The sun is shining as we drive from the ferry towards Durham, a few recalcitrant clouds hanging around. Trying to park we have the problem we’ve encountered elsewhere – all parking has height restrictions, clearly not aimed at those carrying two bikes on the car roof. We finally find street parking and walk towards the town centre.
Durham is one of those places I’ve always meant to visit but never got around to. We’re here now as we’ve recently read Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling. (If you’ve never read any Bill Bryson I cannot recommend him enough. He’s an excellent writer, very observant, and often hilarious. I recommend not reading in the quiet carriage of a train. Or in the library.) The city surprises me. I’m not sure what I expected to find, but it wasn’t old cobbled streets that narrow to a car width, and a large flower-filled square, as pretty as any we’ve seen in Europe. There are many charity shops but no cheap tat and it has an air of genteel respectability about it. Stone bridges cross the river, large pots of flowers adorning them, and a man plays an accordion. I’m in awe of anyone who can do this – so many buttons, a keyboard and squeezing. I can’t even play the triangle.
The cathedral dominates the hill above the city and, as we climb, we discuss that we must be sure to donate more than the 40p the average visitor leaves – according to Bill Bryson, who is astounded that visitors aren’t prepared to pay more to see ‘the finest cathedral in Britain’. We then laugh as a large banner outside the entrance quotes this and volunteers line up to ask each of us (nicely) for a £3 donation. Having paid more for less recently we are happy to contribute, although scaffolding and hoarding shrouds one wing. We’ve become used to this!
The cathedral is as striking as any we’ve seen in Europe, albeit with a more subtle beauty and with far less gold splattered around. Modern stained glass windows sit alongside the traditional, letting a lot more light through than the older ones and just as beautiful. What I realise is, having written about the spectacular and beautiful sights we’ve seen in Europe, there is as much of both on this island, I just never really appreciated it until I left and returned as a visitor. On the way back to the car the accordion player has been replaced by a young man with flowing locks, an electric guitar and the requisite wide-legged stance, the notes of Deep Purple flowing from his fingers. He’s good and Neil hurries me past, fearful of my own (air) guitar coming out or my head starting to shake in time. I love him dearly but he can be an awful spoilsport sometimes.
Heavy rain sets in overnight. There’s almost as much water here as in Holland, fields sodden and flooded, roads part submerged under water. On these grass-edged country roads there are no gutters, nowhere for the water to go and they become rivers. At one point ahead of us a van executes a multi-point turn. I thought I was seeing things, sure it said Ljubljana on its side. When it completed its manoeuvre we both exclaimed in surprise – it is the support vehicle for the Slovenian women’s cycling team. This holiday is full of little connections.
This is not my ideal Yorkshire, the flatter land of the wolds nowhere near as nice as the hills and dales, no serious hiking opportunities, but I do feel a connection, as though I am somehow home. Everything feels old, as though it has been here forever. Centuries old churches stand beside village greens – the one in Aldborough with a maypole in the middle – and the red-brick houses look warm and inviting. Walking around Boroughbridge we paddle through fields and slip over stiles. Despite the rain there are a lot of people out, many with dogs, and we are greeted with cheery hellos and tail wags. I imagine a lot of houses around here will later smell of wet dog. Although not for long: they all have central heating and it’s a marvellous thing to come into from the cold and wet.
We’re staying not far from Fountains Abbey. I can’t remember when I first came here – at least thirty years ago I would guess – but it cast a spell over me that has never waned. I think it may be the first time I fell in love with a pile of stones. But these are stones that have lain here for centuries, half that time as a roofless ruin. There’s an air of sadness, but there is also strength and power (which, let’s face it, is why it was destroyed by Henry VIII), walls standing straight and tall despite the ruin. It’s hauntingly beautiful.
Unlike Melk it has been left alone to speak for itself. There are no light shows or glass, no reconstruction. Wandering where many feet have trod for hundreds of years I can feel lives here, those lived and ended long ago. Through window openings I can see sky that would have been hidden by a roof when robed monks worshiped in the church, wandered the cloisters, ate in the refectory and slept in the dormitories.
We walk through the adjacent gardens at Studley Royal, created by the landowner in the eighteenth century, water features and statues adding to the splendour of the ‘romantic’ abbey ruins. It’s a lovely place to walk, the river running fast beside us after the recent rains. We pause and picnic by the lake, the sound of rutting deer in the distance, some tourists getting a little closer than I personally would. I’m surprised to hear other languages, foreign accents, but why? This place is now a UNESCO site so people all over the world will have heard of it and want to visit. I defy anyone to be disappointed.