The Other Durham

May has come to Durham and it has brought with it longer days and warmer weather. It has also brought more deadlines. I have been struggling to get through essays, projects, and I still have an exam to prepare for. I had spent most of April working seven days a week and the stress and anxiety had begun to take its toll. I guess grad school really is hard, my friends weren’t lying. I was beginning to feel sick, rundown, irritable, and I was beginning to question what the hell I was doing here in the first place. Those friends that told me grad school was hard also told me that it had a way of crushing your soul and I found myself being flattened under the weight of it all. I hadn’t had a true break since December and one was not forthcoming until after this month. I’m fairly certain I was beginning to go quite mad. Last weekend I made the conscious decision not to do any work. It was a bank holiday (a three day weekend for my friends in the States) and I informed myself that on pain of insanity, no work would be completed, attempted, or even contemplated until Tuesday.
On Saturday I decided to walk into town. There wasn’t any specific reason to go except to get out of my tiny cell of a study bedroom. Staring at the walls was perhaps the least effective way to keep from doing work. Instead I headed outside with the vague notion of buying a new mug at Wittard’s. I set off on my normal route into town: head up South Road past the Science Site and make a left at the DSU to cross at Kingsgate Bridge then a right onto North Bailey and then onward to Market Square. I sighed at the mind-numbing familiarity of it all.
This has become normal. Oh God, this is…..ROUTINE!  I thought in horror. How had this happened? How had I begun to take Durham and living in England for granted? When had this happened? I felt ill. My time in England was rapidly coming to a close and there would only be a few more months during which I would call England home. The worst possible thing I could think of was to take that time for granted.
I veered off my path and up Elvet Hill Road. I decided to at least change my route and cross at Prebends Bridge, maybe this minute change in my route would reenergise me.

Prebends Bridge

I reached the roundabout and headed off toward the gate that lead to the river footpaths and my favourite bridge in Durham. Maybe seeing the Cathedral and Castle from there would remind me of the first time I stood there way back in September. As I rounded the corner and the bridge came into view I found myself turning away from the direction of town. I had never explored the river footpaths which ran south from the bridge and as I had nothing to do, I followed the wooded path away from my destination.
The sounds of the road died out very quickly and were replaced with bird songs, chattering squirrels, and the river. I felt my shoulder release and I took my first deep breath in months. I could feel my blood pressure begin to lower and the entire world began to slow down. It was as though I can slipped into a pool of clarity and I felt all my senses begin to retune to the sights, sounds, and smells around me. My mind erased the stress from previous months and…actually I can’t even tell you what my thoughts were. They simply existed and were gone. I do remember I thought nothing of the course, my essays, my obligations. I thought nothing about the loneliness that on occasion grips me so tightly as to choke any pleasure. I do remember thinking of my grandmother and I felt truly sad that I could not share this walk with her. It wasn’t a negative sadness though; it was that brand of sadness that help you recall the best of times. Those memories bubbled to the surface, danced around my thoughts, and then were gone. I continued walking.

The path
The omnipresent Cathedral

St. Oswald’s

St. Oswald’s churchyard with the Cathedral in the distance

 I looked up to my right and saw some old graves above me. I wasn’t sure where I was having never walked this way before. I looked at the river to my left and up on the opposite bank I saw the Cathedral. It’s one of those things that you cannot escape when you are in Durham. It is omnipresent. Perhaps that was the intent. My path petered out and I found myself in St. Oswald’s churchyard. I knew precisely where I was and I was terribly disappointed to have been dumped back onto the route I had purposely tried to avoid. I crossed Kingsgate Bridge and turned right down North Bailey and entered Market Square.
It was alive with people and my quiet fled before the masses. I hurried on to Wittard’s where I purchased another Alice in Wonderland mug. I had begun collecting them after the choir had given me the teapot as a gift after our March concert. It was one of the most thoughtful and unexpected gifts I’ve received and even now as I write this it is sitting on my shelf in a place of honour. I left the shop and headed back toward the Cathedral. I was determined to walk along the river back towards Howlands. I couldn’t stand to be out among so many people.
I stopped. Well, my thoughts stopped. I had just come back from London, a place brimming with humanity and I hadn’t had a problem dealing with the crowds. Did I? I reached Kingsgate and turned down the set of stairs alongside it which led to the footpaths. Maybe that was part of the stress? How long had it been since I had truly had a moment to myself? How long had it been that I had a chance to focus on anything but what was right in front of me; the trees, birds, river, pathway? I had been going like a freight train since January, trying to bury myself in work, trying desperately to get a first, clawing my way through assignments, and desperately hoping I wasn’t disappointing anyone along the way. This walk was the first time amid all of that that I had stopped to take in my surroundings. To remember that I was in another country and why I had decided to come here. I had sacrificed a lot to make it here and now I felt that I had been wasting a lot of my time burying myself in my work. Even when I hadn’t been working, I had been thinking about work.
I finally made it to the bottom of the stairs and I looked up at Kingsgate. Kingsgate had always been one of my least favourite of the bridges in Durham. It was built in the sixties and it was just this ugly concrete slab of a thing. Now that I saw it from underneath, it looked so different. It looked beautiful. How odd. All it needed was a different view point. Maybe that’s all I needed, too.

Kingsgate Bridge from a new perspective.
My thoughts slowed as I began to walk south along the footpath. The river was so near and I stopped several times to just stare at how it sparkled in the sunlight. I passed the wooden sheds where the rowing boats and equipment were kept. I stared into the woods to my right and saw abandoned stone walls overgrown with foliage. I passed under the archways of tree branches and along a stretch of the path lined with wild garlic. My breath slowed and found a rhythm more in tune with my surroundings and I decided that this was something I had to do more regularly. No. As often as I possibly could. I wanted to be able to find this sort of peace whenever I felt my sanity slipping away under the crushing weight of grad school and societal obligations.
The River Wear

The path and boathouses

A gorgeous tree hidden near the path

Prebends Bridge

Sunlight on the Wear

Prebends Bridge

A little friend I met on my way
I finally made it up to Prebends Bridge and I realised that my journey was nearing its end. I would be reentering the realm of grad school with its work, people, and stress. As I crossed the bridge, I felt that comforting mantle of nature slip from my shoulders. My thoughts began to tune into a different channel and the quiet calm was gone. Yet, it wasn’t gone completely. The memory of it was thick and palpable and I knew that it would stay with me for at least the rest of the weekend. When it left me for good, I would know it was time for another walk in the other Durham.

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