Day 106 – The Venerable Bones



There are few sights in Christendom greater than that of the gleaming white tower of St Cuthbert’s Cathedral rising over the ancient city of Durham.

Durham is a bit away from Northumbrian coast, but it is fitting that we arrive here, so near the end of our journey; for in Durham ends a certain old, long story which we have inadvertently traced throughout the most of our journey, a story that starts in the 5th century in Southern Wales with one Saint Illtud – a grand nephew of Arthur, by some accounts – reopening a Roman school (first established by Emperor Theodosius the Great) for young Christians in Llantwit Major in South Wales.

A certain student of this school, Patrick, brings his faith to distant Ireland; and while most of Britain succumbs to the pagans, Patrick’s disciples build in Ulster a network of powerful monasteries. A hundred years or so, one of the monks of such monastery, Columba, journeys across the Irish Sea to an Ulster Scottish kingdom of Dal Riata, and establishes another monastery there, at Iona.

Soon, Iona becomes the cultural and religious centre of all the North; the lords of Dal Riata become powerful in their own right, through family connections and cooperation with the powerful monks of Iona. Another hundred years passes, and one Oswald, heir to the throne of Northumbria, flees from his ancestral castle at Bamburgh – to Iona.

In time, he returns to Northumbria, captures it, and invites monks from Iona to establish yet another monastery – this time on the tidal island of Lindisfarne, in sight of the Bamburgh castle. One of the Lindisfarne bishops, Cuthbert, becomes a venerated saint and patron of all Anglo-Saxons. Both Cuthbert and Oswald will be joined with the Holy Island through death and burial; Cuthbert’s grave is a straightforward affair, but Oswald’s is a more complex adventure, involving death in battle, quartering, a daring rescue and distributing the by now holy body parts all over Northumbria, with Durham, eventually, getting the most precious relic – the head.

And it’s still not the end of the story; in yet another century, Lindisfarne falls prey to the dreaded Norse sea pirates, the Vikings. The monks pick up the bones of Cuthbert and travel around the northern lands – with a seven years stop at what will one day become the artists’ colony at Kirkcudbright in Galloway – until at last they settle for a well-defensible river bend at Durham, where a chapel is built over the final resting place of the last in a long line of monastery-building saints.

That the seas and coasts play so big a part in this tale – the only inland place to feature is the battlefield where Oswald had, literally, lost his head – is no accident; for in the Dark Age the seas and navigable rivers were the equivalent of the modern motorway network, the fastest way to move from place to place. Travelling around the coast is the best way to trace this early history, from Roman forts to Norman castles.

This long aside brings us to the Cathedral itself; it is neither a product of the Dal Riata Scots, nor the Northumbrian Angles, but Norman invaders, who, having laid waste to the North after the conquest, found it necessary to support the local saints – and support they did, lavishly. The resulting cathedral is the greatest in medieval England, one of the greatest in all of medieval Europe; the final pinnacle of the Norman Romanesque style, foretelling the Gothic revolution in its lofty columns and arches. The saints venerated here proved too strong even for the Dissolution’s axe: the abbey cloisters and monks’ dwelling halls remain uniquely untouched, carved out of the shadows by the autumn sun.

The Galilee Chapel, added after the Norman kings returned from their crusades, looks like a bit of a Cordoban mosque added onto an English church – a forest of round, low pillars; it is here that the cathedral’s most important grave stands, and it is neither that of Cuthbert, nor of Oswald, nor of any other Dark Age saint – and yet it is the grave of a man without whom we may not have known about any of them; the grave of Venerable Bede, England’s first and foremost historian.

We light a candle to Bede’s “venerabilis ossa” and leave the cathedral and castle precinct to take a wander through Durham’s narrow cobbled streets; it’s a pretty town, with a leafy park along the river and several very old buildings, but it’s slightly stuck in the 1980s, full of tea rooms, “cafes” serving all-day breakfast, and old-fashioned Italian restaurants.

We head on south, back towards the coast; one time, all this coast was just collieries, steel plants and factories, and as we get near Hartlepool, a little of this industrial legacy can be seen, as the horizon fills with steaming chimney stacks and chemical refinery pipelines gleaming silver: the Tees Valley industrial zone. We stop at Hartlepool to visit the Historic Quay, about which we’ve learned from a leaflet back in Edinburgh. It is an odd attraction – half a theme park, half authentic open air museum. What they did at Hartlepool was to gut the original 17th-18th century quay buildings and transform them, using mannequins and audio-visual effects, into an almost-living harbour quarter. The gem of this exposition is the ship – HMS Trincomalee, the oldest still floating warship in Britain, no less; it’s a small vessel, and with little historical significance, it’s also severely reconstructed inside, but if you like old ships, this one is not to be missed. It’s a rare chance to be able to study in detail all four decks of a Napoleonic warship while it’s still on the water.

The effect of the mannequins, as usual with these attempts, is mostly creepy, especially since there’s no-one else on board but me, and so every “person” lurking in the shadows turns out to be made of wax. Still, it’s quite a fun little place, although what would anyone be doing here for more than fifteen minutes is a mystery.

We cross the River Tees, and enter Yorkshire late in the afternoon; the road takes us through North York Moor. It’s been a while since we’ve driven through any moor, and it’s the usual mixed bag of experiences: the views are splendid, but the driving is tough, with the road going up and down the moor like a ship in stormy seas. Our final destination for the day is Whitby – one of those iconic sites everyone in England knows about, and most saw at least once.

The abbey ruins, known from a myriad postcards, are as majestic as they are unsurprising; we know exactly what to expect, and the whale-like skeleton of the abbey delivers, despite a slightly dull light. What is surprising, however, is the town below. We tend to think of Whitby as consisting only of the abbey and maybe a visitor centre; but the town in its shadow turns out unexpectedly attractive, all built of red brick, with a hanging bridge thrown over a busy harbour, and at least a dozen fish&chip shops on its both sides, all apparently highly recommended.

St Cuthbert’s Cathedral

St Cuthbert’s Cathedral

HMS Trincomalee

HMS Trincomalee


Whitby Abbey


The Abbey View House is exactly what it says on the tin: a grassy field on the top of a hill, with an uninterrupted view towards Whitby a few miles away. It’s perfectly calm and quiet, and apart from one other caravan we only have a few alpacas for company. The facilities are simple – mind the step! – but clean. It costs £15 per night.


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