A Land of the Prince Bishops

“It’s Thursday so I go to bingo in the morning and I go dancing in the afternoon,” said the 87 year old who had joined us at the bus stop. A petite, silver haired and immaculately made up lady was in the process of describing how she managed a substantial social diary.

“I know what I’m doing by the day of the week,” she explained when I asked her how she remembered everything without a PA.

“So, I’m going home to paint my nails, because I do that on Thursday evenings and then I’m going out to more bingo.”

Linda was amazed.

“Well, you put me to shame,” she said, “I was thinking about putting my feet up tonight when I get home but maybe I should be going out instead?”

Lumley Castle Hotel and the golf course

We had just finished the stretch of the Weardale Way from Chester le Street to Fatfield and were waiting for the Town and Country number 8 bus back to the car. It had been a lovely wander along an autumnal riverbank and I was also looking forward to a relaxing evening after 9 walking miles that included 7 along the river and 2 as part of the return route via the bus.

Over a period of a few weeks we have completed four sections of the long distance footpath, bookended as they are by Chester-le-Street, Durham and Bishop Auckland. These communities give a glimpse of the region’s character, constructed has it has been by political, ecclesiastical and economic drivers.

The area has had a chequered and violent history. From being one of the richest and powerful regions in England it succumbed to Viking invasion and subsequent Norman suppression. An uneasy truce was gained from 1075 when William the Conqueror identified the kingdom’s political importance as a buffer state between England and Scotland. Long story short, William gave the Bishop of Durham full secular powers, as long as he protected English interests and stayed loyal to the crown. He could raise an army, mint his own coins, and levy taxes. And the prestige made it a rather desirable place for ambitious, powerful men, not all of whom were particularly pious.

The state, known as The County Palatine of Durham (the others were Chester and Lancaster), therefore operated virtually independently until 1836 when it began the transition to local Government control.

Bishop Auckland is possibly named as a result of the Old Norse name for ‘additional land’ or “Aukland” when it was given to the Durham Bishops by King Canute before William the Conqueror got in on the act. The prenom ‘Bishop’ was added when Auckland Castle became the official residence of the Bishops of Durham from 1832 until 2012. Chester le Street, a Roman fort, was also part of the ecclesiastical power play when it held the hallowed remains of St Cuthbert for a few years before they were finally interred in Durham Cathedral.

The ecclesiastical and political influences became interwoven by that of business as the Industrial Revolution unveiled the rich coal seams and brought the railway to County Durham to empty the region of this resource.  Within 100 years the palatine, not just undermined by the devaluing and loss of its coal but by recession and the Great Depression, has returned to the hands of local Government. The four unitary authorities endeavour, with seats of learning and the Church, to breathe new life and focus into an area which appears used to having the carpet pulled out from under its feet on a regular basis.

The city of Durham is hard to miss from the footpath. The cathedral and castle, built on a rocky peninsula in the river, stand bannerlike above the old and new and can be seen for miles.  In early October, when we walked this particular section, the river was awash with rowers; team coaches, flying alongside on bikes, volleying instructions between bank and boat. Paired runners and dog walkers crafted our walk into a weaving dance of swerves, stops and single file. It became tiring, focussed concentration jerked back into immediate life after miles of relaxing uninterrupted path and chat.

The intensity disappears from this section as farmland jigsaws into the city boundary and it is easy to resume a side by side conversation. We noted a large family of telegraph poles were being replaced on a hillside and observed the new bigger brother poles now standing in partnership alongside each, white trucks scurrying between as they were prepared for the cable transfer at their tops.

Further on, an enormous array of cars announces HM Durham Prison and Remand Centre and we walked alongside 21st century castle keeps, boiling oil and archers replaced with guardian floodlights and cameras.

Finchale Priory (pronounced finkle) lies just a mile or so from the prison. The cream gold stone ruins glows warm in any sun’s rays and we found it a pleasant place to be. A substantial priory in its day, it was founded by St Godric who, after a lifetime of adventure and travel as a merchant and sailor, decided to put his feet up by the Wear in 1196. It became a retreat for monks, anxious to escape the stresses and strains of Durham responsibilities. We had wondered if the peaceful atmosphere had been due to the centuries of prayer and worship that had pervaded every particle of this beautiful and very grand holiday cottage.

Our path takes us under and through all of this history and we have marvelled at the scale of man’s response to God and Mammon through the architecture in its cathedral, universities, castles, churches, priory, viaducts and terraces of railway cottages. We have also remarked on how quickly we can leave behind bustling streets and find the quiet solitude of countryside. Within a few minutes, the river path transports the walker into a world of birdsong and the Wear’s own voice. We are elsewhere, the country’s arboreal and pastoral world enveloping bodies and minds.

Today, as we finished our walk, we noticed an imperceptible change to the river. There was a saltiness to the air and the water flow had slowed and reversed; the Wear, at Fatfield was now tidal and the banks showed the sludgy high and low watermarks. The river’s chatter and rush is absorbed by the sea’s silent progress inland and it is unnerving, observing the transformation from lively bubbly watercourse to an unyielding and uncompromising mass of liquid pushed inexorably upstream.

Road bridge at Fatfield

We have followed a hard working and beautiful Wear that has supported the Roman encampments at Binchester and Chester le Street, quarries, a coal industry, water treatment plants and many communities that have bridged and viaducted its banks. It has also mirrored the corruption and purity of the area’s governance over the centuries, at one time being the most polluted watercourse in England yet now sustaining healthy fish stocks.

The Wear at Finchale

County Durham, is well named as the Land of the Prince Bishops, but, for me, the true stars of the show are its river and its people who have been welcoming and friendly at every turn.

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