Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: August, 2013

Glorious Gospels showcased brilliantly in grand display

There are only 36 days left to see the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition in Durham. If you have not been yet, I urge you to do so. It is a triumph.

 Durham has put the flags out for the exhibition. From the efficient park and ride buses, to the coffee shop that leaves glacier mints with the bill, to the ever pleasant stewards in the Cathedral, every step of the way put a broader smile on my face.

I cannot remember the cathedral being as well turned out – and that is before the flower festival arrives  next weekend. The lunchtime eucharist and following talk were held  in peace and decorum even though the building was full of visitors. Lunch in the undercroft café is great value and the new gift shop successfully combines high quality crafts and a well stocked religious bookshop with consummate ease. The Dean and Chapter are to be congratulated on this facelift.

The project to build a model lego cathedral shows this is also a  fun place. Purchasing a brick makes a small contribution to the grand plan of opening up the cathedral’s treasures and showing them off to full effect. It is surprising  how many of the artefacts in the Gospels exhibition have come from the cathedral’s own collection.

Two rather imposing  uniformed guards man the doors to the exhibition itself. But they break into a patter of jokes and banter that puts everyone at ease and we are shepherded round the exhibition by a succession of volunteers who make sure that no one is rushed and everyone can see the exhibits. But beware that the air conditioning required to display the manuscripts makes it is cold inside. It is great stage management.

I was worried that the exhibition might just be one long queue to see ‘the book’. Not at all. It tells a very well thought out, though possibly simplified, story of the coming of Christianity, the importance of St Cuthbert’s community and how the Gospels were part of establishing  the standing of Lindisfarne as a spiritual centre. It is our story.

Was the Synod of Whitby, the great gathering of the early church to settle the differences between the Roman and Celtic traditions of Christianity, really about the date of Easter and the way monks combed their hair?  With the modern church so consumed with equally hair splitting issues, it was an utterly believable account.

To my mind, the wrong side won at Whitby for the wrong reason – the King was too concerned with his place in heaven to back the underdog.  But it was a sensible  way to resolve a difference without bloodshed and I urge Justin Welby to book everyone into guest houses in Whitby  until they and sort out the church’s position on  women and gay relationships without more ado.



The illustrations on the audio visuals perfectly evoke life in the  sixth century and I was amused that the video describing the journey of Cuthberts tomb to its final resting place in Durham is sponsored by a road haulage company. What would the monks have given for a Fergietruck?  

There is an ample dose of myth or miracle  – the dividing line is a thin one  –  that all adds interest  to the story. First, the gospels fell out of the boat taking then to Ireland only to be recovered intact and then the  cortege carrying Cuthbert’s coffin  got stuck in the mud on the way back from Ripon which was a sign that he really wished his bones to rest in what was to become Durham.

The supporting cast is excellent. Artefacts, including some from the recently discovered Staffordshire hoard, and other contemporary books are all well displayed and give the context for the star players.

Strange to say, my aaah moment – the point at which the exhibition  leaped from being an fascinating  study of early history to an emotional heart pounding experience – was not the Lindisfarne Gospel but the cross and ring recovered from Cuthbert’s tomb which looked as if they had been minted yesterday.

Cuthbert’s lasting achievement was to reconcile the different versions of Christianity and restore the fortunes of Lindisfarne when others had fled back to Ireland. He also managed to deal with  affairs of state when appointed Bishop against his better instincts whilst still drawing his strength  from the natural world and the silent monastic life of his hermitage. Not a bad example.

So was the Lindsfarne Gospel a disappointment after all this build up? It exceeded my expectations.  I had  the great book all to myself for a few minutes and marvelled at the vibrant fresh colours on St John’s title page which is currently on display. I was impressed by how the sheer size of the book as well.

It is well worth visiting the adjoining exhibition on the floor above where you can see all the illustrated pages of the Gospel in a facsimile edition and find out more about how the book was written and constructed.

I came away with an strange sense of pride about the early Christian contribution to the life and culture of our region, epitomised in the masterpiece of the Gospels. We do not sing the praises of the Northern Saints enough or recognise their place in our make up.

The carefully worded statement at the entrance of the exhibition acknowledges the role of the British Library in loaning the Gospels to Durham for a three month period and goes on to say that, for conservation reasons, the gospels will only go on tour once every seven years. After they sank to the bottom of sea, in protest at being taken to Ireland, it would be a brave curator who would risk a foreign trip again.  Even so, I fear they may not return to the North East in our generation.

I hope the campaign to rehouse the Gospels in Durham continues apace as this exhibition shows how well they could fit within a grander display of the treasures of Durham Cathedral and how well the story of Northumbrian culture could be told around them. We need to make more of our inhertiance.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene

One of the top ten walks anywhere

I am the secret tourist and here is my report. Like my more  famous secret counterpart, who graces these pages later in the week, I pay my own admission and travel incognito, and thereby hangs a tale.

