Friday, 15 June 2012

'Historic Cathedral City': expectation and reality at Durham

When you drive towards Durham on the A1M, you pass brown signs alerting you to Durham: historic cathedral city.  They are so familiar that we scarcely give them a second thought.  Yet we do notice other peoples’ brown signs pointing us to their towns and cities, and I imagine that an audience like this is willing to be enticed by them.  Perhaps those who are not fortunate enough to live in a ‘brown sign’ town or city envy those of us who do.  But it is good to ask ourselves from time to time how our town or city measures up to the allure of its coveted sign.  Do we deliver what the brown sign promises? 

‘Historic cathedral city’ is an evocative epithet.  There is something very English about it.  It conjures up nostalgic images that extend beyond the meaning of the words themselves, associating to mental landscapes of a kind familiar from railway posters of the 1930s and dust-jackets of Batsford Books.  We know, or think we know, what is, and is not, a ‘historic cathedral city’.  We mean places like Wells, Salisbury, Chichester, Winchester, Canterbury, Hereford and Lichfield: modest-sized towns with a medieval Cathedral at their heart.  We expect the Cathedral to be surrounded by a sward of immaculately tended green, a close lined with Georgian houses with (preferably) a wall around it and a gate that is shut at night.  We expect there to be a dense cluster of historic buildings lining networks of narrow streets and lanes along which the evensong bell echoes each day.  We expect urban sprawl to have been contained, and the depredations of industry and commercial development to have been kept out of their historic core.  We expect there to be interesting shops to detain us, independents and not merely the generic high-street brands.   We expect a townscape with an individual, personal texture and a strong sense of place, not a clone of somewhere else but a city that has personality, that is truly, authentically itself.  Those are some of my criteria for a good historic cathedral city.  They may be difficult to state but I think we recognise it when we see it.

There are many cities that are historic in the sense that they have a history.  Most have cathedrals.  But we do not think of them as ‘historic cathedral cities;.  In the case of the so-called large ‘core-cities’ like Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle, the cathedral is not magnet towards which visitors are first drawn.  You do not go to these places solely for the purpose of visiting their cathedrals, and indeed none of them had a cathedral in the middle-ages.  Bristol become a cathedral under Henry VIII while the others have parish churches that acquired cathedral status in the 19th or early 20th centuries.  When I went to Sheffield, some people were surprised to learn that it even had a cathedral.  Meanwhile, some of our largest cities do not have cathedrals at all: Leeds, Hull, Plymouth, Nottingham, Southampton and closer to home, Sunderland.  Liverpool and Coventry (where I was a canon before going to Sheffield) are perhaps the only large urban centres outside London whose cathedrals are destinations in their own right. 

At the other end of the scale, there are towns that do have cathedrals but are not cities: Southwell, Ripon and Bury St Edmunds, latecomers as cathedrals go, for their monastic churches only gained cathedral status in the last 150 years.  Truro, with its fine 19th century cathedral, has successfully emulated the historic cathedral cities in some respects.  Guildford has a 20th century cathedral but is not (yet) a city.  Bath is an interesting case because in the medieval period its Abbey was one of the two cathedrals of its diocese, only becoming a secular parish church at the dissolution. But it is still a city today.  And then there are those cities that have grown considerably beyond their pre-modern city limits but whose centres still retain the character of a cathedral city – some more so like York, Norwich and Chester, some less so, like Exeter, Carlisle and Peterborough, this last city having been treated cruelly by developers ever since the 16th century. 

If I am right to say that we know intuitively what we mean when we talk about ‘historic cathedral cities’, then it may be worth examining how well it applies to Durham.  I should like to do this by taking these three words in turn, ‘historic’, ‘cathedral’ and ‘city’.  We should imagine that they are hyphenated, for they cannot ultimately be separated.  I hope to raise issues that Durham perhaps needs to face if it is to cherish its identity as a ‘historic cathedral city’. 


