The GardenDespatches from The Satyrs’ Forest

Posts tagged as “County Durham”

Ushaw Hall

An ostentatiously-decorated main chapel, with intricate carved wooden benches and walls, painted ceilings, and stained glass windows

Ushaw Hall’s website plays coy about itself. You can learn that guide dogs are welcome, they’ll be exhibiting interactive “Humanimal” sculptures next month, and that they're very proud of the pun “Ushaw in”, but curiously little about what the place actually is (or was). I went anyway.

To spoil the fun, it’s an old Roman Catholic seminary that was turned into a museum when people stopped being religious enough to care. The entrance makes that well clear; walking up from the car park, the curious visitor is flanked by an ostentatious neo-Gothic chapel on their left and modernist student housing on their right. (The latter remains unmuseumified, too boring to make much out of.)

A dimly-lit photo of church corridors with vaulted arches, the plain white walls lined with pictures on one side and dresses on the other. A brass statue of a saint sits in a niche off to the right, and the floor is decorated with a checkerboard of worn white and red tiles.

Right from reception there’s an interesting historical tidbit with a bust of Abraham Lincoln himself, who a helpful volunteer told me once attended Ushaw before he decided a more secular political career was right for him. (It was that or boxing, i suppose.) Upstairs is the Presidents’ Hall, whither the stairway looked off-limits enough not to chance it — so never mind that, and let’s instead turn right.1 This takes us down a series of winding hallways with wibbly tiled floor — as of now, an exhibition has lined them with wedding dresses old and new, including replicas of those worn by the royal family, creepy mannequin heads and all.2 More importantly and more permanently, these are the chapels of Ushaw Hall.

A smaller chapel, every inch decorated with tiny details
I neglected to take pictures in this part, so this one’s © Ushaw themselves.

They are beautiful, and have seen better days. The paint peels from a dimly-lit mural in a nook i presume is for choirists. In others, light dances in vibrant oranges and blues through expository stained glass. The brightest of them all, seen here to the right, invites its visitors to pray for Ukraine in a solemn reminder of the times.

These smaller shrines have an intimacy to them that reflects the house’s hush-hush history. First exiled from England, the Catholics settled in the small town of Douai, in the north of France — only to be forced out again by the secular fervour of the French Revolution. Even then, they struggled to find welcome in a staunchly Protestant Georgian England, until a sympathetic aristocrat sold them land in Durham’s secluded hills. The hall itself was built with the façade of an unseeming terrace, only showing its religious nature to those within.

An elaborate tabernacle

Onwards, then, into the star of the show — the main chapel. Pews upon pews span the long gap between the entrance and the colossal tabernacle, behind which the walls are adorned with what first looks like simple ornament but reveals itself to be tightly-packed black-lettered Latin. You can tell it’s Catholic by the eagle in the middle, the Vatican having never quite given up its attachment to its Roman roots.

…Upstairs is the Presidents’ Hall, whither the stairway looked off-limits enough not to chance it — so never mind that, and let’s instead turn left. Winding at right angles around the central court we first arrive at the library, or what little you can access of it. Management and the university are promising big things… eventually… once they restore everything… and catalogue it… and… oh, sod this, let’s go to the café.

[One hot chocolate later…]

A wee bookshop with dark wooden shelves and religious posters
This is a wholly unrelated bookstore found elsewhere on church grounds. Behind the camera is a fireplace. Yes, i am kicking myself for not photographing that instead.

As we were. Further along we find find the mess hall, where aspiring clergy once ate in silence, with only the wet sopping of a hundred English breakfasts reverberating back and forth across the walls. These days it’s used for noisier conferences and school trips, fitted with identikit metal and plastic tables and seats which don’t do much to complement the nineteenth-century décor.

Some time later, past the temporary exhibition of inkjet printouts of old maps3, our trip comes full circle. As i walk home through the well-kempt garden and around the reedy old pond, i might not have been convinced by the seminary’s faith, but i have been convinced of their taste in interior decoration.

