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Three days in Durham, June 2014

Le Marche, Italy
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Three days in Durham, June 2014

We spent three days in Durham in late June, at the end of a two-week trip that started in York and was mostly spent in Scotland.You can see the earlier parts of the trip here:

Our time in Durham consisted of one afternoon, two full days, and a final morning before heading to Stansted airport for our return trip to Italy. You can see the earlier part of the trip here, including overall comments about restaurants and hotels, in both England and Scotland:

tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g186485-i107-k7590…

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Day 1 (Day 9 of the trip)

In the morning, we left Scotland, with a strong desire to return one day, and took the train to Durham for the last leg of our trip.

We drove for part of our trip in Scotland, and I had considered keeping the car for the last part, but a little research convinced me that most of what we wanted to see could be achieved by public transportation. With a car, we could have stopped at more places, but we didn't have a lot of time for unplanned stops anyway.

We got to Durham in the late morning, and took a taxi to the King's Lodge Hotel. This was perhaps our favorite of all the places we stayed on this trip. The room was spacious and comfortable, although it had the inevitable heavy duvet, too heavy for the warm weather, and no top sheet.The lodge had a nice garden where we could sit to relax. There was also a lounge which had tea, coffee, and biscuits (cookies) all day long. There is a lot of construction going on in the vicinity at the moment. The street is being torn up for some public utility works, and there is a construction site next to the hotel. There was little noise from the construction, though.

There is an excellent restaurant at the hotel called Finnbar's, which seems to be very popular locally. The only noise problem we ever had was caused by noisy guests leaving late at night.

The one little quibble I have about the King's Lodge is that the wifi wasn't working, except in the guest lounge, two of the days we were there, although it worked just fine the other two days.

After checking in, we had a delicious lunch at Finbarr's. My husband had venison with spring vegetables, and I had a lamb ratatouille. For dessert, my husband had a crème brûlée; I had a pavlova (a sort of meringue) with raspberries and apricots.

In the afternoon, we walked into the center of Durham and visited the cathedral. The cathedral and castle are on top of a hill, so there is a bit of a climb to get there. We followed a sign that led us through narrow alleys and many steps to the top of the hill, but we later found that if we had stayed on the road, it was a longer, but less steep way up.

It was a splendid late afternoon, and lots of people were enjoying the sun on the lawn of the cathedral close. The cathedral is very beautiful. It was one of the first buildings to make use of the Gothic pointed arch, so the style is a bit heavier and more Romanesque than later Gothic churches. Somehow it seemed more earth-bound than some of the soaring Gothic cathedrals I've seen, but that's not a bad thing. I've always admired the Romanesque style. Italy has a lot of churches from that period, but, unfortunately, most of them were tarted up in the Baroque style in the 17th century.

There was to be a choral evensong an hour after we got there, and we decided we wanted to attend that, so our visit was a bit rushed. My husband and I split up so we could see the things we each wanted to see most. My top priority was to see the tomb of the Venerable Bede. I'm a great admirer of this great 7th century theologian, historian, and scientist (centuries ahead of his time) ever since I took a brief course on the Anglo-Saxon language when I was at university. The tomb is fairly simple, and I was the only visitor, although there were a number of visitors at the time in the cathedral. I think a simple tomb is appropriate for a man who led a simple, retired life, while maintaining contact with the whole world, ancient and medieval, through his reading.

The Choral Evensong was sung by a small, but excellent, choir. They use an older version of the psalms, probably the Coverdale Psalms, than I'm used to, and I could just imagine the exact same words being chanted in that space for almost 500 years.

Afterwards, we descended the hill and walked along the river-side path to get the view of the cathedral with the old fulling mill in the foreground. There are lovely paths on both sides of the river, and after walking up one side, we walked back on the other side until we got to the bridge that led back to the King's Lodge.

We had dinner at the Café Rouge, which we had enjoyed in York, but at this one the service was terrible. We waited well over half an hour for our food, after having waited almost that long to place the order. In the end, they brought my husband a green salad instead of a Caesar salad with chicken; My burger was supposed to be on a brioche, but it seemed to me to be a Wonder bread hamburger roll. The cheese was supposed to be Gruyère, but wasn't. Also, I had asked for a salad as my side, but I got chips. We ate what they brought us rather than wait any longer; I gave my husband some of the burger and most of my chips, because his green salad wasn't much of a meal. So much for the Café Rouge.

We walked back to the hotel, an easy walk. The roundabout just outside the center was planted with lovely flowers.

