Early September, we set off from Gill’s house and walked along the river into town and along the its long loop around the peninsula, with its iconic views of the cathedral and castle. As it was a rather dull day, I’m going to cheat a little and include a couple of the many other photos I’ve taken of this stretch of river over the years! I realise that, in any other part of the world, I would talk about walking past a World Heritage site but it’s difficult when Durham is just so familiar. Suffice it to say that Durham is, in my opinion, the best cathedral in the world and has one of the most fantastic locations to boot, alongside Durham castle, on a peninsula carved out by a loop in the river Wear.
It’s not the most botanically interesting time of year and the most conspicuous thing in flower on the river banks is Himalayan balsam, with its sickly-sweet smell and flask-like seed pods which pop dramatically when ripe. As with other invasive species, rivers act as a way of dispersing its seeds far and wide. Somehow they seem to manage to do this upstream as well as downstream – Himalayan balsam is found as far up the valley as Rookhope. When I was a child growing up in the Lake District, one appeared in a neighbour’s cottage garden and she guarded it jealously, certain it was some kind of exotic orchid. An attractive flower, if you ignore the environmental issues it creates and the emotional baggage it consequently carries for conservationists, it is easy to see why early plant hunters brought it back from India as an ornamental. Ironically there, too, it is something of a nuisance, in the fantastic Valley of Flowers.
Beyond the city our route takes us past the lovely Crook Hall, a sad casualty of the Covid-19 crisis, and the sewage works, the smell of which always takes me back to my time as an undergraduate and early postgrad, living on The Sands, on the opposite side of the river. The path then leaves the river and takes us up the steep hill past Frankland Farm and Low Newton Junction nature reserve, which I visited in January. As we pass between HMPs Low Newton and Frankland I view the former, in particular, with fresh eyes after reading local author Mim Skinner’s book Jailbirds. I’ve taught students in Frankland but my visits have been sporadic and brief, giving me very limited understanding of what life there is like. Jailbirds’ insight into life inside a women’s prison is remarkable, both for the many casual horrors it evokes but also for the humanity which survives inside, against all odds. The latter makes it an oddly hopeful book, not least because of the author’s continuing commitment to supporting women both in prison and on their release.
Past Frankland, our route follows the minor road to the remains of Finchale Priory, a 13th Century Benedictine priory sometimes described as a ‘holiday home’ for monks from Durham Cathedral.
It was raining by the time we arrived but we sheltered at a picnic table under the trees to eat our sandwiches, with welcome cups of tea from the café, operating as a takeaway in this time of Covid-19. Afterwards we crossed the river and climbed up through Cocken Wood to the road where our lift home met us.