour's drive away from where we are. This is because we are very much in the middle of nowhere, which is something I discovered to my great chagrin when I ran low on petrol this afternoon and discovered the nearest petrol station was 20 miles away! Flying. By. The. Seat...

It's rained through most of the day today but it turns out that Durham in the rain is not such bad place to be. There are plenty of shops and covered markets to duck into, and the mother of all cathedrals to shuffle around.

We spent some time in the Woolley Workshop, Durham's premiere yarn store. Nathan chatted to the lovely owner and we asked if she had many male customers: "Oh yes!" She said proudly, "we have a lot of students. In fact, one of our regulars is a maths PHD student." My mind instantly did a shedload of processing. "Is his name Matthew?" She looked confused, "yes..." "does he knit animals?" "Yes, he knitted the spider hanging above your head..."

Matthew Elliot-Ripley was in the first cast of Brass. I knew he was a PHD student at Durham, and a very keen knitter, so I instantly Facebooked him a photograph of the spider and asked if he could think of anyone warped enough to knit it! He immediately responded, "are you in Durham?" And to cut a long story short, he dropped everything, met us for lunch and it was incredibly lovely to see him...

Lunch was at the Jumping Bean vegetarian Cafe. I had a toasted sandwich with veggie sausages, Marmite and cheddar cheese. Looking through a menu in a veggie restaurant is always catastrophic if you're vegetarian and not used to any form of choice. The words start swimming about on the page as you try to locate the little green v sign, and when you realise there isn't one, because everything on the menu is fair game, there's nothing for it but meltdown!

We walked along the west side of the river, deep in the ravine underneath the castle and the cathedral. It's such an extraordinary place. The river flows over a weir and then gently meanders around the castle mount. It's so still and green down there and today, perhaps because of rain, huge fish were jumping clean out of the water, diving back in and creating enormous ripples which stretched in ever-increasing circles all the way to the river banks.

We crossed the ancient foot bridge to the castle side of the river, and wound our way up the cobbled streets to the Cathedral, which is an utterly stunning building.

I was very moved to see the "Butte de Warlencourt" Battlefield crosses, which date from November 1916. The three crosses are made from wood and were placed on one of the Somme battlefields to mark the spot where 200 members of the Durham Light Infantry were killed. The crosses were brought home in 1926 when the Commonwealth Grave Committee standardised the way that the graves of those who had fallen in the Great War were presented. One went to Durham, one to Bishop Auckland and one to Chester-le-Street but they were brought back together in Durham Cathedral for the 100th anniversary of the Somme.

I think we were all a little surprised to find the Venerable Bede's tomb in the cathedral. I was so surprised, in fact, that I decided to light a candle to his memory. I wish I hadn't bothered, really, because in the process of doing so, I managed to drop mine on the floor, and put several other candles out. It was really very embarrassing. I felt like Terry from Terry and June.

Down behind the alter was a very stirring wooden sculpture called The Pietà by Fenwick Lawson. I didn't know the word Pietà, but I think it's a thing which has something to do with Mary the Muv, and her son, Jesus after he'd be brought down from the cross. The sculpture was enormous and very definitely carved from two simple tree trunks. I wasn't that fussed about the Christ, but the Mary figure was incredibly moving. It had that somewhat crude, 1970s primitive vibe which I've always rather enjoyed. And if that sounds pretentious, I apologise. I can't think of another way to describe it. Anyway, it turns out that the sculptor is the godfather of one of Sam's friends, so I was rather please to be able to report that it had moved me so much.

The sculpture was apparently in York Minster when it went up in flames in the mid 1980s, and it got spattered with molten lead. I think everyone was a little surprised when the sculptor said he felt that the disaster had added something quite important to the piece.

At just before 5pm I drove Nathan to the train station where he headed back to London. He's singing on a cruise ship next week and had to get back home to sort things out. I keep calling the cruise ship a ferry by mistake. I'll confess: I didn't much like saying goodbye to him. I'd like him here for the rest of the holiday, please.

Sam and I drove back to Nine Banks together, which was when the petrol incident happened. It was also when I ran over a pheasant. They are, without question, the stupidest creatures. As we drove up to the hostel, one of the silly things flew up from the road and proceeded to fly just in front of the windscreen for about 50 meters, seemingly not at all aware that if it flew just a metre higher, it would be out of our way. It was royally shitting itself out of fear as it flew. A desperate, somewhat tragic sight!

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