First fact of the weekend – Durham is far. Not far like as in quite a long way from MK, I mean far as in get-up-early, leave-before-lunch, drive-for-ages, double-stop and still only just get there before nightfall.
So get up early(ish) we do, drag our butts out of bed and K breakfasts while I repack all my useless packing from the night before into a better case which, I hope, will be easier to handle. We set off by 10, making a quick stop off at Parental Lewingtons to say Hi and drop off the Mother’s Day gift and card for the day we’ll sadly be missing out on tomorrow. Part of me feels terrible for not being around to share it with my wonderful mother, but I know that actually, what will make her happier than anything is knowing that I’m able to be off gallivanting and enjoying myself at the other end of the country. And a nice pair of earrings doesn’t hurt, either.
We’re off and away onto the M1 by 11 and start the trek to the North. And then a bit further. One of the dispiriting things about heading that far North, as I have previously to Newcastle, a mere pebble-chuck from Durham, is that you travel for ages on the M1 and eventually get passed Sheffield to Leeds and you realise that you’ve still got as far to go again to get to where you want to be. Still, it could be worse – we could have paid £360 for the both of us to do the 5-hour train journey instead.
Along the way we rock the iPod, whiling away the miles listening to a track-listing of the machine’s choice, occasionally edited by the passenger-seat DJ. We finally roll into Durham off the A1(M) at somewhere around 4 o’clock and amazingly find our accommodation within 10 minutes after only a single phone-call to our Castle-based “fixer” the ever-attentive Pops, doyen of the My Friend Oli campaign.
The room is a spacious twin guest room in the college of St Hilde and St Bede. I’ve no idea who they are, but as Saints go, they have a good line in comfy sleeping-quarters and nice, deep baths. No sooner are we in than I hit the sack to crash out for an hour, before we venture up into town to meet Pops and her little (although really rather tall) bro.
The walk from the college into town gives us our first visual impression of the city of Durham and as first impressions go, it’s hard to imagine a better one. With light shimmering off the river as we wander along the towpath, we pass the hardy-yet-incredibly-foolish rowers packing up into the rowing club, then round the corner to get our first sight of the Cathedral and Castle atop the hill in the centre of town. With the Elvet Bridge mirroring itself in the inky blackness of the river, the scene is as close to mesmerizingly seductive as it’s possible for the still life of a city to be.
After climbing the biggest set of stairs we were to encounter all week (and encounter them fairly darn often, too), we manage to bump into Pops and bro on the bridge itself. It’s the first time since the campaign kicked off that I’ve actually met Pops, despite numerous conversations by phone, email and good ol’ reliable Facebook. Not surprisingly, what with this being a student town and Pops being a resident hard-core studenty-type, the first thing we do is settle in the nearest bar. This is where I fell in love with Durham head-over-heels – where else but a student town could you pick up a round of drinks consisting of a pint of Guiness, a half of Kroenenburg, a double-Gin and lemonade and a coke for under a tenner? Certainly not in any of the bars in MK.
After an interval of one-and-a-half rounds (don’t worry, I was on Coke), we are joined by Pops’ just-arrived, former-native other half. No sooner had the longed-for-loved-one turned up than Pops abandons us to make her final prep for tonights’s closing night of Assassins, the Sondheim musical she’s MD’ing, in amongst all her work on My Friend Oli, plus uni work, plus Oli-sitting duties for the weekend.
After the most rushed meal I’ve eaten in a long time (which came back to haunt me later, but that’s another story all together), the four reprobates she left in the pub stumble/run/lurch our way up the Bailey just in time to slide apologetically into our seats having delayed the start of the show with our tardiness. Well, I like to think we were important enough to delay the start of the show, but then again it was probably more likely to be problems tying John Wilkes Booth’s cravat than anything to do with up.
I’ve not seen Assassins before and I was pleasantly surprised – I often struggle with the first viewings of Sondheim shows, even if they do grow on me with time. Although there were a fair share of technical problems with radio mics and odd-lighting (largely due to the awkward nature of the venue, it must be added, rather than any ineptitude on the part of the production team), it was an impressive show, especially considering the speed with which it was put together and the work-load the cast have to carry outside of the Theatrical realm.
The show also marked the first time in 2 years I’ve seen the ever-marvellous and always Gentlemanly Bill Bryson, Chancellor of Durham Uni, world-renowned author and – let’s not forget – instigator of the whole My Friend Oli campaign, following our first meeting and subsequent phone chats since. It’s great to see him again and spend a bit of time catching up on our news. Well, I say “our” but in reality, the first evening is spent almost entirely and exclusively talking about me and my op, many of the details of which Bill had yet to be appraised of.
After the show, K and I decide to judiciously step aside and let the cast and crew make the most of their last night party without forcing Pops and the rest of the My Friend Oli gang (the ever-organised events-queen Alice) to feel the need to nanny us through the night and thus not really take part in all the usual shenanigans that one should at the close of a production.
Being the impossibly nice person he is (seriously, you have to see it to believe it), Bill insists on walking us the 20 minutes back to our lodgings along the riverside before heading back to exactly where he’d just been to catch his own cab back to his residence.
Bushed from the day’s driving and the night’s exertions (not least the hills of Durham), we are both in bed by 10.30 and I’m fairly sure I’m asleep by 10.31. But I’m already dreaming of living in Durham.
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