Thursday, 4 August 2016

A Grand Day Out In Durham - 3: Walking The River Wear And Finding The Joy

After all my moaning yesterday, today is not a moan day.

I may not like the cathedral.  I may feel pretty bloody awful inside it.  But Durham is not just a cathedral.  It's a city with much that I like and I look forward to going back and exploring some more when I have a day on which I have lots of energy sufficient for visiting a city rather than escaping to the back of nowhere on a walk.  Yesterday was a walk day and apart from tiredness, getting overwhelmed, getting giddy and losing my balance, and getting so lost that I finished the walk in a different place than I'd been planning, apart from all that it was excellent.  I found some amazing and surprising places and much beauty.  The surprises began minutes after getting off the bus in Chester-le-Street and they kept on coming.  Now that I know the way I can walk it again and not walk down the wrong roads and paths.  There are places on that walk I want to see again.

I want to see Durham again.  Maybe sometime soon I will.

After visiting the cathedral and having lunch in Alington House I walked back down the hill to the river.  I felt very tired.  The cathedral experience had drained me a lot and it was tempting to cross back over the bridge, get the bus, and just go home and hide in silence.  Instead I stood on the bridge and looked down at the river.  And I looked along the river too.  And Clare saw that it was good.

Blob Thing decided it was good too and he was happy to have his photo taken.  It was a challenge as he didn't want to fall into the river and couldn't balance on the bridge very well.  Blob said that he wanted to walk by the river.  I agreed that it was a good idea.  Durham sits on a big bend in the River Wear and there are paths on both sides (I think) that run from the road bridge at one end of the bend to the road bridge at the other.  It looked quiet down there.  It looked much more peaceful than the bridge we were standing on, more peaceful than a bus journey would be.

So I walked down to the riverside and looked back at the bridge we had stood on.  I've walked round at least part of the bend in the river before.  It was several years ago and I was with my parents.  It hadn't been the easiest day for me because I had a streaming cold.  My souvenir of Durham, by necessity, was a packet of handkerchiefs!  My mother hadn't liked the cathedral either and didn't have many kind words to say about the city.  She did enjoy seeing the river though.

It's a shame that my parents were not able to see my life develop in Newcastle or the discoveries I've made about myself.  My mother died of cancer a week before I was officially diagnosed by a psychiatrist as being transgender.  I didn't need a psychiatrist to tell me that!  But that psychiatric assessment and diagnosis meant that I was able to begin medical treatment.  Two years on and my hormone levels are actually starting to bear some relation to what they're meant to be.  My mother would have loved all the photos on my blog - and Blob's blog too.  She kept a daily blog for many years and it was often filled with photos of the places my parents visited and the people they met.

If you want to take a look at her blog, it's still at

My dad, by the time my mother died, was in a care home.  He has frontal lobe dementia and the progression of that illness was horribly swift.  I haven't seen him in a year - my mental health has meant that I haven't been able to get to Sussex to be with him - but will be there at the start of September.  So far the thought of that hasn't caused me to completely break down as it did last time when my visit was booked and I had to cancel it for my own wellbeing.  I would not have survived the visit in one piece, of that I am totally certain.  But next month I will be there.

Back to the river.

It was inevitable that I would spot a tree and need to take a picture of it.  A panorama.  My phone decided to do it like this.

If you stand on your head it might make more sense.  The top is the ground, the middle is the sky, and the bottom are the branches of the trees that were behind me when I started taking the picture.

Something I love about Durham is the amount of steps leading to different places.  Some are narrow passageways in the streets, each of which invite me to explore, experience and take pictures of.

Some are like this, pretty flights of stairs, stretching up into the distance from the river, rising through the woods.  For me, walking up or down a place like this is a far better experience than walking up or down the aisle and nave of a cathedral.  I look at the tree and get a greater sense of god which is creativity, life, beauty, and meaning than I ever do in a building.

And, though I am no longer a Christian, I find that my experience of the divine, of the ground of meaning, of that life giving source, and of the Christ that is within us is more "Biblical" than the construction of cathedrals.

For what does the Bible say?

Stephen addressed the Sanhedrin in Acts chapter seven.  During the speech he says this:

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
49 “‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
    Or where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?’

It wasn't a very popular speech.  Three verses later - just after he finally mentioned Jesus, "the righteous One", - he got stoned to death, the first Christian martyr.

