Durham, Morning Light, watercolour
This is where my life in the North really started.
I had passed through Durham several times as a child, but always asleep - swaying gently in my bunk on the sleeper train from Kings Cross to Aberdeen. I have a dream-like image in my head of the long train steaming up the East of England under the summer moon, rattling through a litany of slumbering cities on its way to the wake-up call of the Forth Bridge crossing.
I knew nothing about Durham when I arrived: nothing about coal seams, outside toilets, working men’s clubs, the pitmatic dialect, the Prince Bishops, the Northumbrian saints, panhaggerty and Category D villages. I didn’t know that John Ruskin had declared the view from the station the eighth wonder of the world when, transfixed, I gazed at the miraculous, misty vision of the cathedral and castle rising on their rock above the city from a green cloud of trees. The streets curved, flowing around the meander of the River Wear and, beyond, the blue hills disappeared into the distance.
From my hilltop college I could walk down narrow footpaths, over a fairytale bridge and into the shadowed heart of the cathedral in a few glorious minutes. In the pubs and cafes and clubs I got to know musicians and artists. The lilting cadences of their accents, the unshakeable sureness of their shared culture and the warmth with which they included me in their lives left an indelible impression on me. I began to lose what Southern reserve I had and learn empathy and trust.
Beyond its medieval roots Durham was built on and paid for by coal. North Road crosses Framwellgate Bridge and climbs to the Market Place. A right turn takes you higher, between towering facades, to Palace Green where at one end stands the cathedral, and, at the other, the castle. This is Durham’s display of stately grandeur and it’s amazing.
But if you turn left you cross the 12th century Elvet Bridge. For one day in the year this street is bursting with brass bands and banners and marching feet as a socialist celebration - the Big Meeting (the Durham Miners’ Gala) - takes over the town. The heritage of hard work, humour, political fire and music of the Durham coalfield comes into the ancient city in a blaze of glory.
And there, in a nutshell, you have an essential feature of Durham’s character: inequality. It’s the gulf between the easy privilege of the church and university and the legacy of hard labour, between reserve and verve, between the arrogance of assumed authority and the refusal to submit to it.
There is a good humoured echo here of a theme which runs through the North - revolt against the South. In 1069 the people of the Northumbria - the kingdom recently subsumed into England - rose up against their newly installed conquerors in a bid to recreate an independent North. With their ancient allies of Scotland and Denmark they attacked the garrison of Durham Castle and slaughtered it, moving on to besiege York. They failed, but the spark of revolution was never to be completely extinguished.
From "Northern Soul" by Ian Scott Massie
The book is available from Masham Gallery
The exhibition of Northern Soul opens at Ryedale Folk Museum, Hutton le Hole, North Yorkshire with a preview on April 3rd.