Information for visitors

  • Admission: £10 per adult, £6 per child, free for under-fives
  • Address: Ushaw Historic House, Chapels & Gardens; Ushaw Moor; Durham DH7 9RH
  • Accessibility: An accessible entrance is available, and the gardens have paths suitable for wheelchairs.
  • Arriving there: Accessible by car along the A167, and the 52 bus also intermittently stops.

A despatch from Consett

Hello. I’ve been to Consett. I thought you might like to hear about it. (Gosh, i’ve missed writing that.)

It’s been a miserable year so far weather-wise, so wind-swept, cold-nipped, and rain-soaked that it took until April for me to look outside and go, ah, not a bad day, let’s go for a jaunt.

A map showing the planned route

The plan was simple: get a bus into Consett and head straight for the nearest hill. A short and sweet saunter through woods and farmland; short compared to some of my previous odysseys from Newcastle to the Wansbeck, sweet compared to the scenery in the more populous parts of the palatinate. (It was not to be.)

A storefront for "Teatan Lounge and Lunch" and "Oasis Tanning Salon"
I’m at the bubble tea / I’m at the tanning salon / I’m at the combination bubble tea and tanning salon

We start in the centre of town, a humble lower-middle-class affair whose high street would strike southerners as horrifyingly dilapidated and northerners as above average — nice enough, at least, for the area’s local MP to choose it as his base of operations. Around the corner from the cinema1, the pedestrianised and sensibly named Middle Street plays host to (in decreasing order of classiness) a provider of musical instruments, an independent sweet shop–gift shop–pet shop, a building society, a Greggs, a Superdrug, an animal rescue shelter, a frozen food emporium, a Turkish barber, Ladbrokes, a vape shop, another vape shop which also sells computer parts and repairs your phone (my lawyers say i can’t call it a mob front), and Barry’s Bargain Superstore.

A streetscape A nice old church with a red sign out front

This dumps us onto a crossing onto Parliament Street, where the Ga­li­le­an­ically inclined can attend the charming parish church (with “messy church” every month for the tots). I follow it down its procession of historic terraces, in a rather literal sense: Briton Terrace, Saxon Terrace, Norman Terrace, and then to spite me they finish it off with the pattern-breaking Tudor Terrace. I suppose it could have been a later addition, going with Stuart Court across the road, as well as Georgia and Edwardia Courts, two small cul-de-sacs i only noticed on Google Earth after the fact… but that sequence gets thrown off yet again by the road whence those two branch off, Romany Drive, which unless they meant to write “Roman” but hired a dyslexic cartographer has sod all to do with the other streets.

A street sign proclaiming this lane to be known as Briton Terrace

A path bearing at its mouth a welcoming sign (all caps, “no part of this land is dedicated to the public, any use of this land is entirely at the user’s own risk, et cetera, et cetera”) marks a liberating end to our onomastic confusion, funneling us down a sloping green crescent of parkland into a reclaimed steelworks. (It’s always a reclaimed steelworks.)

A quintessential English landscape stretching across one’s entire field of view
A steep path downhill
Cue the music.

Finally, we reach the end of the funnel, where the light pours from the sky, the buildings abruptly stop, and any wayward ramblers are left with only a gorgeous view of Durham’s rolling hills stretching out before them. This exact moment, this exact view — this is why i get out. To sit on the edge of a hill, the dull traces of modernity firmly behind you, and see the country not devoid of man’s presence, but shaped by it, over hundreds and thousands of years, from hunting-grounds to cleared forest to farmland to steelworks to grass for grass’s sake, a place where, like the terraces of Parliament Street, you can hear England’s history sing in your veins.

Anyway then there’s a really steep path downhill where i almost slipped and fell like Super Mario going down a slide.

A graffiti-covered pipe crossing a ditch inside a steel frame

Traipsing down steps i’m not 100% sure were public and over a road made of more pothole than asphalt i wind up following a burn to the River Derwent. This is where our route’s industrial past makes itself seen. Every few yards a worn sign pops up warning of a “drainage ditch”, or a graffiti-blanketed pipe crosses the rain-cleaved dene; at the very end, a picnic table by a former pump house grants me some respite.