I am not a Jew like Stephen was.  I am no longer a gentile Christian.  I don't believe in a personal God in control (or out of control) of things.  It doesn't matter whether that Biblical God is so loving everyone that he sends his son to save us or whether that Biblical God is so jealous and narrow that he commands his people to commit genocide.  The Bible says it's the same God and that God does not change.  No variation whatsoever in the Father of Lights.  And thus the Christian God is still the God of genocide, still the God who commanded all those things in the Old Testament that most of us would find utterly repugnant if they were preached today.

I don't believe.  And yet at this point I am in agreement with Stephen.  I am in agreement with Isaiah who Stephen quotes.  My god does not live in houses made my human hands.  No.  My god lives within me, within all of us, and in the spectacularly awesome universe around us.  No.  That's not quite right.  My god doesn't live.  My god is life.  Not just the life of a plant or animal.  But the life that is the music of the stars and the atoms.  My god is found when I stand and breathe deeply and realise that I am surrounded by wonder, filled with wonder with each breath, and that I am myself wonder.

Right.  Back to the river.  I apologise.  I didn't mean to talk about cathedrals again.  I didn't mean to divert into something that could easily have become some kind of sermon about wonder and awe and adoration and all sorts of other beautiful words in the life of a non-theist.

I don't just love trees.  I don't even just love nature.  I find that I am quite into bridges too.  Blob Thing has been getting into them and it's become something of an obsession with him to be photographed with as many bridges as possible.  That's another reason he wants to return to Durham.  He missed out on the pictures.  He's got pictures of himself by all the bridges on the Wear from the sea as far as Fatfield and lots of other bridges too.  But not the ones in Durham because he hadn't become obsessed by the time of our visit.

So here are a couple of bridges.  They are very different to one another.

This is Kingsgate Footbridge, constructed in 1963.  It is now a Grade 1 listed structure.

The second bridge, also Grade 1 listed, is Prebends Bridge, constructed in 1778.  Since 2011 it has been closed to traffic and is now just a footbridge.

There's a website I've come to love while starting to explore the area near my home.  It's and it's fascinating.  It also covers the Wear and several other nearby rivers.  When I write something about a bridge I've often found the information there.

It strikes me that people might think some of what I write is a little odd.  When I write "Blob Thing thinks ..." or "Blob Thing says ..." you may wonder if my sanity should be called into question.  Of course Blob is just a handmade soft toy.  Of course, objectively speaking, he's not really talking or jointly writing his own blog or even sometimes dictating the whole thing.  But that doesn't matter to me.  It's a much more interesting life to have Blob as a friend and much more fun to have a soft toy with attitude!

I'm not the only strange person.  Whoever sculpted this has to have been slightly weird too.  On the other side there are places to sit.  I would have sat too and listened to the magic of the river had the places not been occupied by other people enjoying themselves.

Yes. It's Prebends Bridge again.  From the other side.  Blob is wishing that he was in the photo too!

Continuing the walk round the river I looked up and near the top of the bank I spotted a stone structure sticking out.  There was a path leading up to it.  But not from the riverside.  The path and steps began halfway up the hill.  Here is a part of it:

I've just been looking it up and I am so pleased I did.  I found a webpage that talks of the ancient, healing and holy wells of Country Durham.  Just recently I've become a little more fascinated by wells and have lots of books about them on my wish list.  Blob's sister Winefride was named after a saint associated with a holy well in Wales.  And I am wanting to learn more about wells.  It's a great page and it tells me that what I had climbed to get to was St. Cuthbert's Well.  It also tells me that I have five more holy wells to find within Durham City.  That information is very exciting for me.  Now I want to go back possibly even more than Blob Thing does.  Woo hoo!  Wells!

St. Cuthbert's Well has the largest sandstone surround of any well in Britain.  The inscription on the well has a date of 1600 or 1660.  Of course we know that the remains of St. Cuthbert are in the cathedral but nobody knows anything of the history of the well.  In looking it up I've been led to another webpage and a site that is making me very excited indeed.  This one.  It says the well can only be reached with great difficulty.  I wouldn't call it great difficulty.  But it would certainly have been easier to stay by the river and not decide that I had to climb up to see what the structure was.

Here's the view from the well.  The top half is easy enough - although some of the steps are missing.  But the bottom half is just a steep and muddy slope.  I'm glad I made the effort.  Visiting the well was worthwhile.  And finding the two websites was joyous.

From there I followed the river to the next road bridge.

I had started my walk feeling very tired and dispirited.  I felt a lot better after it.  I was still tired though and decided that I'd done enough for one day.  I'd find a quiet cafe, have a quiet drink, and would then head home.  That was my resolution.  It turned out to be a resolution I couldn't keep.  Because Durham revealed something wonderful to me as I hunted for a suitably quiet place to rest.

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