Stories Of Durham: Knock Once To Leave England Forever

MikeachimEngland, Places, Travel1 Comment

durham cathedral

The best stories are the (mainly) true ones – especially when they’re as weird as these.

Durham will outlive us all. A thousand years of savage English weather is etched into its cathedral’s golden sandstone walls, towers and battlements – and still it stands (partly due to the hard work of the local masons, partly because of initiatives like this). It’s a city built to last.

Why it was built here, on top of a hill in a remote corner of northern England so far away from the capital – well, that’s a really great story.

Here are a few others I didn’t get the chance to tell last time.

sanctuary knocker durham

“Are you sure? No, seriously, ARE YOU SURE?”

1. A Place Of Sanctuary – If You’re Prepared For The Worst

You’re a medieval resident of Durham – and you’re racing through the streets, because the mob is after you. Perhaps you’ve done something terrible, leaving a murdered body in your wake. Perhaps you’ve skipped prison. Perhaps you’re innocent of the crime you’ve been accused of. No matter. If the crowd gets hold of you, it’ll rip you to pieces – so you race up the hill to the cathedral, grab a particular brass door knocker, and thunder it against the door as hard as you can, shrieking “SANCTUARY!” There are always a couple of monks assigned to watch out for people like you, so with a bit of luck, the door will open before the crowd grabs you, and you’ll be hauled inside by the monks…

And now the clock starts ticking. You’ve now got 37 days to do one of two things:

(a) gather your wits, prepare your arguments and placate your enemies, or turn yourself in to the appropriate authorities to take your chances with the law of the land…

(b) …or flee England forever. You have a little over a month to arrange your exit, usually via the port of Hartlepool – and the journey there has to be taken along designated highways, overseen by local constables. Stray from this route and you risk instant execution – and once you board your ship to an uncertain future in Europe, you’ll be barred from ever returning to this green and pleasant land.

No pressure. I’ll give you a minute, shall I?

(Here’s a record of a real sanctuary-seeker from the year 1517.)


Durham Cathedral is free entry for all, but they would certainly appreciate a donation after you’ve had a look around. It’s also open every day of the year. Just remember, if it’s closed, DON’T USE THE KNOCKER.


2. A Prison For The Scots

Stroll into Durham across modern-day Prebends Bridge and you’ll see the above plaque. It’s quoting Sir Walter Scott, and it reads:

Grey towers of Durham
Yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles
Half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot
And long to roam these venerable aisles
With records stored of deeds long since forgot

A touch xenophobic? Yes and no.

In 1069, a representative of William of Normandy marched 700 men into Durham and declared it for the Conquerer. The resident Anglo Saxon population protested this decision by surrounding the invaders and slaughtering them. William’s response was precitable – and so began the Harrying Of The North, an episode of English history that makes Game Of Thrones look like Downton Abbey.

Durham Castle was built by William the Conquerer in 1072 to take a firm grip  of the north, by then subdued (it’s been estimated that Yorkshire had lost 75% of its population by 1086). The castle remained the city’s major defensive structure – but following the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, where Cromwell’s English forces defeated an army largely made of Scottish troops, it was Durham Cathedral that was used to hold prisoners-of-war.

Around 3,000 enemy troops were thrown into the bowels of the cathedral (a further thousand had died enroute from the battlefield). Probably imprisoned without food, water or heat. We know it was grim, because around 1,700 of them didn’t emerge, and it seems their bodies may have been buried in unmarked graves.

(The survivors? Sold into slavery. This was a fiercely awful time to be taken prisoner.)

In 2013, while digging out the site for a new University library, archaeologists discovered the remains of at least 17 individuals, maybe as many as 28, and the “only plausible explanation” was that they were Scottish prisoners, and that many, many more now lay under modern Durham.

Today, a memorial plaque commemorating the “Dunbar Martyrs” lays next to the altar of Queen Margaret of Scotland in Durham Cathedral. The “castle ‘gainst the Scot” is working hard to set things right.


Durham Castle is now the home to University College, part of the University – meaning it’s a prison for around 100 students. I mean, a college for them. Anyway, visits to the Castle are by appointment only – specifically, in tours, which usually take place at 13:15, 14:15, 15:15 and 16:15 every day. Click here for details.

durham castle

3. A Noisy Student You Never Want To Meet

It’s late at night in Durham Castle, and you’re one of the aformentioned hundred students sleeping within its walls. You’re a bit peckish so you’ve snuck out of your room to go to the kitchen to steal someone else’s food from the fridge (yes, I was a student once. I’m not proud). You’re passing the alarmingly named Black Staircase, which leans to one side in a way staircases should never lean – and something at the top of it goes THUMP.

Do you:

(a) go and investigate?

(b) suddenly remember your Durham Castle history, and run like hell?

The room at the top of that staircase, currently labelled Room 21, belongs to a student called Frederick. As some students will tell you, Frederick has an annoying habit of moving things around his room in the middle of the night – which would be fine, except Frederick’s been dead for 200 years.

This is the point where anyone who answered (b) can pat their survival instincts on the back and look forward to a long, happy life running away from things. Very sensible. You’ll go far.

Two centuries ago, Frederick was an undergraduate here at University College, and once his exams were over, he rushed to the notice-boards on Palace Green to find out what mark he’d been given. First-class marks were at the top, second-class below, third-class at the bottom – and anyone not listed had achieved a Fail.

To his horror, Frederick couldn’t find his name anywhere. He scanned the board up and down, eyes bulging – and then away he rushed, up the staircase, back to his room, where he paced back and forth in the throes of growing panic.

Then, door wrenched open, down the staircase he goes, out the grounds of the Castle, over to the Cathedral, up the tower, out onto the roof….

And down to the ground again, the quick, violent, messy way – *splat*.

Tragically, what Frederick didn’t know is that his name was indeed on the list. It was right at the top, in the section marked First Class. And he couldn’t see it because the top of the sheet pinned in front was covering it up.

These days, a lot of uncertainty swirls around this dread-soaked yarn. Did Frederick really exist? Is the room currently marked “Room 21” really his room? In the dreadful hours of the morning, is it really possible to hear his spectre marching up and down his room, echoing his final hours of mortal torment? And who exactly ate those sandwiches I left in the student fridge last night? Perhaps we’ll never know the answers to any of these questions…

But if you’re in the Castle and you hear a THUMP, always, always walk the other way.

I was in Durham last year covering Lumiere for Must Love Festivals, supported by Lumiere itself, Artichoke, Visit County Durham and Visit Britain. Many thanks to everyone that made my visit so enlightening & fun – and special thanks to Anna Fawcett of Visit Britain for being so helpful (and patient!).

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