I take stock of myself. My phone’s battery, always surprising me with innovative ways to run out, is in danger of crossing the ten-percent mark. It’s the first nice day of the year, but that also means i’m out of shape and out of practice: i won’t be able to make it all the way.

Equally, i’d be a fool to clamber back up all that. I keep walking. The rushing burn has become a tranquil river, its waters still enough to see your reflection. I think to myself that if you’re going to name a pencil company after a river, this one’s not a bad choice.2

Civilisation creeps back in with the tell-tale sounds of power tools. This is Al­lens­ford Holiday Park, a modest gathering of caravans proudly advertising itself as “near the outstanding Northumberland National Park”. (It isn’t.) When i get there it’s thronged by teen schoolboys freshly out, chattering about video games and lining up for ice cream. (Something, something, nature is healing.) Checking Google Maps with what power i have left reveals my worst fear: there’s nowhere to go but up.

The distance is short, but the slope is grueling. I convince my legs to heave themselves up along the side of pave­ment­less roads, ducking into fallow fields and passing places wherever i can find them. It gets worse the further i get. By the first field, i’m a little out of it. By the Catholic boarding school, i’m utterly exhausted. When i climb what i think is the final hill, only for perspective to cruelly show yet more around the corner, i wonder if this is what hell is like. But i make it — sweating and breathless, hydrating myself sip by sip, i make it to the bus stop, and wait. The driver, when he comes, must think i’m a zombie, but i’m glad to be on my way home. Note to self: don’t take that big a break again.

A dispatch from Barnard Castle

A shot looking up at an old Georgian palace with glass trees in the foreground

Hello. I’ve been to the Bowes Museum. I thought i might tell you about it.

Housed in a gloriously incongruous French mansion in the small town of Barnard Castle1, it was built to house the art collections of the noble Bowes-Lyons — a family lucky enough to count the Queen Mother herself among their members.

Its collection lies largely parallel to the “main” visual arts: ceramics, fashion, textiles, furniture, and other such things which must account for function as much as form. Most of it plunges headfirst into the latter, a bit frilly even for my often anti-modernist tastes, but i did like this caduceus-adorned wooden cabinet:

A dark wooden cabinet whose middle is adorned with a beautiful embossed caduceus

The star of the show here is the Silver Swan, a gorgeous eighteenth-century automaton which preens and sways on a bed of glass water. Unfortunately, it’s broken, and the closest you’ll get to see it is its dismembered corpse awaiting restoration, so [raspberry noise]. You can, however, see their exhibition on its legacy, which houses a wonderful collection of modern animatronics made by crafters and tinkerers from all over the world, like this 10/10 pianist:

There are a few items which don’t fit into the above. They’ve managed to snag some real Goyas, Canalettos, and El Grecos. (Los Grecos?) They even have Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, somehow — i assume it’s on loan from London?

Information for visitors

  • Admission: £15.50 for an annual membership; £13.50 for locals — don’t be fooled by the eye-watering £18 day ticket for shmucks!
  • Address: The Bowes Museum, Newgate, Barnard Castle, DL12 8NP
  • Accessibility: The museum has an accessible entrance and a lift serving all three floors.
  • Getting there: Bus network’s fucked at the minute. Sorry.

The Penshaw monument

On a hilltop in County Durham sits the Penshawi monument, a nineteenth-century folly built to commemorate the late Earl of Durham. It’s always been on my bucket list, but it’s a bit of a pain to get to via public transport, and i’d never found the time — last week, though, i found myself with some time off and decided to make the trip. I’ll let the pictures do the talking from here…

A panoramic view of a sprawling country park, with some noticeable barriers put up for a race. In the distance, upon a hill, lies a building rather resembling an old Greek temple.
A view of the monument from the nearby country park. As you can see, there was a motorbike race on at the time, which somewhat dampened the otherwise-peaceful atmosphere. Tut tut.
On the top, the same building from before, now pictured from a rather closer distance, on a punishing set of stairs. Its façade is black with soot. On the bottom, a pristine ancient Greek temple, surrounded by a row of hedges.
The monument was based on Athens' temple to Hephæstos, though in a rather scaled-down format (see the lack of any kind of roof).
The sun shines through the monument's columns.
We weren’t allowed inside the naos, as they were busy setting it up for that night’s Lumiere festival.ii (They did let some of the people walking their bulldogs up — perhaps because they were too scared?)
The country park also has this neat little henge, with viewfinders pointing towards some well-known County Durham sites — that little black square you can make out is Durham Cathedral.

