The City of Durham

The City of Durham

The story of the city, no less than of the county, begins with Cuthbert, a shepherd boy from the Borders who became bishop of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) . He was a saintly man in his lifetime and a legend after his death in 687; many miracles were subsequently associated with his name. Two centuries after his death, his followers, now the ‘Cuthbert Community’, left Lindisfarne in the face of Viking raids, taking with them the body of their saint, and valuables, together with the community’s privileges, to settle in Chester-le-Street. A century later the community became peripatetic once more with the threat of further raids, and wandered as far south as Ripon. They were possibly on their way back to Chester-le-Street in 995 when they were attracted to the defensive qualities of the flat-topped, steep-sided plateau area within the meander loop of the Wear six miles south of their former home. There was already Saxon settlement on a river terrace under the brow of the hill, Aelfret ee (‘Swan Island’, the present Elvet), but it was Dunhoim (‘hill island’) which was selected as the site on which to erect a cathedral worthy to contain the shrine of St Cuthbert. The building was completed in 1017 and the plateau area fortified. The addition of the remains of the Venerable Bede, brought from the monastery ofJarrow in 1022, increased its attraction. King Canute was among the early pilgrims; he granted extensive tracts of land and other privileges to the community.

The site chosen for St Cuthbert was mightily confirmed by the conquer­ing Normans. In a strategic buffer zone on the east coast lowland route to Scotland, the recent Saxon fortifications on a naturally defensible peninsula had already been proved in withstanding two attacks from Scottish armies. William therefore chose Durham, rather than his ‘new castle’ on the Tyne 14 miles north, as the centre of Norman administra­tion in northern England, and thus the name of Dunhoim, the hill island, was assigned to the surrounding countryside. To oversee the extensive area stretching to the Scottish border the king instituted a line of Norman prince-bishops. Rulers in both spiritual and temporal matters, they enjoyed full royal rights within the prince-bishopric or palatinate, possessing their own mint, exchequer, parliament, judiciary and army.

Map of Durham by John Speed, 1610
Map of Durham by John Speed, 1610

The city itself was to proclaim visually the authority and power of the new rulers of England. In so doing the evidence of Saxon beginnings was erased. A new castle was begun on the site of the old in 1072 at the vulnerable north neck of the peninsula, that being the only side not protected by the encircling river. A strong stone wall replaced wooden ramparts around the whole of the peninsula by the early 12th century. The Saxon ‘White Church’ was also erased and a new cathedral begun in 1093; this perhaps even more than the castle was a show of imperial force, its size and massive interior pillars suggesting it was indeed ‘half castle ‘gainst the Scot’. Its construction also incorporated stone ribbed vaulting for the roof, supported by concealed flying buttresses. As the first major building in the western world to do so, and as precursor of the Gothic, its place in architectural history was assured.

Associated with the cathedral arose a new abbey for a Benedictine monastic order which replaced the existing, more loosely organised community. The area between the cathedral and castle was cleared of housing on grounds of pollution and fire hazard, the population dis­placed being resettled at Framwellgate. Two bridges either side of the neck of the peninsula – Framwellgate (1128)  to the small community on the west bank, and Elvet (1160) linking to the ancient borough of that name – complete the major components of Norman Durham. Collectively they have provided an indelible imprint.

Speed’s map of 1610 clearly shows the Norman influence. The formerly extra-mural market place is now incorporated within the city walls, the major roads winding their way from the two bridges and northwards along the Claypath spine. The general form at this time was quaintly likened by Robert Hegge to that of a crab, ‘supposing the city for its belly and the suburbs for its claws’. The claws provided the links to the ancient churches of St Oswald (to the east of the peninsula), St Margaret (west) and St Giles (north) with their respective communities of Elvet, Crossgate with Framwellgate and Gilesgate. The fine detail of Speed’s map permits an early glimpse of many features in the major buildings and defences of the city. Included in the latter are the various gates and fortified towers in the city wall, also the weirs, placed across the river to deepen the water for defensive purposes besides providing power for the mills.

