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Durham pilgrimage: Saints of the north rejoiced

by
29 January 2021

David Atkinson walks a new pilgrim path and encounters St Cuthbert

The view of Durham Cathedral from Mountjoy

The view of Durham Cathedral from Mountjoy

IT TOWERS like a mist-shrouded vision through the trees. My legs ache after climbing the 224 appropriately named Doom Steps carved into the hillside, but, as I crest the hill known as Mountjoy, I’m greeted by a sight that has lifted the hearts of pilgrims for centuries: the Romanesque towers of Durham Cathedral. After two days of walking and contemplation, the end of my journey is in sight.

I had come to County Durham for a new kind of pilgrimage, walking one of the six new pilgrim routes known as the Northern Saints. This set of new walking trails seeks to chart the spiritual heritage of north-east England as the Christian crossroads of the British Isles.

The golden age of British pilgrimage lasted roughly from the 12th to the early 15th centuries. During the 13th century, many British cathedrals were so besieged by pilgrims that normal church services were frequently disrupted.

Pilgrimage trails have again become popular, and modern-days pilgrims often seek sanctuary from busy lives, and, during the pandemic, have felt a need to reconnect with nature.

“Pilgrimage is a journey forward to the ancient future,” says David Pott, who helped to devise and waymark the six trails. “The idea of life as a journey is deep within our psyche.”

 

I AM walking the Way of Life, following the final journey of St Cuthbert. When Viking raids on Lindisfarne threatened to destroy his grave, his followers exhumed the body and embarked on a lengthy journey to find a place of safety. Cuthbert is said to have appeared to them in visions along the route, to guide them. They finally arrived in Durham in 995, to build a shrine for his remains.

The Saxon church at Escomb

This is one of the shorter of the six trails, the 29-mile walk dividing conveniently into a couple of sections with an overnight stop and places to eat along the route. The different trails, all waymarked with a purple Celtic cross, follow figures from early Christian history. The 38-mile Way of Learning from Jarrow to Durham, for example, is devoted to the Venerable Bede. The 124-mile Way of the Sea connects to Lindisfarne via St Oswald’s Way.

I start at the ancient spa village of Gainford on a sun-dappled, autumnal morning. Pilgrims gathered here for centuries, cleansing themselves with the waters from St Mary’s Well. The well-maintained fountain still gurgles with supposedly therapeutic waters. This first stage is rural and tranquil, with plenty of time to slow down, breathe deep, and set my mind free.

The seventh-century Anglo-Saxon church at Escomb is worth a short detour. There is an ancient Tree of Life carved in the interior, and a sundial, said to be the oldest in-situ in the UK, on the south wall.

I break the journey at Bishop Auckland. The market town was once the seat of the Prince-Bishops of Durham, who were first appointed by William the Conqueror to represent his affairs between London and Scotland. The subsequent appointees — often flamboyant characters with larger-than-life personal histories — had more than 800 years of power and influence.

The main house at Othona

The town is currently undergoing regeneration with the Auckland Project: there is to be a new Auckland Tower viewing platform and visitor centre, as well as the mining art gallery, opening this summer. A new faith museum is planned at nearby Auckland Castle, where the Prince-Bishops once lived.

 

THE next day, the trails lead north via the preserved ruins of Binchester Roman Fort, and through the big-sky spaces of Whitworth Hall Country Park, towards Durham City and its Unesco World Heritage Site (the Cathedral, the Castle, and the buildings between them).

The final stage follows the banks of the Wear, cutting through woodland by the University on the rural southerly fringes of the city. Just before I cross the river at the historic Prebends Bridge, where J. M. W. Turner captured the view in watercolours, I make a brief stop for reflection at St Oswald’s. Cuthbert is said to have appeared here in a final vision, guiding his followers to lay him to rest at nearby “Dun Holm”. The simple church they founded for his tomb was rebuilt during the Norman period as the cathedral we know today.

istockDurham Cathedral and the River Wear

“Durham Cathedral wouldn’t exist without pilgrims,” its Chancellor, Canon Charlie Allen, says. “To this day, we have people who come to the cathedral specifically to pray at the shrine of Cuthbert.”

We enter via the Galilee Chapel, where a new installation, Light, by the artist Chris Levine, will be installed this spring. Medieval pilgrims washed their feet on arrival at the cathedral, and the installation — a series of lasers forming the shape of a cross — will recreate this practice creatively by bathing latter-day pilgrims in light, while the nave provides alcoves for private reflection. By contrast, Cuthbert’s shrine is a study in simplicity, the plain slab etched with the single word “Cuthbertus”.

“We all want to learn more about the story of the man whose life is written into the landscape of the north-east,” Canon Allen says.

For me, walking the route provides a chance to slow down and enjoy the simple beauty of the north-east landscape. The act of walking clears my busy mind after the stresses of the lockdown.

“Pilgrimage remains a means to slow down and see things in perspective,” Canon Allen says. “We learn from pilgrimage to live differently.”

 

Travel details

Travel to Durham with TransPennine Express (tpexpress.co.uk).

The Radisson Blu Hotel, Durham (radissonhotels.com/en-us/hotels/radisson-blu-durham) has double rooms from £99, including breakfast.

For food along the trail, the Castlegate Cafe in Bishop Auckland (facebook.com/castlegatecafe) has hearty soups, sourdough, and coffee.

Visitor attractions include Durham Cathedral (durhamcathedral.co.uk), the Auckland Project (aucklandproject.org) and Binchester Roman Fort (durham.gov.uk/binchester), which opens daily 10.30 a.m.-4 p.m.

For tourist information, visit thisisdurham.com; for information about the six pilgrim routes, and to download trail guides, visit northernsaints.com.

Forthcoming Events

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

20 October 2021
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Warnings that the parish is under threat date back decades. But are claims that it is now being dismantled accurate? Join our panel for a lively online debate.

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