Information for visitors

  • Address:
    Chester Rd, Penshaw, Houghton le Spring DH4 7NJ
  • Accessibility: Getting up to the monument requires a steep hike up a hill; if you have impaired mobility, you may want to think twice before going.
  • Getting there: The hill is served by the A183 road and the 2, 2A, and 78 buses. The nearest train station is Chester-le-Street, five miles away.
  • The National Trust sometimes offers tours of the top of the monument, though those are currently suspended.

High Force

Verborgen tussen de heidevelden en Penninsche pieken van County Durham ligt de machtigste waterval in Engeland. Het water van High Force tuimelt over 22 meter en 300 miljoen jaar rots naar het poel beneden. De waterval is ontstaan waar de rivier de Tees de Whin Sill kruist, een harde plaat van stollingsgesteente die een groot deel van het noorden van Engeland bedekt.

Als het waterpeil hoog genoeg is splitst de kracht zich in twee stromen, waarvan er een de andere kant op gaat rond de rotsen — na stormen kan het zelfs het hele plateau overstromen. Helaas, mijn groep had niet zoveel geluk, ondanks recente regenbuien.

De familie Raby, de eigenaars van het landgoed, vragen £5 om het uitzicht vanaf de voet van de waterval te mogen bewonderen. De waterval torent boven degene die durft naar beneden te gaan… en die niet zal missen dat er enkele mensen staan boven aan de rotsen. Die hebben helemaal niets betaald, want zij wandelde langs de gratis Penninische Weg. Verdorie.

Informatie voor bezoekers

  • Adres:
    High Force, Forest-in-Teesdale, Barnard Castle, County Durham, DL12 0XH, Verenigd Koninkrijk.
  • Bereikbaarheid: Openbaar vervoer is schaars in dit deel van het land, dus u kunt het beste een schilderachtige autorit maken door de Pennines en het negentiende-eeuwse dorp Middleton-in-Teesdale.
  • Prijs: Het Raby landgoed rekent £5 voor toegang via de bodem, maar de top is gratis toegankelijk door een wandeling langs de Penninische Weg.
  • Toe­gan­ke­lijk­heid en faciliteiten: Het pad is, voor zover ik weet, niet rol­stoel­toe­gan­ke­lijk. De familie Raby houden toiletten en een hotel voor wie wil overnachten.

High Force

Nestled amongst County Durham’s moors and Pennine peaks lies England’s mightiest waterfall. The waters of High Force tumble over 22 metres and 300 million years of stone, down into the plunge pool below. The falls were formed where the river Tees meets the Great Whin Sill, a tough slab of igneous rock covering much of the north of England.

When the water level is high enough, the force splits into two streams, one going the other way around the rocks — after storms, it can even overflow the plateau entirely. Alas, despite recent showers, my group were not so lucky.

The Raby family, owners of the estate, charge £2 to see the view from the base of the falls. The falls tower over any mere human who dares navigate down, demanding one’s respect and attention… and making it unmissable that, at the top of the falls, there are several people who walked their on their own via the Pennine Way, not having to pay a single dime. Drat.

Information for visitors

  • Address:
    High Force, Forest-in-Teesdale, Barnard Castle, County Durham, DL12 0XH.
  • Getting there: Public transit connections are few and far between this far into the countryside, so your best bet is to take a scenic drive via car through the Pennines and the nineteenth-century village of Middleton-in-Teesdale.
  • Price: The Raby estate charges £2 to access via the bottom, but the top can be freely accessed by a hike along the Pennine Way.
  • Opening times: 10:00–16:00.
  • Accessibility and facilities: The trail is not, to my knowledge, wheelchair-accessible. The site contains toilets and a hotel for anyone wanting to stay the night.