During the intervening four centuries Durham had risen to its zenith in political and ecclesiastical prominence, a growth punctuated by skirmishes with the ‘auld enemy’, by periodic famine, and by the shock waves of the Reformation. A measure of its importance as a medieval centre is the number of visits to the city by royalty, mostly English but also, during peaceful interludes, by Scottish monarchs. The prince-bishops, in return for their privileges, had to maintain a fortified garrison 107

and fighting unit. The forces saw frequent action, both locally and further north. In 1346, for instance, with Edward III abroad, Bishop Neville helped to defeat the Scottish army in the western suburb now known as Neville’s Cross. Or, again, at Flodden Field (1513) historians have the odd problem of whether to ascribe victory to the contribution of the bishop’s army or to St Cuthbert’s banner specially carried for the campaign.

The reputation and splendour of the cathedral of St Cuthbert with its Monumental associated abbey meant that the city was an ecclesiastical focus of slab, St England. The transfer of the endowments of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, gifts from early Norman bishops, and the general Benedictine emphasis on education and learning ensured that Durham was the intellectual centre of the North. Its manuscripts included the Lindisfarne Gospels; its foundations included Durham College (later Trinity Col lege), Oxford, where brothers were sent to complete their studies. Scholars, however, were far outnumbered by pilgrims flocking to a cathedral which contained not only the elaborate shrines of St Cuthbert and Bede, and the head of a second northern saint, Oswald, but also a supporting assortment of holy relics.

The splendour of ecclesiastical Durham was trimmed by the Refor­mation, but fortunately the foundation remained, so that continuity as well as change was evident. The cathedral was stripped of its shrines, relics and other embellishments – and also of its dedication to St Cuthbert— but not ofits bishop. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII, but it was a peaceful transition. The buildings remained intact, while the abbey prior was successfully translated into a dean and 12 monks became cathedral prebendaries or canons. If anything the changes had a greater impact on the city, which, always subservient to the bishop, lost much of the trade connected with pilgrims, festivals and fairs.

After another two centuries – including the disturbed period of the Commonwealth when the bishopric was temporarily abolished and the dean and chapter suppressed – the next period of significance in forming the character of the city was the 18th century. It was an era which became increasingly noted for its architectural and landscape elegance.

Georgian structures – more often reconstructions – graced the College and the Baileys on the peninsula, in Old Elvet and South Street. The residences in the College, the former abbey site, housed the so-called ‘golden canons’, renowned for being among the richest in the country. Along the Baileys, on the site of premises originally occupied by the bishop’s military tenants or barons, there were new town houses for county families. Their gardens extended to the old city wall before forming hanging gardens down to the river. Life was certainly gracious for those at the top, and Durham, still over a week’s journey distant from London, was now a sophisticated county town and cultural centre. In the season the citizen might attend horse racing, go to the theatre, dance or play cards in the Assembly Rooms, entertain orjust promenade.

Promenading became increasingly fashionable with the emergence of the English taste for the picturesque, for ‘composed’ landscape. From this period, then, stemmed the active landscape gardening of the river banks by the dean and chapter. Previously the slopes below the cathedral and castle in particular had been bare – and known as ‘Bishop’s Waste’ – but now an active programme of planting and path-making sought to produce a series of contrived vistas. After visiting it, the poet Thomas Gray wrote that he had discovered ‘one of the most beautiful Vales in England to walk in with prospects that change every ten steps, and open up something new wherever I turn me, all rude and romantic’. A visual climax was provided in 1 778 when a new Prebends’ Bridge, paid for by the prebendaries and named after them, replaced a more modest construction that had been destroyed by floods. Positioned some 50 yards downstream from the old crossing, the new bridge was clear of the meander loop and so revealed the classic prospect of gorge and citadel.

Notable as a county town, Durham developed little manufacturing industry, although it did claim the first commercial production of mustard in the world in 1720. There is nothing to suppose that more would have arisen had any of the four schemes to make the Wear navigable from Durham to its mouth and to the Tyne come to pass, for a new form of locomotion was about to arise which, in association with the rapidly increasing exploitation of coal, was to change the face of the county and encourage development elsewhere Although 19th-century County Durham possessed the country’s most productive coalfield and saw the birth of rail transport, the county town remained largely unaffected by the industrial expansion of the age. The coal seams under the centre of the city were generally too thin for large-scale economic exploitation, while lack of interest as much as opposition accounted for the late and circuitous connection to the rail network. Moreover, lack of suitable level sites and of water transport put Durham at a disadvantage compared with many centres. Population figures summarise the consequent shift in fortune: in 1801 its population total of 7,500 had only recently conceded first place in the county to Sunder­land; by the end of the century the county figure had increased tenfold and the county town (although it had reached 16,000) had slipped to twelfth position. Industrial-urban growth along the river-estuaries of the Tyne and Tees across the county boundary put its regional ranking in even poorer light.

