Land of the Prince Bishops

12 Aug

For England’s northeastern region – in particular the counties of Northumberland and Durham – the centuries between the Roman invasion and the 1603 union of England and Scotland were a period of almost incessant turbulence. To mark the kingdom’s limit and to contain the troublesome tribes of the far north, a series of formidable coastal fortresses was built, most impressively those at Bamburgh, Alnwick, Wakworth and Durham. For arrivals to Durham, the view from the train station is one of the finest in northern England – a panoramic prospect of Durham Cathedral, its towers dominating the skyline from the top of a steep sandstone bluff within a narrow bend of the River Wear. This dramatic site has been the resting place of Saint Cuthbert since 995, when his body was moved here from nearby Chester-le-Street, over one hundred years after his fellow monks had fled from Lindisfarne in fear of the Vikings, carrying his coffin before them. Cuthbert’s hallowed remains made Durham a place of pilgrimage for both the Saxons and the Normans, who began work on the present cathedral at the end of the 11th century. In the meantime, William the Conqueror, aware of the defensive possibilities of the site, had built a castle that was to be the precursor of ever more elaborate fortifications. Subsequently, the bishops of Durham were granted extensive powers to control the troublesome northern marches of the kingdom, ruling as semi-independent Prince Bishops, with their own army, mint and courts of law. When they ceded their powers to the Crown in 1836, following a long period of decline, they also abandoned Durham Castle and transferred their old home to the fledgling University of Durham, England’s third oldest seat of learning after Oxford and Cambridge. Unsurprisingly for a place with such a long and storied history, Durham is said to be the home of a number of ghostly residents and eerie legends.

Stand on Elvet Bridge in Durham City at midnight and you might just hear the ghostly music of Northumbrian piper Jimmy Allen, who was imprisoned in the House of Correction beneath the bridge in the 18th century. His pardon from the King came too late to save him from execution. The Pickled Parson of Sedgefield haunts Ceddesfeld Hall. Inconveniently dying just one week before the Parson’s tithe was due to be paid, his wife pickled him in brine, propped him up in the Parsonage window so it looked like he was still alive to passers-by, then collected the tithe on his behalf. Only afterwards did she announce the death of the Parson. Crook Hall – a medieval hall in the heart of Durham City – is rumoured to have a number of spooky residents. The hall’s Jacobean room is haunted by the White Lady, said to be the niece of the fiery tempered Cuthbert Billington who inherited the manor in 1615. While the clothing of the woman varies (from wearing a raincoat to a wedding dress), the figure is always white. In true ‘phantom hitchhiker’ style, the woman has been picked up by passing drivers over the years, only to vanish a few miles down the road. Every self-respecting castle ought to have a ghost story and Lumley Castle at Chester-le-Street is haunted by the murdered wife of the castle’s builder, Lord Lumley. The ‘Lily Of Lumley’, as the lady is also known, was killed by several monks after refusing to agree with their religious beliefs. When Sir Ralph discovered what had happened to his wife he had the monks executed. The monks are sometimes seen walking in file around the area of the castle, while Lady Lumley walks within the castle’s corridors and grounds. An Australian cricket player even reported seeing the monks in 2005!

Some University of Durham students have the pleasure of sharing their college with a resident ghost or two. Affectionately referred to as ‘Castle’ because it occupies the site of Durham Castle, University College Durham is the oldest college in the university and has its very own Grey Lady. The Black Staircase of Durham Castle is haunted by the ghost of a wife of a 19th century Prince Bishop who is reputed to have fallen to her death from its top most heights. Even if you don’t see the ghost, you can certainly see the staircase on a tour of the Castle led by a student guide. The Tees is a beautiful river flowing through the landscape of Teesdale in the Durham Dales. But beware of Peg Powler who lurks in the depths. With her green skin, long hair and sharp teeth she will grab the ankles of the unwary standing too close to the water’s edge and drag them under, never to be seen again. Way back in the mists of time the ashes of a Bronze Age chieftain called Caryn were carried to a remote hill top in Teesdale and buried with all the dignity his tribe could give him. A stone cairn marked his last resting place. Many centuries later a copse of pine trees was planted over his grave, and according to local legend, to visit that burial site today is to stand alongside the ghost of Caryn himself. In the Crossgate area of Durham City, a ghost of a young woman has been sighted. This is said to be the ghost of a Victorian girl from a workhouse near Allergate who was murdered and then thrown down a flight of steps. Her attacker was a soldier, who later confessed to his crime.

The above may seem a motley and extensive collection of ghosts and ghouls but in many ways it barely scratches the surface of Durham’s long and lurid history of the paranormal. Far stranger things have been seen in both the city and the county that it is part of – demonic hounds stalk Darlington train station, a red-eyed figure has been seen in the Pemberton Arms public house, a disembodied white haired head is said to float along the railway track running through the village of Burnopfield, the Castle Hill at Bishopton is reputed to be guarded by fairies, a limbless worm once inhabited the woods of Bishop Auckland attacking both man and beast until it was slain and a family of dragons terrorised the castle and grounds at Lambton. Scary stuff – but from personal experience none of these horrors is quite as frightening as Durham’s famed Ghost Walk, which starts and ends under the horse statue at Durham Market Place at 8pm on the first Sunday of each month. Join it if you dare!

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One Response to “Land of the Prince Bishops”

  1. restlessjo August 12, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Durham’s a great city and the castle tour is fabulous. Don’t know if I’d be brave enough to stand on Elvet Bridge at midnight though!

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