Historic
In 2008 The Princess Royal unveiled Fenwick Lawson’s sculpture ‘The Journey’ in Millennium Square.  I chaired the committee that raised the funds for the piece.  The reason this proved a popular project was not only the beauty of the piece and the distinction of its sculptor.  It was its subject.  At the time we said that we believed it was important to have in the city-centre some visible reminder of how and why Durham came to be.  This means the story of St Cuthbert and the journey made by the monks of his community who arrived on the peninsula of Dunholme and set up his shrine there in 995. From that event the entire history of Durham flows.  There was much discussion about whether the sculpture should be sited on Palace Green or in the city-centre.  I argued for the city, because its title is The Journey, not The Arrival.  Moreover, the city-centre is not over-endowed with public art, nor are the Saxon and Christian origins of our city evident as you walk around it.  And I think that to have the ‘historic’ interpreted in a contemporary townscape makes for a suggestive setting. 

What do we mean when we say that a place is ‘historic’?  It is probably to do with what it evokes by its essential character.  ‘Historic’ in the rhetoric of travel promotion tends to mean ‘pre-industrial’, a notion that colludes with the nostalgic colouring certain places acquire in our minds.  Our nearest city neighbours, Newcastle and Sunderland speak of a more recent history that does not quite qualify for the epithet ‘historic’: a proud industrial past, great urban expansion, a centre of commerce and trade.  Durham, by contrast, has a more or less intact core of pre-modern buildings that effectively define its nature, at least as we remember it in the landscape of the mind.  There is more to Durham than this, of course: its mining history and other local industries, its long lines of Victorian terraces at Langley Moor or Pity Me that are so typical of the north-east; its bland 20th century suburbs and retail parks that are generic England and could be anywhere.  But we do not remember Durham for these things.  We remember it for a compact townscape that wears its history visibly in its ancient street-patterns, its medieval, Tudor and Georgian houses, its river banks, bridges and churches, its castle and cathedral. 

However, this seems to me to be a weak use of the word ‘historic’.  It can so easily be debased into meaning that it exudes an atmosphere of ‘oldness’ or ‘quaintness’.  (The promotional rhetoric of travel literature speaks of a ‘vibrant old town’ whose ‘winding’ narrow streets are ‘studded’ with ‘picturesque’ old houses ‘huddling together’ or ‘nestling’ under the shadow of a ‘stunning’ or ‘iconic’ cathedral ‘perched’ on its hilltop.  This is language inflation and if we care about our heritage, we should take as much care over words we use to describe it as we do over our buildings, monuments and landscapes.  I do believe that Durham Cathedral is an ‘iconic’ and ‘stunning’ building in the sense that few others in the world can claim to be.  But I have resolved that we shall stop using these words in our literature. We do not honour what is distinctive about Durham or its Cathedral by falling into cliché.) 

The word ‘historic’ has to carry a stronger sense than merely looking or feeling ‘old’.  History has to do with the narrative we relate and inhabit.  That story is not simply about the past.  It has to do with self-understanding, how we elicit meanings.  So an historic town or city is one that has a sense of its own origins, a defining myth that explains why it is what it is and not something else, and why it is here and not somewhere else.  Douglas Pocock speaks about the quality of ‘Durhamness’[1].  ‘Durham-ness’ is not only about what constitutes our city’s unique setting and townscapes.  It is to do with how the built heritage relates to its cultural, intellectual and spiritual heritage.  This historic sense alone enables us to read the townscape intelligently.  This brings me back to St Cuthbert and ‘The Journey’.  The image of the monks tramping up the hill with their infinitely precious cargo is an unforgettable image of our city’s origins.  It makes visible an aspect of the history we need to know if we are to grasp what makes this an ‘historic’ cathedral city.

It is this strong sense of the word ‘historic’ that we should do more to promote in Durham.  In what ways is Durham unique or at least distinctive historically?  Here are some suggestions.  Durham is the only Cathedral in England that is almost entirely Romanesque.  It is the best-preserved monastic site in the country that is still in use for its original religious purposes.  It is the oldest continuously inhabited place of learning in England.  It has the best preserved monastic library that is still in situ.  It is the only cathedral to have intact shrines not only of one, or even two, but of three saints.  The Cathedral has held resonances for its region in a way true only in a handful of other places.  The Durham Palatinate with its counts palatine or prince-bishops was a unique political arrangement in England of which the Castle is the symbol.  The Castle is the oldest working university building in the world. Durham is one of the few cities to have preserved its medieval walls.  No doubt you can add to this list.

