The secret history of Durham

A portrait of Durham by Thomas Girtin, c. 1800

A portrait of Durham by Thomas Girtin, c. 1800

Durham is a city that is thoroughly, unmistakably steeped in history. From the cobbled streets we walk along, to the eaves and weathered bricks we find ourselves looking up at, reminders of the city’s 1000 year history are everywhere.

Of course, the structure that dwarfs everything else in the city, both physically and in terms of national and international significance, is the cathedral. Almost all of the scholarly literature on Durham’s architecture focuses on this colossus, along with the nearby castle. But while there are endless sources of information available on the public façade of Durham and the vital religious and political role the city played in medieval England, one thing which remains mysterious in comparison is everyday life in the bustling settlement Durham must have been.

First, let’s get an idea of the layout of Durham spanning the medieval and early modern periods, which while not dissimilar to its current topography had a few notable differences. In terms of similarities, Market Square has medieval origins and historians believe it has always marked the centre to a network of smaller streets, just as it does today. These streets and their names offer tantalising hints of the everyday scenes that would have been played out in the city from medieval times onwards. Saddler Street and Silver Street allude to the livelihoods they once housed, saddle making and jewellery making respectively.

Original beam showing carpenter's marks at 71 Saddler Street

Original beam showing carpenter’s marks at 71 Saddler Street

We know that the section of Saddler Street leading down to Elvet Bridge was historically called Flesh-ewer Raw, alluding to the butcher’s shops that were once housed on the street. Margaret Bonney stresses the proximity of tanners and butchers in many cities at the time, offering an insight into contemporary concerns of consumption and convenience. Meanwhile, Douglas Pocock notes the picture that emerges of a bustling trade hub, with “the concentration of activity about the market place […] signified by the occupational street names” and it is clear that for the people of historic Durham, commerce and skilled labour would have played just as an important role in everyday life as religion did.

However, a significant medieval structure missing from modern day Durham is the Great North Gate, which spanned the upper end of Saddler Street and was originally built to protect the castle, looming over the rest of the city for centuries. The Great North Gate later housed Durham’s prison until 1820 when the necessary funds were raised to build a new one and the Gate was demolished. A key element of the prison was the ‘Bridwell’ cells beneath Elvet Bridge, one of which now houses the club Jimmy Allens, named for a prisoner who met his demise in what must have been a damp and miserable riverside dungeon.

With 569 listed buildings in the city centre alone, Jimmy Allens is certainly not isolated in its historical significance. Many more of Durham’s individual structures have histories which reveal much about the town as time marched towards the early modern period. The oldest buildings present in modern day Durham date back to the sixteenth-century, and while some, like the Silver Street manor belonging to seventeenth-century tycoon John Duck, were demolished in the mid-twentieth-century, others survived and accommodate businesses today. Several, including those that house The Shakespeare Tavern, Vennels Café and Akarsu Turkish Restaurant all display features which give us an idea of what life was like in Durham all those years ago.

The only timber framed building left in Durham

The only timber framed building left in Durham

32 Silver Street, for example, now home to Akarsu, is notable as the only timber framed structure in the city centre. It is believed by the current owners to have been originally built as a private residence, with the top floor added in the nineteenth-century. With the overhang on what would have originally been the uppermost storey, the building is typical of a time in which waste would have been swilled into the street, avoiding the bottom windows.

71 Saddler Street, now Vennels Café, is another such building. Although it is not timber framed, an exposed beam along the outside of the structure shows carpenter’s marks from the its first construction, while its deep set windows and sloping floors on the upper levels are testament to its longevity. The current owners have researched its history in detail, with the Vennels Café website providing a fascinating account of its role in Durham in the 1600s as a mustard factory, again showing the important historical role of trading and commerce in our now sleepy city.

With Durham’s historical and present day significance as a scholarly and religious hub, it’s easy to forget its role as a working town. While we praise the deans, bishops and lords who have resided in Durham in the last ten centuries, we can also think of the normal tradesmen and their families who made their home in Durham. Through researching a past that is supposedly more mundane than that of the architectural pomp and ceremony of the castle and cathedral, we can reach through the centuries and connect with the real people who lived and worked in Durham.

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