You may however spot me. I am the one in the queue who does not wear shorts or sandals, whose tee shirt is not emblazoned with a cheeky slogan and who looks  just like himself. In a crowd of tourists, this may be a give away.

Due to a combination  of family visitors  and guests to Shepherds Dene, it has been an exhausting fortnight and I report in chronological order.

Auckland Castle:  Greeted effusively and, for a very reasonable fee, view the paintings of the 17th century Spanish master,  Francisco Zurbaran.  The makeover of the Castle, following its acquisition by the hedge fund philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, has hardly begun but it promises well and has an air of quiet decorum despite most other visitors wearing shorts.

The twelve larger than life  paintings of Jacob and his sons are well worth a visit on their own.  A good  job lot for the reported £15m that Mr Ruffer paid for them. As I walk through the park, I wonder how I would spend £15m  on charitable causes and may return to this topic another day. ***

 Escomb Saxon Church The detour on the way home from Bishop Auckland is highly recommended. The key has to be collected from a house across the road and the visitor is welcomed by way of information sheets displayed throughout the small stone building. These do not spoil the sanctity of a place which has been used for worship since the 7th century. I happily slip a donation in the box on the way out. ****

 National Railway Museum, York  To my surprise, admission is free and I make a   gift aid donation on behalf of our party. This joyous exchange at the entrance desk activates the feel good enzymes that may well make me more generous.

The Railway Museum is a national treasure. The famous locomotives and historic carriages in their immaculate liveries take pride of place but there is so much more to the museum; shelves of railways memorabilia, displays about the social and engineering history of the railway, steam train rides and childrens activities.

I am shocked to find the museum is at risk of closure if there are further cuts in government grant. Should the cherished principle of free entry be sacrificed to ensure the survival of the museum, I ask myself as I ring up a large “secondary spend” in the bookshop?  *****

 Ghost Hunt of York: If you want to see tourists teem and heave, head to the middle of York on an August weekend. On a hot sunny day, everyone wears shorts and little else with the exception of your truly. I am elbowed off the pavement by a large group heading in the opposite direction . I am forced to make detours to avoid  people inanely  photographing  their girl friend in front of  the Minster.  

The ghost tour shows that culture can be fun. We follow  a man dressed up as a Victorian undertaker through  dark alleyways and listen to frightening  tales which have some passing reference to historical truth, thoroughly enjoy ourselves and still sleep soundly. ***

The Treasurers House:  Spilling out of church, we head to the Treasurers House in the Minster precinct, a historic and reputedly haunted house  embellished in the early twentieth century by an earlier, more   flamboyant version of Jonathan Ruffer. At the entrance, I am hard sold membership of the National Trust. Although I decline, the assistant continues to tell me about the special discount available this month. She then charges me the higher gift aid admission rate, without my permission.

Mrs Secret Tourist cringes as she knows my strongly held view  that the concession to allow museums and  stately homes to claim gift aid on their admission charges is unfair on other charities who cannot gift aid their services. “ If it is a donation, can I pay what I like? ”, I not unreasonably ask. Don’t worry, I will not return to this arcane subject in this column another day. **

 Cherryburn: The birthplace of the engraver Thomas Bewick is another National Trust property . I approach with guests from Shepherds Dene in trepidation. To my delight. the attendant throws away her script and  works out the best way of providing tickets for an assorted collection on members and non members, adults and concessions. A long and informative conversation about the property follows in the course of which I offer to return as a volunteer. What a difference a day makes. ****

 Hadrians Wall: The walk along the escarpment from Houseteads to Steel Rigg must rank as one of the top ten walks anywhere.  It is on a par with the Machu Picchu trail.   

The stone steps make the steep climbs possible and the volunteer rangers  patrolling the route  are full of encouragement. The trail  is impeccably managed but the signage and interpretation  is  as confusing and lacking as ever. I  never know  what is due to the National Trust, English Heritage or  National Park but if any of them had been holding out a bucket as we reached Steel Rigg, I would have emptied my pockets  into it. ***

 Beamish Museum Despite a long queue, we sweep quickly through the admission procedure, perhaps helped by the extended family all being called Hepburn  ( as in Audrey) and are issued with year long passes for an average under £12 a head. Great value.

Beamish just gets better and better. Since my last visit, there is a new brass band hall, fish and chip shop and clever new entrance to the tea rooms. A bakery is  due to open soon. There is so much so to see that Beamish can absorb crowds of visitors on a busy Saturday and I suspect there is  a greater variety of colour and class than at other venues in this report. *****

 Lindisfarne Gospels Exhibiton Advanced reports effusive, tickets pre booked on Ticketmaster, drab clothes at the ready, I am off there next Monday and I bet they are already quaking in their shoes as the secret tourist approaches.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene