Durham City – The North East’s Last Cultural Stronghold?

Austerity measures are threatening the North East’s cultural heritage

When walking through the centre of Durham, admiring the cobbled streets on which a million feet from all generations have strolled, and the delicate architecture of the Lloyds TSB and Barclays buildings, I was wondering, after the deficit cuts have sucked the lifeblood from the North East, what will happen to our historic city? Will it remain the last-remaining defiant stronghold of North Eastern heritage, or will it succumb to the desolation unfolding around it?

As the towns and villages dotted around the region will be forced to take the austerity measures on the chin, and the streets and roads and other public necessities are practically left to rot by the near-penniless local council, the deterioration of the main social body of the North East will be plain for all to see.

Even the other major cities in the area will be heavily lambasted: Newcastle’s role is majorly that of the region’s centre of commerce and is not (outside of the North East) well known for its history and cultural wonders. And indeed it is these modest gems, such as the inner-city cathedrals of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, Grey’s Monument and, of course, The Castle, that are hidden from recognition by the modern corporate establishments, and will be forced to endure the worst the recession has to offer. And this will not be confined to Newcastle; it will become regular and expected in every area of the region.

A recent example would be the probably permanent closure of the Captain Cook Museum in Middlesbrough, which has been a proud feature of Teesside history for over three decades. Although it is still the early days of this double-dip doom-and-gloom malarkey that we’ve all been told to fear so much, the fact that such a unique institution, Teesside’s claim to historical fame, has closed its doors, and not just for winter hibernation as some attractions do, not even just quietly to sit out the economic storm, but forever, is one hell of a sobering thought.

It leads you to ponder if this closure is only the first of a chain-reaction of ‘We’re sorry to announce, but due to Mr. Cameron’s and Mr. Osborne’s ideology, we’re closing down for good’ signs that will be carried in the wind all over the North East. Middlesbrough isn’t renowned for attracting flocks of culture-vultures, that’s true, but those that have in the past ventured into the industrial town for the sole reason of learning something about one of England’s finest seamen will sure as hell have no reason to return in the future. And it will turn out to be quite an issue, an issue that ’Boro itself can’t really fix.

And if we return to Newcastle briefly, when the worst comes to the worst and pennies must be saved for either history or commerce, I doubt the City Council will scrape together their sparse funds to conserve the dark wonder of the Black Gate, instead of using the money to maintain what the Toon has become renowned for in recent years: being the metropolitan hub of the region, the fresh and vibrant now-famous nightlife and the cutting-edge, glass-plated architecture that keeps tourism and money-spending flowing nicely. What I’m saying is: all that is medieval and Georgian and Victorian about Newcastle, those vulnerable marvels that stand proudly in the shadows of The Gate and Grosvenor Casino and St. James’ Park – sorry, the Sports Direct Arena – will be left to the moss.

But what does the near-future hold for our one city whose whole reason for being is its all-engulfing blanket of history? Funds for the main landmarks, namely the Castle and Cathedral, will suffer tremendously as the councils streamline their budgetary output. Can we allow our World Heritage Site to crumble into an archaic ruin? What choice would we have if there were insufficient amounts of money available to maintain it and keep it in its current glorious condition?

Furthermore, with the unforgivable surge in tuition fees, less and less people will be going to Durham University and thus almost every clothes shop, café and bookseller will see considerable dents in their profit, which, clearly, will have a hugely adverse effect on the independent establishments, particularly those who rely almost solely on the loyal custom of Uni students, and, pretty soon, we will be seeing the drab, miserable, boarded-up once-charming buildings with ‘To Let’ signs obstructing our view of the rising banks of the Wear.

Just imagine it – Durham, reduced to a simple township littered with chain-shops like Tesco and Costa. And it will need to be so as well, just to keep the place going, keep the people coming and spending, to keep it alive in a sort-of dead way. The soul of the place will be sucked out until people refer to it as nothing more than the smaller, older sister of Newcastle. The quintessence of the City itself will be marred, and, depending on how long these crippling budget cuts will last (or perhaps more precisely – how long this Old Boys’ government will last), Durham’s allure may even be obliterated by the harsh weather approaching.

Can we allow this to happen? Will the Council and other funding bodies continue to pump much-needed gold into what will surely be the last bastion of history and heritage of North East England?

To be honest with you, I haven’t got any of these answers. I haven’t got the fiscal strategies all mapped out. Nor the authority to implement them. All I can do, all we can do, is hope that Durham County Council will not kowtow to the conglomerates, but will stand up for the substance our city is made of. Stand up for the majestic character, the architectural gems that blossomed from the depths of our bloody history, the heritage that no other city in the North East, probably no other city in the North, and (okay then, I’ll say it) no other city in the country can match in terms of its concentrated, stunning aura.

Here’s to Durham in all its splendour, and hoping that splendour survives.

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