Weekend in the Northeast: Newcastle, Durham, Hadrian’s Wall

On Friday night I took a train from London to Newcastle, checked into a grand-but-faded Victorian hotel next to the train station, and after a few hours’ sleep, woke up to a rather damp weather forecast:

Not to be daunted by a little rain, I pulled on my long underwear and all my sweaters and headed out for an early breakfast down by the river. The torrential, not-quite-freezing rain meant I had no problem at all getting a seat at the Quay Ingredient and enjoying a delicious plate of eggs benedict.

Thus fortified I ventured back out into the rain and saw a bridge that looked awfully familiar . . .

. . . and sure enough, it’s a smaller version of the bridge spanning Sydney Harbour, built by the same firm at about the same time. Small world.

But this was not a day for lingering on the riverbanks, so I headed back up the hill and found the castle that gave Newcastle its name:


Built in the late 1100s, this castle is only “new” in the sense that its newer than the wooden fort that the son of William the Conqueror built on the site in 1080. But still, the name stuck.

And long underwear and eggs benedict notwithstanding, that was all the morning exploring I was up for in that chilly rain. I made my way to the car rental agency and, with soggy feet and freezing fingers, drove south to Durham to see the cathedral.

What’s so interesting about this cathedral? Well, lots. First, there’s a great story. This guy Cuthbert was a famous Anglo-Saxon priest in monastery at Lindisfarne. He did a lot of good deeds and miracles during his life, and when he died people thought he might be a good candidate for sainthood. After 11 years they dug up his body and found that it hadn’t decayed, which clinched the sainthood and meant that pilgrims from all over Europe came to pray at his shrine and offer treasure for his intervention. Lindisfarne got super rich and was then plundered by the Vikings until the monks finally gave up and took off with Cuthbert’s bones and some insanely gorgeous illuminated manuscripts (the Lindisfarne Gospels) and wandered around for a bunch of years until one of them had a vision to settle down at what became Durham. After the Normans invaded, they coopted the Anglo-Saxon saint by building a giant Norman cathedral on top of him.

Which brings us to the building. Built in the 1090s, it’s arguably the finest Norman architecture (a.k.a. Romanesque) in Europe. Romanesque architecture is characterized by round arches (rather than the pointed Gothic arches), and predates the Gothic flying buttresses, so the structures are typically heavier, shorter, and have smaller windows than Gothic cathedrals (that big rose window in the photo above was added 400 years later during the Gothic period).

This Romanesque style was massive, impressive, and felt ancient. More ancient than the Gothic cathedrals. It made me wonder if any of our modern buildings will be standing in 1000 years, and if so, whether they will have withstood the test of time so well.

Back to the car park, where I caught a glimpse of the swollen, muddy river pouring beneath a 12th century bridge that is still in use . . .

. . . and then drove back up north, past Newcastle, to a massive house called Cragside.

Cragside was built in the late 19th Century by a Victorian industrialist who needed a place to get away on the weekends. He focused on the house, using it as a way to experiment with electricity — it was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. His wife focused on the estate outdoors. She transformed the barren moors into a Himalayan forest, complete with dense firs and rhododendrons everywhere (in a couple of months this place will be exquisite with color).

The interior was fantastically preserved, giving a great sense of what the late Victorian “Arts and Crafts” movement looked like. Lots of dark paneling, highly patterned tile on the walls, and an appreciation of earthy, organic florals in contrast to the harshness of industrialization.

From Cragside back to Newcastle. I had hoped to make it back before the markets closed, so I could do some shopping, but I only had time for a quick bite to eat before I needed to be to the Theatre Royal.

They were doing a double-bill with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (dance) and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (opera). I was perched up in the rafters and had no idea what to expect — I rather expected it to be mediocre at best — but it ended up being really enjoyable! I always forget just how incredible Stravinsky’s music is; it feels edgy even now, so I can’t imagine what it would have been like to hear it in 1913. And Gianni Schicchi was way funnier than I expected, and of course the aria “O min babbino caro” was as lovely as it could be.

Another night at the hotel, and then out again this morning to see Hadrian’s Wall. Moving back past the Normans to Roman times, the wall was built in the 120s A.D. during Emperor Hadrian’s rule. The wall marked the northernmost part of the Roman Empire and was meant to keep the Picts and Scots out. It still runs across the entire width of England, dotted with forts along the way.

I picked a portion of the wall where one of these forts had been excavated. It was pretty convincing to get a feel of the Roman military enclave. There were the hallmarks of advanced civilization, with in-floor heating systems, raised granaries, bath houses with hot water, and communal toilets flushed with rainwater gathered from across the site.

By this time, as you can see, the rain had stopped and the landscape was bathed in glorious sunshine. Still windy as could be, and very cold, but also breathtakingly beautiful.

When I’d had my fill, I drove back to Newcastle, returned the car, and climbed on the train back to London.

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