Going back to St Cuthbert, in 2005 his name, removed by Henry VIII from the Cathedral’s dedication, was reinstated in its legal title as ‘The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham’.  Cuthbert continues to inform our historic sense.  We are looking forward to receiving into the Cathedral a contemporary replica of the Cuthbert Banner that once hung in the south quire aisle, was carried into battle, and which was summarily destroyed by a reforming dean’s wife (I am sorry to say).  We have a great opportunity to build on this in 2013 when the British Library has agreed in principle to loan the Lindisfarne Gospel Book and St Cuthbert’s Gospel Book (newly acquired for the nation by the Library) to Durham for three months.  They will be exhibited in the University’s new exhibition space on Palace Green.  The Lindisfarne Gospel Book was written at the turn of the 7th and 8th centuries ‘in honour of God and St Cuthbert’ and brought here by his community along with his body; the Cuthbert Gospel was interred with him in the 7th century.  This close connection with Cuthbert is the intellectual and spiritual reason for welcoming them into Cuthbert’s place, the peninsula of Durham and displaying them close to his relics.  In the medieval Cathedral Priory we can assume that this intimate connection would have been regarded as a symbol-system that was unbreakable.  I would discourage us from speaking about this as some romantic homecoming: I would rather that we spoke instead about affirming our own history by bringing together the ancient emblems that lie at the heart of our identity.    

History has its dark side, and recognising this ought to be part of branding a place ‘historic.  This is however often forgotten.  For example, I point out to visitors awed by the beauty of the Cathedral that it would not have been read that way by the native Saxons who had suffered as a result of the Norman Conquest.  To them, its grey towers stood for the harrying of the north and for brutal oppression. It was intended to be a symbol of ruthless power.  This gives the building an ambiguity that is not always recognised: it is at once built for the glory of God but also to establish the hegemony of a foreign invader.  Nor does the shadow stop there. The inhuman treatment of Scottish prisoners of war by Cromwell in the bitter winter of 1650-1651 when they were incarcerated in the cathedral after the Battle of Dunbar is a part of our history that we are only now getting round to commemorating in the building.  The empty niches of the Neville Screen, the levelling of Cuthbert’s shrine, the mutilated Neville tombs are further visible aspects of the destructiveness the Cathedral has seen since the 16th century.

This ‘shadow’ is caught for me by Mark Hudson in a memorable book about the mining village of Horden.  He is speaking of the Miners’ Gala, and how the banners of collieries where men had died in the year’s pit disasters would be processed into the Cathedral lined with black crepe.  He describes the links between the Cathedral and the mining communities: the Haswell banner in the south transept and the Miners’ Memorial in the south aisle.  Here is his introduction to them: ‘Anyone who wants to say that they have seen Durham Cathedral, should see it not only in summer, the three great towers rising hazy and visionlike through the balm of the great cloud of foliage, its interior bathed in golden light, the majestic columns dappled with the reflected hues of its stained glass, but also in the very dead of the year, when the last leaves have departed the elms that cling to the great rock, its gaunt winter face peering down through soot-encrusted eyelets into the black dank water of the Wear, when the light seems hardly to penetrate much of the interior, and the broad blank expanses of stone between the rows of upper and lower arches rising from the submarine dimness towards the feeble light from the upper windows have about them the clammy, irremediable chill of river mud.’[2] 

It matters that we read a building and a place in its totality, not selectively, editing out everything that does not charm or elevate us.  It is like Virgil leading Dante around the circles of hell before Beatrice can lead him into paradise.  There should be integrity about our treatment of historic places.  I felt this especially strongly when my wife and I visited Pompeii a few years ago.  It was magnificent.  But the interpretation lacked a sense that these were disaster scenes where many human lives had been lost when the volcano erupted in 79AD.  At this mass grave, the jokey commentary struck a false note.  There was no recognition of loss nor was there reverence for life.  I found myself wishing that history was not so susceptible of being popularised and thereby trivialised.  But I would be naïve not to recognise that many readings of our historic cathedral city are just as selective and superficial.  This is the inevitable down side of mass tourism.  We need to understand our role as an historic place, and pay attention to the story we tell and how we tell it. 


Cathedral
Why is Durham still named after the topographical feature of Dun-Holme rather than being called St Cuthbert’s like other pilgrim places such as Bury St Edmunds, St Albans, Santiago da Compostela?  The name tells us something important about how, despite its powerful founding myth, an older memory persisted with a longer history even than that of our native saint.  We know how Durham’s topography defined a sacred space for the Cathedral and its precinct, a defensive space for the Castle and its bailey, a civic and commercial space with its market place and town hall, and compact residential spaces spreading out from the centre but always determined by the river and its crossing points. 