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1. Re: Three days in Durham, June 2014

Hi bvlenci

Excellent review / trip report & many thanks for sharing

Alan

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2. Re: Three days in Durham, June 2014

Day 2 (day 10 of the trip)

This was our Hadrian's Wall day. Using Traveline Northeast, I had determined that the best public transportation strategy was to take the train from Durhamd to Hexham, and then the AD122 bus, called the Hadrian's Wall bus, to various stops along the wall. The bus goes from Newcastle to Carlisle, but for the places we wanted to see, it was quicker to go by train as far as Hexham. My husband figured out that the bus number referred to the fact that construction of the wall started in the year 122 AD. I was impressed; I hadn't made the connection.

My plan was to visit Walltown, where one of the best-preserved stretches of Roman wall can be seen, and Vindolanda, where there is a large Roman fort, even older than the wall, and a museum where you can see replicas of the famous wooden tablets (sort of ancient postcards) found there.

Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum at Walltown are operated by the Vindolanda Trust, which seems to be a private nonprofit organization founded by the landowners of the Vindolanda site. The other museums along the wall are operated by English Heritage. The two organizations seem not to be speaking to each other. We picked up a brochure about places to visit along the wall, put out by English Heritage, and it didn't mention at all the Vindolanda Trust sites. Vindolanda Trust has its own brochure, which doesn't mention the English Heritage sites, but at least it doesn't make any pretense to cover sites along Hadrian's Wall.

In Hexham, we had almost an hour to kill, so I suggested we walk to Hexham Abbey, which my husband wasn't keen on, because he thought we would miss the bus, but he let himself be convinced. It was an interesting walk, and Hexham has an attractive center. We passed an historic jail (or gaol) on the way. We had only a short look around the abbey, and then headed back, after buying some sandwiches at the deli across from the abbey. They were nothing special, but they sufficed for a sack lunch.

I said to my husband as we were heading back to the station, “We really need to visit an ATM.” He agreed; between us, we had only about £20. However, it totally slipped our minds until we got on the bus and asked for a round-trip ticket to Walltown, that would allow us to stop off at Vindolanda as well. The cost was £23 for the two of us, which we didn't have, and they didn't take cards. I didn't want to wait for the next bus, which would have really cut short our time. In retrospect, we should have dropped the idea of going to Walltown and just got a round-trip ticket to Vindolanda, which was closer, and cheaper. Instead, I asked for a one-way ticket to Walltown, and decided I'd figure out later how to get back.

The driver told me he didn't think there were any ATMs at any of the stops along the way. The more I thought about it, the more I realized we risked getting stuck there. We had plenty of euros on us, but it seemed unlikely that we could use them in any way, and certainly not on a bus ticket. Then it occurred to me that maybe we could buy a ticket to the museum for someone else with one of our credit cards, and they could pay us back in cash. (I've since learned that a famous scam is based on this proposition.) An American couple on the bus were planning to go to the Roman Army Museum at Walltown, and they agreed to let us buy their tickets and pay us in cash, which was very kind of them.

I had originally planned to go to Walltown just to see the Roman Wall up close, but since we were already at the museum (buying the ticket for the American couple), it occurred to me that we should probably see it. There was a combined ticket to that and Vindolanda, where I definitely wanted to see the archaeological site and museum.

The Roman Army Museum was not really very interesting; it seemed geared to entertaining children, even though the only visitors that day were adults. There's a short film that purports to be an army recruiter trying to sign the natives up for a 30-year stretch in the legion. There is also a somewhat hokey 3-D film that does manage to convey some interesting information, although not much I didn't already know. There are some archaeological finds, but I believe they're all from Vindolanda, and there are many more of them there.

The museum visit left us a little short on time to see the wall, but we had been told that a long, high stretch of it was very near the museum. Outside the museum, one sign pointed to an ancient quarry, and another pointed to the Whin Sill Crags, which is where I had read that the wall could be seen. After walking for over 20 minutes, we still hadn't seen this impressive stretch of wall, although we saw bits of the wall off in the distance. We really had to turn back at this point or risk missing the last bus that would get us to Vindolanda in time. My husband suggested we just skip Vindolanda, but that was the main thing I wanted to see, and we had already bought the joint ticket.

When we got on the bus, it went a short distance towards the quarry, in order to turn around, and then I saw, through the bus window, the magnificent high stretch of wall. If we had walked off in the other direction, we would have seen it in five minutes. In retrospect, we should have asked in the museum for directions to see an impressive stretch of wall, but we were some distance from the entrance when we saw the two not-very-informative signs. I had actually done a fair amount of online research about which bus stop was best for seeing a fairly intact piece of the wall, and I had also asked in Hexham. Well, at least we saw it through the bus window for ten seconds, and the walk was pleasant! We also saw many short stretches of the wall from the bus on the road between Hexham and Walltown.