The unenthusiastic response to industrial development meant that Durham did not undergo the marked character change typical of so many English towns. A dozen or so streets of bye-law housing to the west of the peninsula – they provide the rail passenger’s vista of the cathedral – suggest what might have been, but topography, if not land­ownership, prevented any emergence of a Victorian collar to the central core. Apart from organ construction and a carpet factory, local initiatives which have grown to serve world-wide markets, Durham’s manufactures were those of a small county town serving itself and a restricted hinter­land, destined for eclipse as technological advance favoured specialised centres. Such activities were corn and paper milling, brewing and making, iron and brass founding, worsted spinning and wool combing.

Rather than become an industrial centre, Durham found it more natural to foster the creation of England’s third university. Mooted in the 16th century, actually sanctioned in the 17th, the institution finally came to fruition in 1832 on the initiative of the dean and chapter and bishop who provided both income and accommodation, the latter including several buildings on Palace Green, not least the bishop’s palace – the castle – in 1837. Bishop van Mildert piloted the Durham University Bill through parliament. He was the last of the prince-bishops; his initiative with regard to a university deflected possible confiscation of revenues from the see of Durham in the imminent Reform Bill. The timing also coincided with rumours of universities in other provincial cities. From the point of view of townscape, the decision of 1832 was a stabilising influence, ensuring respect for the buildings initially possessed and for those subsequently acquired or commissioned.

Besides removal of the bishop’s residence (to Bishop Auckland), other institutions to leave the peninsula for new locations were the public school (to an extensive green site on church land on the other side of Prebends’ Bridge, 1844), the gaol, with the assize court (to Old Elvet), and the County Hospital (to the western fringe of the city in 1860).

The changing structures and powers of local government wrought other significant and permanent changes on the face of Durham during the 19th century. The Market Place was reshaped in the 1850s. The west side had a new town hall and associated market building; the north side was filled by a rebuilt St Nicholas church; while diagonally opposite two banks contributed further dignity to the square. County links, of which the prominent equestrian statue of Lord Londonderry in the Market Place and the miners’ headquarters in a new North Road provided contrasting symbols, were formalised by a large Shire Hall in Old Elvet. But the construction which perhaps best symbolises the century in Durham is the multi-arched and curving railway viaduct. Its lofty but peripheral position symbolises how 19th-century industrial power was so near, yet passed by the town. The viaduct was not built until 1857, and not until 1872 was there a direct link between London and Newcastle. A branch line had reached the end of Gilesgate in 1844 but remained isolated and unimportant; another feeder line reached the head of Old Elvet in 1897 but was even more local and insignificant.

The present century has seen much change in the Durham scene. In terms of population growth, however, there was a long pause between the two world wars: the 1951 census figure of 19,000 was no higher than that for 1921. The inter-war decline in the county’s basic industries and general era of economic and social depression was no springboard for growth in the county town. But that did not prevent the beginning of several significant structural changes. Clearance of slum property near the waterside in Framwellgate, with resettlement of the displaced com‑ munity on the plateau rim to the north east at Gilesgate in the 1930s, was a centrifugal process observable also in the university, with its first building to the south of the river in 1924, and the hospital moving to its extensive northern site in 1942 Along the western ridge a sequence of roads, soon quickly lined with ribbon development, was linked to form a new Great North Road through Neville’s Cross, thus bypassing the central city for the first time.