The phrase ‘historic cathedral city’ turns out to be about more than it seems.  Our city has developed out of a founding myth that sacralises the physical geography.  By that I mean that the history of the Cathedral is inseparable from the history of the city, not because the city would not exist without St Cuthbert, but because every chapter in the story right up to the present day shows how dependent each is on the other.  The history of the Cathedral has encapsulated, embodied or even controlled the larger history of the city as the interplay of sacred and secular power has changed down the centuries. 

Once upon a time, a coffin was brought on to the peninsula, a shrine was established there, and around it was the first Cathedral was built.  It’s important to state it this way round: our church is not a cathedral that has a shrine in it, but a shrine that has a cathedral round it.  This affects the way we read the building as a succession of spaces that lead up to the sanctuary, the high altar, the Neville Screen and the feretory beyond.  Cuthbert’s shrine is the spiritual and emotional climax of a building that functions as a long processional way that leads up to a great climax.  You cannot see it yet from the west end, nor even from the crossing or quire; but you know it is there.  Like millions of pilgrims before you, it may be the principal reason you have come: to make your own journey between the mighty Romanesque piers like an avenue of trees, while above you, as if to shelter your path, spreads a stone canopy of ribs and pointed arches that constitute the pioneering stone vault.  St Cuthbert tells you what this church is for.  When the Normans colonised the cult of St Cuthbert and rebuilt the Cathedral in 1093, we can plausibly conjecture that whoever designed this masterpiece knew exactly what he was doing in creating architecture with the strongest sense of drama.  The Cathedral is a theatre of the soul because of the remembered power of Cuthbert to draw the eye and the imagination ever eastwards towards the shrine. 

This pattern is reproduced in the development of Durham City.  At the beginning of its story, there was a cathedral.  Around it a community settled: first Cuthbert’s Saxon community who had at last found a home after the years of wandering around the north of England.  Then came the Normans, and with them, the city as we know it began to take shape.  Again we need to tell the story the right way round.  Like the shrine enclosed by a Cathedral, the Cathedral was in turn enclosed by a city, paroikiai, parishes, communities that literally ‘lived around’.  Durham is not a city that has a Cathedral; it is a Cathedral around which a city has grown.  Perhaps this is what we vaguely understand by the phrase ‘historic cathedral city’ because many such cities turn out to have grown out of and been formed around their cathedrals. 

Take Salisbury.  This was a new medieval city established in the water meadows of the Wiltshire Avon when in the 13th century its bishop and chapter abandoned the waterless chalky hill-top of Old Sarum with its Romanesque cathedral, a site which they shared uneasily with a military garrison.  They built another cathedral by the river to house the relics of St Osmund and a large close to house its clergy.  The footprint of the close dictated the grid on which the chequers of the city were laid out. Like Durham, medieval Salisbury is entirely the product of its cathedral. Bishop Richard Poore, who founded the Cathedral of New Sarum and laid out the plan of the city, came here as Bishop in 1228.  Here he built the Chapel of the Nine Altars, so reminiscent of the Early English of Salisbury.  Poore would have recognised the symbiosis between city and cathedral when he came to Durham, how the Cathedral and its college constituted a ‘city within a city’ that shaped the evolution of the medieval town.

My point is that ‘historic cathedral cities’ are mostly those in which the cathedral has decisively shaped the history of its city, and in some has been the very reason for its existence.  And ‘shaping’ is about more than simply the physical development of a city.  It has to do with its ‘character’ and ‘personality’ as a lived community.  That character has many dimensions. In the case of Durham, these are particularly well documented.  For example, we know a great deal about the economic impact of the Cathedral on the city and region in the era just before the convent’s dissolution.[3]  A city with an immensely powerful monastic institution at its heart could not fail to feel the effects of its gravitational pull at all levels of its political, social and economic life. 