The Vindolanda fort, built about 40 years before the wall, is a few miles south of the the road along the wall, used by the AD122 bus. Only a few buses each day make the detour to Vindolanda. You can get there by getting off the bus at Once Brewed and walking the rest of the way, down a pleasant country lane, but keep in mind that there will also be a lot of walking at the site. We got off at Once Brewed and within a few minutes caught a different bus, coming from Hexham, that was going to Vindolanda. We were supposed to buy a different ticket for this, since our ticket was from Walltown to Hexham, but the driver told us he would take us free. On the way back to Hexham, we took the regularly scheduled bus.

Vindolanda was much more interesting than the Roman army museum. The archaeological digs include a whole Roman encampment, which changed greatly over the years. The first encampment preceded the wall, and then it expanded and contracted, while still being used even in the 5th century, although in a greatly reduced form.

It was threatening rain when we got to Vindolanda, but it never materialized. There is a fair walk from the entrance to the archaeological site, and the museum is another fair walk from there. It's all downhill to the museum, so it's uphill on the way back! We skirted the edge of the archaeological site on our way to the museum, as the signs suggested, but on the way back, we walked through the site; this is a shorter walk.

We joined a tour (free with admission) that was already in progress at the archaeological site. It was interesting, but a little slow moving, and my husband doesn't really have a great grasp of English, so we took our leave after about half an hour. There are remains of buildings from a very early fort, as well as some very early stone circular huts that are puzzling. They seem to be of Roman construction, because native British dwellings were made of wood; yet their form is exactly like the native dwellings of the period. Parts of the fort were built over the foundations of these early huts. Some people speculate that these were built by the Romans as shelter for local people who had fled to the fort for protection. Outside the imperial fort, there were dwellings, taverns, and shops that would have served the military population and housed camp followers and local civilians.

Each year, the Vindolanda Trust recruits volunteers to help with the digs. If you want to sign up for 2015, the reservations open on November 3rd, 2014. Our guide said that all places are filled within a day or two. You'll pay a fair amount for the privilege.

Vindolanda is mostly famous for the small wooden writing tablets found there, that date from the early days of the Roman empire. These tablets were originally used for personal communications, and were not intended for preservation, but the boggy land has preserved them for almost two millennia. There are all sorts of interesting bits of personal life preserved in these letters. Orders of provisions for the fort, a request for a loan, a letter accompanying a package of socks and underwear sent to a soldier, an invitation to a birthday party, and a request for advice about a good inn to stop at (a Tripadvisor precursor?) There are over 700 of these tablets, and they keep finding more.

http://vindolanda.csad.ox.ac.uk/

These tablets are the earliest known examples of writing with ink, and one of them (the invitation to a birthday party) is the only known ancient example of handwriting by a woman. Most of the letter was written by a scribe, but a handwritten note was added at the end. I was struck by how little the language for such an invitation has changed in 2000 years. (“to make the day more enjoyable to me”, “My husband sends his greetings”). She even addresses her friend as “Karissima” (dearest), which, with a “c” instead of a “k”, is exactly what an Italian woman today would say.

There is another tablet very familiar to modern Italians, in which someone asks another person for what Italian slang calls a “spintarella”, or a request to look out for a friend who's seeking a job or a promotion.

Another very personal tablet is from one soldier to another, his brother, chiding him for never writing, sending greetings to his messmates, and all the other sorts of things that one brother might write to another he hadn't seen in a while.

The originals tablets are all sent to the British Museum, but they have replicas in the Vindolanda museum, and also transcriptions of them, in Latin and English.

The museum is in a very attractive brick manor house, in a beautiful garden. It has a number of interesting exhibits of artifacts found at the site, including many leather shoes (also well preserved in the peaty soil). After our visit, we had tea and scones in the museum café.

For those who are interested in Roman life in northern England, I highly recommend Vindolanda. I think three hours would be sufficient to see everything, including taking a tour of the fort. I can't say I would advise getting the joint ticket to the Army Museum at Walltown, although it might be worth going there to see a good section of the wall close up. I can't say much about the other sites along the wall. I would think it would be nice to take a long hike in the area, but some of the other sites that can be visited sound a bit sensationalized for the mass tourism market. However, not having seen them, maybe I'm too conditioned by the English Heritage brochure.

It might have been useful to have a car for this trip, especially because there are so few connections to Vindolanda. If you don't want to see Vindolanda, the AD122 bus should provide easy access to multiple sites in one day. There are frequent trains from Newcastle to Hexham, so, apart from Vindolanda, the whole trip can be done easily with public transportation. For those coming from the other direction, Walltown is closer to Carlisle than to Newcastle.

We had an uneventful trip back to Durham, with very good connections. We ate dinner at the Alishaan Indian restaurant, near the train station. It's really not totally Indian, as they have dishes from other countries in Asia. My husband had a Malayan chicken dish, and I had a lamb curry. Very good, and the service was excellent. We went back the next night as well.

