Five Literary Facts About Durham City

Many people know that Durham Cathedral and Castle featured in the films of Harry Potter, or that the words of Sir Walter Scott grace Prebend’s Bridge (pictured). But the City’s literary connections are more extensive than this. Especially as we welcome our new students and celebrate the start of Durham Book Festival, here are five surprising facts that put Durham on the page.

Durham is home to some of the earliest British literature

Long before Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims walked their poetic way to Canterbury, Durham Cathedral was a centre for British literary culture. Lawrence of Durham was born around 1110, and was first a monk and then Prior until his death in 1154. Among other things he wrote the Peregrini, a play about Christ and his disciples. Durham also has a connection to what is arguably the earliest work of drama composed in the British isles. The Anglo-Saxon Harrowing of Hell was originally written on Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, some 80 miles north of Durham; the Priory there was attached to the Cathedral. The Harrowing of Hell retells the legend of how Christ descended to Hell after his death on the Cross, and dates from the 9th or 10th century.

Durham’s Palace Green Library houses a number of important literary manuscripts and archives

Among these are one of only three surviving collections of the poetry of Thomas Hoccleve (an early follower of Geoffrey Chaucer) written in his own hand, documents and photographs relating to the important British modernist poet Basil Bunting, and letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Edward Thomas.

Narnia may have been inspired by Durham

Turning from historical artefacts to fantasy speculations, C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, stayed in Durham around 1942 and worked temporarily as a lecturer during a particularly harsh winter. Around the same time, Lewis developed the idea for the Chronicles of Narnia. While there are no secret wardrobes or giant lions to be found in Durham, there are several lampposts that bear an irresistible connection to those featured in the story, in which Lucy remarks:

Lewis Caroll Alice in Wonderland lamppost in Durham with the quotation "It will not go out of my mind that if we pass this post and lantern, either we shall find strange adventures or else some great changes of our fortunes"

It’s true that the evidence behind Lewis’s inspirations for the novel, including during his time in Durham, is sparse; any links with lampposts seem tenuous. But since Lewis almost certainly will have walked the banks of the river, you can decide for yourself by treading in his footsteps and spotting the lampposts as you go.

Mary Stewart wrote her first published fiction while an English lecturer in Durham

Sticking with fantasy, if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis then you probably ought to check out Mary Stewart. Mary Stewart is best known as the pioneer of the romantic mystery sub-genre, although she submitted her first and more conventional novel, Madam, Will You Talk, while based in Durham. Her subsequent and most enduring Merlin series reimagines Merlin as the narrator of Arthurian history, and was later brought to the small screen by the BBC. In 2009, seventy years after she had first graduated from Durham University with an MA, she was awarded an honorary doctorate.covers of novels inspired by durham: Madam Will You Talk, Still Life, My Purple Scented Novel

At least three contemporary Booker-prize winning authors can be linked to Durham

A.S. Byatt and Pat Barker both have close associations with the city. Pat Barker still lives here, while A.S. Byatt was a resident during the 1960s. A.S. Byatt’s time doesn’t seem to have been entirely happy, although one unfortunate moment did provide the impetus for her novel Still Life, which features a terrible accident as its central eventShe recalls being electrocuted by a broken refrigerator and lying on the floor looking out at the Cathedral and remembering the words of the Venerable Bede who spoke of the temporary nature of life as like a sparrow flitting in and out of a great hall. On a more positive note, Ian McEwan’s recent novella My Purple Scented Novel features two writers whose changing fortunes are represented by the more successful one’s move to Durham, where he “bought a big old house on the edge of a village three miles out” where “a stately river runs through the grounds” – perhaps a disguised reference to Shincliffe Hall.

If there are any other literary facts we should recognise, share your thoughts in the comments or with us on social media. Meantime, one bonus fact is that Durham is home to one of the UK’s oldest literary festivals. Durham Book Festival starts this weekend, so what better way to get a flavour of this city and its bookish connections.


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