In his fine account of Durham Priory in the first half of the 15th century under the long reign of Prior Wessington, Barrie Dobson writes about Durham ‘The English Zion’.  This well-known epithet refers to Cuthbert’s personal choice of this rocky hill surrounded by ‘the sweet and delectable river of Were’ as his resting place.  So it was claimed that God himself had founded the city[4].  As Dobson points out, this is to assume that there was no human settlement on the site prior to Cuthbert’s arrival, whereas even Symeon of Durham knew that this was not the case.  However, the myth expressed a conviction about Durham, that it would not have become what it was without its saint and his shrine.  Durham’s genius loci is inextricably a consequence of a history shaped by the Priory as a place of pilgrimage and prayer.  Its effect was to sacralise it as a holy city, an English Zion.  Dobson writes: ‘if the monks of Durham owed everything to Saint Cuthbert, the lay inhabitants of the city owed nearly everything to the monastery which provided them with employment and reflected glory.  Like the residents of a modern university town, the inmates of fifteenth-century Durham may have sometimes looked askance at the impressive corporate monster in their vicinity; but they were wise enough to realise that it brought them less pain than profit.’[5]

We could trace this theme into the modern era.  In subsequent centuries, despite the weakening of the sacral ties between church and community, the Cathedral nevertheless continued to wield significant power and influence in the city.  This continued into the industrial era when the Cathedral’s extensive coal interests in the neighbourhood were an important factor in shaping its economy.  At the same time it was playing a decisive role in the founding and running of its university. But I want to bring us up to the 21st century to suggest how the same is still true in one aspect of the life of Durham, tourism. 

Bill Bryson famously said in Notes from a Small Island: ‘I got off at Durham and fell in love with it instantly…  It’s wonderful – a perfect little city.  Take my car.’  In the same book he gives us the best marketing strap line any dean and chapter could want: ‘the best Cathedral on planet earth’; though the affirmation that means most to me is that he says: ‘Everything about it was perfect – not just its setting and execution but also… the way it is run today…. no nagging for money, no “voluntary” admission fee… no clutter, … no irksome bulletin boards… nothing… to detract from the unutterable soaring majesty of the interior.’[6]  On the strength of that, one couple enjoyed a city break here and endorsed Bryson’s eulogy in the Guardian.  They rhapsodised about the ‘hushed cloisters’, the ‘vertiginous vaulted ceiling’, the ‘ancient pillars’, this ‘mind-boggling feat of Norman engineering’.  They have evidently dipped deep in the travel-scribe’s armoury of words and phrases but it is well-meant. 

The Cathedral receives more than 600000 visitors each year, which makes it the biggest visitor attraction in the north-east.  ‘Durham’, the city and county,  is one of only fifteen ‘recognised destinations’ in England where the national tourism strategy is now being concentrated as financial cuts curtail tourism promotion by the regions and local authorities.  Clearly, as a ‘destination’, Durham relies heavily on the Cathedral.  Its image appears everywhere: it is Durham’s ‘brand’.  Just as in the middle ages the city benefitted from the benign invasion of pilgrims, so 21st century visitors come here and bring business to the city.  The economic impact of cathedral tourism has been studied and it is possible to put a figure against it in terms of direct and indirect spend.  The Cathedral and the city need each other, even if there are tensions in managing a site that is a working church before it is a heritage site and tourist venue.  I don’t believe that tourism erodes the qualities in city or cathedral that visitors come to see: rather, the human flow adds vitality to our streets, precinct and cathedral. Tourism reinforces the sense of drama that a city like ours possesses because the throng changes the way we experience it – the same can be said of our students.  But beyond its economic benefit to the city, how do you assess ‘value’ in a deeper way?  How does the Cathedral contribute to the city’s cultural, intellectual, social and spiritual capital? What indeed are the city’s values – is it possible to name them?  For if our ‘values’ were merely economic, we would be a poor place.  They are to do with how we understand ourselves, where we have come from, and what we believe about ourselves, our communities, our places.  They are to do with our aspirations for the future: what kind of historic cathedral city we want to become, and why.  These are important questions for Durham because environment, buildings and townscape express our values for good or ill.  So let me finally turn to that third word ‘city’. 