Durham, United...
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3. Re: Three days in Durham, June 2014

Hi bvlenci

Another excellent review / trip report & many thanks for sharing

Alan

Durham, United...
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4. Re: Three days in Durham, June 2014

Excellent! Very interesting report.

Manchester, United...
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5. Re: Three days in Durham, June 2014

bvlenci - I'm enjoying reading your Durham & beyond adventures (and the previous report from Scotland). Perhaps you'd link them all on the pinned trip report thread, for the benefit of others in the future:

tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowTopic-g186216-i15-k727…

Le Marche, Italy
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6. Re: Three days in Durham, June 2014

We were away from home the last part of August, in an area of Italy that has almost no internet access, so the trip report got set aside one day short of the end of the trip. Then I was up to my eyeballs in tomatoes in early September. I do want to finish it though, because the morning of the last day was very pleasant. So here it is, the final day of the trip.

Day 3 (Day 12 of the trip)

We checked out of the King's Lodge in the morning, but hung around the area most of the day. Our flight was early the next morning, and we were spending the night in a hotel (the Radisson Blu) at Stansted airport. I had reserved an afternoon train, with a connection in Peterborough.

Originally, I had thought of going by bus to Escombe to see an Anglo-Saxon church there, probably the most intact in England. However, I felt as though seeing St. Paul's church in Jarrow was enough for me, and my husband doesn't have the same fascination with the Angles and the Saxons that I have. He quickly agreed that maybe we should do something else. We started out by walking on a part of the river bank that we hadn't walked before, and before long we saw a sign to Crook Hall and Gardens. I had read about this manor house and its lovely gardens, so we decided to have a look. The gardens were indeed lovely, and probably at their peak at this time of year. One of the gardens was a “fragrant garden”, but most of the other gardens also had a delightful fragrance. The manor house is also beautiful, and there is an intact 13th century great hall attached to the 18th century house. There are many interesting displays about the history of the manor, which at one point in time was a farm, when the house was used as a brewery. I highly recommend this lovely spot, so near central Durham. There were several groups touring the gardens; I imagine they were members of garden clubs. At one point, my husband commented that he was the only man there, and for a while, he was.

Before heading off to catch our train, we had lunch again at Finnbar's, and once again it was excellent. We really enjoyed Durham, which is a small city, very laid back, and with little mass tourism. If I had to choose, of the four cities we visited, Glasgow and Durham were my favorites. I have a feeling most people who have visited all four would choose York and Edinburgh, but “different strokes for different folks”.

We spent the night at the Radisson Blu at Stansted Airport. It is a typical late 20th century monstrosity, big, anonymous and cold. It reminded me a little of the some of the Hyatt hotels in which I've attended conferences, except that Hyatt does the style so much better, with green plants and fountains. My husband said that the tiers of rooms facing the central courtyard looked like those you see in films about prisons, and I had to agree. However, I'd give them a few points for having a top sheet along with their duvet, and for having a duvet that didn't weigh more than my suitcase. The room was comfortable, and it's a ten minute walk, under a covered walkway, to the terminal. (On the way in, following ""Hotel" signs at the airport, we took a much longer route that really took us on a detour to the shuttle bus stop for off-site hotels.)

The hotel had three choices for dinner: an Italian restaurant, a steak house, and a bar. I don't trust Italian restaurants outside of Italy, and I don't trust steak that I don't buy from my own butcher, so we ate at the bar. I had a hamburger, and my husband had a salad of some sort. It was one of our more expensive meals, actually about the same price as Finnbar's, but the bill was the only thing that resembled Finnbar's.

Behind the bar was a glass tower, and inside it there was a 30-foot tall (my estimate) wine rack. We wondered how they get the wine. I speculated that it had an elevator at its base, and that they lowered it to the right level to get a bottle out. At one point, a women in a leotard started swinging from a rope in this tower, and for a minute I thought they hired Catwoman to get their wine. However, it turned out that this was a nightly entertainment. I didn't see many eyes turn away from the World Cup to see her make a few desultory spins and somersaults attached to the rope.

Our trip back to Italy in the morning was uneventful. On this, our last day, it rained, but the covered walkway allows me to honestly say that we never opened an umbrella once during the whole trip.

Ryanair in Stansted is just slightly less chaotic than it is in Ancona. I don't think anyone had to gate check bags, though. The plane was full in both directions, and it didn't seem that the amount of hand luggage being carried was any different, which, since most people go both ways, it shouldn't be. So I don't quite grasp the physics that would explain why so many bags had to be gate checked on the way out.

We loved the trip, and have lots of memories and photos. Maybe I'll get the photos organized one of these days and post a link.

I greatly appreciate all the help I had on the forum, which was invaluable in planning the trip. I hope I can return the favor for people who want to visit Le Marche, or other places in central Italy.

7. Re: Three days in Durham, June 2014

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