25 MARCH 1995, Page 22


Continuing our series on English counties, Henry Thorold waxes lyrical about the

unique charms of County Durham

COUNTY DURHAM: the very title is unique. Northumberland, Cumberland, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Rutland, Lin- colnshire, Kent, Sussex — but County Durham. There are echoes of Ireland, sug- gestions of a domain not quite English.

And County Durham is unique. For much of its history it has been a domain on its own, not quite like the rest of Eng- land — a County Palatine, the Prince Bishoprick. From the Conquest until 1836 it was ruled by its Prince Bishops, a bul- wark against the Scots. They enacted their own laws, levied their own taxes, and raised their own army. County Durham has thus always been proud and detached, as well as geographically remote from London and the south of England.

County Durham is protected on the south by the great River Tees, on the north by the great River Tyne, on the east by the North Sea. And on the west? On the west there is a frontier, somewhere in those vast remote moorlands, which it shares with Cumberland and Westmor- land. Here is some of the wildest country- side in England. Durham is a county of mighty contrasts. Industry dominates the north and the east: along the bank of the Tyne and at Sunder- land are or have been great shipbuilding yards, and enormous coal-mines blacken the coast; in the moorlands of the west are the grandest waterfalls in England, at High Force and Cauldron Snout. In the south, the Tees, tumbling down its dale,

provides spectacular scenery, with gentler landscapes and pretty villages as it flows towards the sea; at its mouth are the enor- mous chemical works of ICI. At Jarrow, in the early 8th century, Bede wrote his Eccle- siastical History; at Shildon, in the early 19th century, George Stephenson set the first public railway, drawn by a steam loco- motive, on the rails. Tatty little mining vil- lages climb the hills; at Durham itself is the grandest Norman cathedral in Christen- dom; Durham, too, is the seat of the third oldest university in England.

This remarkable county has always fasci- nated me: an 18th-century ancestor mar- ried a County Durham heiress, and she has always — from her portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds — appeared to me a lovable fig- ure. So when John Piper invited me to write The Shell Guide to County Durham (Faber & Faber, 1980) I was greatly thrilled. The county had changed a good deal since those days in the 1950s when I had first explored it: then there was a slag heap to mark out every mining village; and so many mines had closed, and the slag heaps had been levelled, or landscaped and grassed over. The villages were there still, those odd mining villages, where the coun- tryside begins where the last miner's cot- tage ends — strangely named villages, too: Sunniside, Quaking Houses, Seldom Seen, Pity Me. All this I found intriguing, endear- ing. I felt proud of my Durham blood.

Since then the county has changed still more: more mines have closed, more wind- ing gear has been removed, more slag heaps flattened. At Consett, where Vul- can's great forges stood, chimneys, cooling towers, cylinders enveloped in smoke, hiss- ing and steaming — all the vast steel works are flattened too. The shipyards on the Tyne and at Sunderland are largely closed — and new industries have moved in, great new factories at Sunderland pouring out Japanese cars. In some villages there are empty spaces, where terraces of miners' houses once stood: at a drab corner there may still stand the shell of a derelict cine- ma. Washington New Town is conceived as a series of villages, planned on a pleasant domestic scale, with industrial estates widely dispersed in different areas, and homely terraces, cottages and houses built — in true County Durham fashion round a village green.

As one enters the county at Pierce- bridge, a stately 18th-century bridge cross- es the River Tees. That admirable hostelry, The George, is on one side of the bridge, in Yorkshire. From the win- dows of the dining-room is the perfect view of the Tees, bubbling on its way, and on the farther bank is County Durham.

The straight road north leads on, ten miles or more, then abruptly turns left and descends from exhilarating rural country- side into the industrial village of West Auckland. The transformation is sudden: a worked-out colliery, newer factories. So industry begins and takes over: St Helen Auckland, Bishop Auckland, Spennymoor. It is factories, trading estates, worked-out collieries all the way.

Then at St Helen there appears close to the road a most handsome early Georgian house, with five great windows on the piano nobile, smaller windows below. It is pure Palladian, perfectly proportioned, reticent; beautiful. A few years ago, St Helen Hall stood almost derelict; demoli- tion was threatened — when a saviour appeared, the eminent architect Sir William Whitfield. He has planted immensely tall hedges to exclude all sight of factories and litter. There are inside the grandest 18th-century rooms in the county. `Remember,' he remarks, 'some of the finest palaces in Venice are in the tattiest surroundings.' In the house, protected by those hedges, there is little hint of the out- side world — or of the 'OK Bus Services' swishing by on the busy road. Bishop Auckland follows, the seat of the Prince Bishop. At the end of the sombre market place stands the gatehouse to the castle. Auckland Castle is no ordinary bishop's palace: the Bishops of Durham were no ordinary bishops; the sword of state, crossed with the bishop's crook, the coroneted mitre — their symbols of terri- torial as well as spiritual power are to be seen everywhere in this historic house. Auckland Castle, surrounded by its deer park, miraculously survives in a century when many bishops' palaces have been given up. Here, it is said, the miners, Con- servative at heart, were adamant that the successors of their Prince Bishops should be properly housed and honoured. And so to Durham itself — the city on its peninsu- la, its steep well-wooded banks washed by the River Wear, castle and cathedral supreme above. The ideal time to visit Durham is in win- ter. The crowds who come in summer will not be there: the place will belong to its citizens and academics. The cathedral is never more beautiful than at Evensong on Advent Sunday: we enter in daylight, dur- ing the service the light fades and the cathedral becomes dark. To the accompa- niment of solemn Advent music we can watch the shadows lengthen, absorb the vast Norman columns, Bishop Cosin's rich dark stalls, the Nine Altars beyond — and walk out into darkness. The cathedral will be floodlit, as will the castle, so long the fortress of the Prince Bishops. The last Prince Bishop, van Mildert, gave the castle to the newly founded university in 1832. The lights on Palace Green will illuminate 18th-century houses, and older and newer buildings of the university. On the balustrade of Prebends' Bridge are inscribed Sir Walter Scott's lines:

Grey towers of Durham, yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles, Half church of God, half castle 'gainst the Scots.

Close to Chester-le-Street is Lumley Castle, built by a Lumley in the 14th centu- ry, still held by a Lumley (the Earl of Scar- brough), but now a magnificent hotel. In the early 18th century it was gloriously refashioned by Vanbrugh. It is Vanbrugh at his very best; he knew what to do with a mediaeval castle; he felt at home in the north, away from the sneaking south. At Barnard Castle, that amazing building, the Bowes Museum, founded by George Bowes of Gibside and his French wife, looks like a grand hotel de Wile in some important French town.

Near Cowshill, in Weardale, another great wonder of County Durham, Killhope Wheel, is to be seen. Built in 1860, it was powered by rushing water from the hillside to turn the machinery for crushing the ore. It stands 40 feet high, in majestic isolation, and has recently been restored as an awe- some monument to the lead industry which flourished here.

County Durham, the Prince Bishoprick, the Principality: as I survey its dark north- ern lands I see that blackened northern Parthenon, the Penshaw Monument erected in 1844 in memory of John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, statesman, local hero. It stands as a landmark for miles around, symbolic of the county that is rugged but endearing, tough but charming, aristocratic and plebeian, overrun yet unknown, maligned but magnificent.