City
I began by suggesting what the phrase ‘historic cathedral city’ evoked, and I have explored some of its aspects.  In particular, I have drawn attention to what we might call the delicate ecology of this cathedral city: the relationships between the Cathedral and castle, the river banks, the medieval town. The first observation I want to make is that in Bill Bryson’s epithet ‘a perfect little city’, the word ‘little’ is not casually thrown in.  It describes what he valued when he came here.  He found a city in which things appeared to be in scale, where there was a sense of proportion about the way Durham had evolved around its historic core.  I made the point earlier that ‘historic cathedral city’ seems to mean a place where urban life is felt as intimate and benign because a sense of neighbourhood can be felt across it and the bonds that tie a community to its place remain strong and close.  Perhaps this is in deliberate contrast to large cities that can be experienced at least in part as alien and threatening wastelands.

Alain de Botton reflects on the power of architecture to degrade its environment, to be less beautiful or useful than the green field on which it was built.  He is realistic about the processes that lead to inappropriate development.  ‘An investigation of the process by which buildings rise reveals that unfortunate cases can in the end always be attributed not to the hand of God, or to any immovable economic or political necessities, or to the entrenched wishes of purchasers, or to some new depths of human depravity, but to a pedestrian combination of low ambition, ignorance, greed and accident.’[7]  The ‘architecture of happiness’ means buildings that disclose to us who and what we could become; our best aspirations for ourselves and for our communities.  Such architecture can be grand or modest, sacred or secular, a castle or a cathedral or a terraced house under a viaduct.  We recognise its honesty and integrity when we see it, and become more humane and more human by inhabiting it.  Bad architecture is, by contrast, ‘a frozen mistake writ large’.  Unlike a bad book or picture or play, mediocre architecture or town planning cannot be ignored.  I am thinking of developments that are dissonant or out of scale with their surroundings, or ugly in themselves, or merely bland and compromise the strong sense of character and individuality that belongs to cities.[8] 

As a relative newcomer to Durham (I have lived and worked here for 9 years), I have to say that what I now see compared to what I remember from visits in the past is not all improvement.  It is true that the city centre is now a much cleaner, livelier, more attractive place than it was in the 1960s.  I do not share the view of some that the reconfiguration of the market square is a mistake (though however flawed the processes may have been, we need to reserve judgment until the works are finished).  Greater mistakes were made much longer ago when high street names like Woolworths, Marks and Spencers and Boots were allowed to create large shop frontages whose ugly expanses of glass violated the intimate scale of the medieval town-centre, obscured the lines of the medieval burgage plots, straightened out the natural movement of the streets and subverted the role of those buildings that ought to have pride of place in a town square, the parish church and the town hall.  These frontages are not irreversible.  It would be possible to respect the context better by creating more varied, narrower, smaller scale frontages that still allowed the footprint of the shop to extend to its full width behind. 

In a ‘historic cathedral city’, scale and proportion are everything.  They matter because of the delicate interplay between the massing of the Castle and Cathedral on their acropolis and the intimate townscape below that acts as an essential foil to them.  This delicacy is at risk in Durham City.  Inevitably, we all have our own list of developments that we either like as genuine enhancements of an evolving working city, or find incomprehensible, inappropriate or downright bad.  The best developments in Durham are those that do not impinge on the historic core or the irreplaceable views to and from the World Heritage Site, or are courageous and innovative enough to hold their own in that setting.  George Pace’s University library overlooking the river behind Palace Green is one example.  Kingsgate Bridge may be another (though I wish I could like it more).  Perhaps even Dunelm House is another: it certainly has hutzpah.  Millennium Square has its virtues: its striking contemporary forms, and the fact that it is invisible until you get there.  The High Street shopping development is formulaic but is discreetly hidden away so it avoids my hit-list.  Like the rest of Durham, it would be much better if there were more independent shops of the kind people like to find and browse in when they come to cathedral cities.  In Chester or York, the shops are almost as good as the cathedrals.  But not in Durham, as visitors point out with a sense of disappointment. If Durham is to be an overnight destination, this aspect of its ‘visitor offer’ needs hard work. 