The new inner road system in Durham
The new inner road system in Durham

During the most recent era of growth the census population figure had reached 25,000 by 1974, when local government reorganisation redrew the map of the county, dividing it into eight districts, with the central one incorporating and taking the name of ‘City of Durham’. By this time the boundaries of the old municipal borough had been breached on all but the south side. A coherent urban entity, containing some 35,000 of the new district’s 80,000 total, had emerged through extensive residential development on the surrounding plateaux, especially to the north and east. From the townscape point of view, this development is significantly beyond the rim of the central basin, in the middle of which is the cathedral on the raised peninsula. Since the rim, at three-quarters of a mile from the centre, has been largely spared from development, the experience when in the historic core remains that of being in a small city. In reality, beyond the rim are found not only residential estates, but industrial estates and a new prison. Nearer, but concealed by folds in the rolling topography north of the centre are a new county hall, land registry, museum and hospital.

The equivalent rising land to the south has been studded by university buildings.

The route of the Great North Road has been changed again, being transferred to the east of the city and given motorway status. The connecting dual-carriageway link, built over the line of the branch railway to Gilesgate and seemingly aimed at the very heart of the city, highlights the threat which increasing traffic posed to the enclosed core.

The solution adopted in 1967 was to use the southward-facing slope of the Claypath ridge to lead to two new bridges across the Wear at either end of the northern neck of the peninsula. The first connects with New Elvet, the second, after tunnelling under Claypath, crosses the river fresh from its meander loop and enters North Road. This scheme opened up another scenic entry to the city, but the Claypath underpass, necessitating removal of properties overhead, breached not only the physical neck of the peninsula but also the urban fabric, opening up the formerly enclosed Market Place. Across the river, road alignment incurred demolition of some property only recently erected, although a much more controversial feature was the decision to locate the largest building to be erected in the city for 800 years, the National Savings Certificate Office, adjacent to the bridge on the west bank.

The new road system relieved the central medieval streets of vehicular traffic (or largely so, for the river-girt peninsula precludes any extensive rear-serving of premises, commercial or otherwise) . Following this key step, the Market Place and narrow streets have been resurfaced in stone and many facades of Properties rejuvenated by sand-blasting or painted according to a co-ordinated colour scheme. The planning authority has been able to encourage general building restoration through control and grants available in listed building and conservation area legislation. The conservation area was designated in 1968,  one of the earliest in England, and has recently been extended. Good husbandry has been further facilitated in that the two largest property-owners are the Church and the university, the latter now with much old property in Elvet as well as on the peninsula.

The attention in this chapter devoted to the physical and built environment witnesses to a city of distinctive quality. That distinctiveness is conveyed by an air of apartness, even aloofness: of being in, but not of, the area. In the very beginning, for instance, the city did not evolve out of a relationship with the surrounding countryside; it was planted by Saxon pilgrims and confirmed by the conquering Normans, who made it the political and ecclesiastical centre for much of northern England. After centuries of only moderate pretence as a market centre, the city remained aloof from the industrial revolution and almost unscarred by coal-mining despite being in the geographical centre of the extensive coalfield. At the peak of landscape disfigurement Thomas Sharp described the remarkable contrast in the terms of the cathedral city being ‘a flower among the filth’. This apparent aloofness of the city did not mean lack of involvement, however, for many of the colliery leases were on dean and chapter estates from which considerable revenue accrued.

Other factors have compounded the characteristic of being in, but not of, the area. The university, for instance, is decidedly national, rather than local or provincial in character and orientation. A perceived reluctance to turn the distinguished microscope of scholarship on its home area caused local writer Sid Chaplin to refer to the students and teachers as ‘colonialists’ and to the institution as ‘stuck in the county’s crop’. Again, the largest single success by local government to encourage post-war employment was not home-grown but the National Savings Unit, decentralised as part Iof central government policy from London. The city’s employment structure as a whole is quite unrepresentative of the region in which it is set. The area over which administration is exercised may well have contracted since its Norman foundation, but the complexity of our bureaucratic society is such that Durham is the headquarters for many services provided not only on a county basis but also on a regional level. The character of the city is influenced accord­ingly and is set apart in any table of averages, be they economic, social or political. But it is the consequent urban response that remains the most tangible sign of apartness. Offering one of the architectural experiences of Europe, the city may be said to ‘belong’ to the nation rather than to the local area. Indeed, the designation of the cathedral and castle as a World Heritage Site in 1987 was the ultimate confirmation of its value and distinctiveness. Aesthetically and architecturally, his­torically and culturally, therefore, it is a fitting climax on which to conclude our study.