So far so satisfactory.  The same cannot be said for the cross-river (left bank) developments downstream of Framwellgate Bridge.  Not only have unsurpassed river-front opportunities been lost here, but the scale of these buildings, including the latest of them, the Radisson Hotel, is too obtrusive when viewed from Prebends’ Bridge.  From here, the modern Milburngate road bridge was cunningly designed to be invisible so that all you would see would be the Cathedral and Castle standing proud above the river gorge and its tree canopy, and closing off the view, a medieval bridge.  Now as you descend the incline from the Cathedral towards Framwellgate Bridge the skyline is spoiled by the elevations of the large buildings that lie beyond.  There is a lack of architectural humility and respectfulness on the west bank of the Wear.  The same offence was committed on the other side of the peninsula with the erection of the Prince Bishops car park and shopping centre.  Here, the beautiful view of Elvet Bridge from Kingsgate is compromised by the ungainly mass of Prince Bishops immediately behind, looking like a monumental barn-conversion with a gratuitous green brick fascia to pick out the stairwell externally.  Try photographing Elvet Bridge looking upstream: you cannot get the Prince Bishops out of the frame.  This is homogenisation writ large with the rhetoric of supermarket vernacular, and given what it is an emblem of, the commoditisation of the towscape. Such things can perhaps be accepted at the Arnison Centre or Dragonville.  On the edge of the medieval city-centre, the grandiose should have no place. 

Questions of scale and proportion extend beyond buildings and heritage to the larger issues of the future of Durham.  Here I shall no doubt be controversial.  Under the County’s development plan, it is proposed to make Durham City the engine of the economic development of the County.  This would entail significant population growth, the construction of more than 5000 new houses, many of them on the Green Belt, with all its consequences for road traffic and infrastructure.  It is difficult to see how Durham would remain a ‘little’ city under the Plan.  It would lose much of its genius loci which is not simply the value of the historic core in itself but the compactness of the city and the sense of arrival as you cross the threshold from ‘country’ to ‘town’.  The risk is that our historic cathedral city could collapse into being simply the medieval heart of a large township whose swathes of housing and out of town developments would spread across and obscure the face of a city set in a bowl and surrounded by low green hills.  Once lost, this double heritage of both a natural and a built environment evolved over many centuries would never be recovered.  20th century developments in cathedral cities like Exeter and Peterborough should worry us in case they portend the future of Durham.  As the Guardian writers so eloquently said, it is precisely the littleness of Durham that is part of its appeal.  To my mind, there is much to be said for policies that would re-populate the city centre, get people living once more above the shops and offices, reinstate the human texture and sense of community that belongs to small cities. 

As guardians of our historic cathedral city, we want to be good stewards of our heritage while also recognising what belongs to its authentic evolution as a living working community.  We do not want a chocolate box city that is merely pleasant to look at.  We want a city in which human beings flourish because its institutions, temple, academy, market- place, seat of government, are in a harmonious relationship with one another and with its citizens.  This is how a community realises its best self and knows its city to be a ‘healthy city’, a good place that fosters happiness.  Citizenship means believing in our city in this way and caring about its future, even if that means defending it against the tyranny of the market and its love affair with the grand projet. 

Let me end by quoting a great artist on the experience of living in another historic cathedral city.  Eric Gill moved from Brighton to Chichester when he was a boy: not very far geographically, but spiritually a world away.  ‘Chichester, the human city, the city of God, the place where life and work … were all in one and all in harmony… a town, a city, a thing planned and ordered – no mere congeries of more or less sordid streets, growing like a fungus… Chichester was what Brighton was not, an end…, a place, the product of reason and love… Here was something as human as home and as lovely as heaven.’  It modelled ‘dignity and loveliness… a civilised life… a way of living beautiful and spacious’.[9]  That is my vision for this historic cathedral city. 


Durham, February 2011 (revised June 2012)



[1] Pocock, Douglas, Durham: essays on a sense of place, Durham 1999, 6.
[2] Hudson, Mark, Coming Back Brockens: a year in a mining village, 1994, 121
[3] Threlfall-Holmes, Miranda, Monks and Markets: Durham Cathedral Priory 1460-1520, 2006
[4] Dobson, R. B., Durham Priory 1400-1450, Cambridge 1973, 33.
[5] Ibid, 50.
[6] Bryson, Bill, Notes from a Small Island, 1995, 294-5.
[7] De Botton, Alain, The Architecture of Happiness, London, 2006, 254. 
[8] Lefebvre, Henri, Writings on Cities, Oxford, 1996, 238. 
[9] Cited by Kenyon, Ruth, ‘The Town in Tomorrow’s Christendom’ in Reckitt, Maurice B., Prospect for Christendom: essays in catholic social reconstruction, London 1945, 127-8. 

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