It wasn’t intentional, but over our Christmas roadtrip, we seemed to visit quite a few cathedrals. Not for spiritual reasons, you understand. We love a cathedral for its architecture and gloriously over the top rich interiors. First stop was one we know very well – Durham Cathedral. Having grown up near here, it’s a place we’ve visted often – and definitely think winter time is by far the best time to visit. Lighting is much more evocative, with lots of candlelight and shadows. The Norman pillars are utterly majestic, as are the stained glass windows. The construction of the cathedral started in 1093 – 1093!
Over 900 hundred years ago!
Today, it is regarded as one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in Europe, and in 198, along with Durham Castle, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Durham Cathedral holds the relics of Saint Cuthbert, transported to Durham by Lindisfarne monks in the ninth century, the head of Saint Oswald of Northumbria, and the remains of the Venerable Bede – and if you went to school in the North East, you definitely who this lot are and how important, both historically and, in religious terms, they are. In addition, its library contains one of the most complete sets of early printed books in England, the pre-Dissolution monastic accounts, and three copies of Magna Carta. So, it’s a bit of a wow. It’s been used as a film location on many occasions, most recognisably probably in the first two Harry Potter films. Scenes from Elizabeth 1, starring Cate Blanchett were filmed here, as well as interior views which were featured in the 2019 Marvel superhero film Avengers: Endgame, as the indoor location of Asgard. (We had no idea about this, until the day after our visit, watching the film with our superhero-mad nephew, we spotted the Norman pillars).
Replica of the infamous Sanctuary Knocker, Durham Cathedral. Under medieval English common law, this knocker (and others like it) supposedly afforded the right of asylum to anybody who touched it.
The beautifully weathered pillars at the entrance to the cathedral.
Christmas in Durham Cathedral
The Rose Window
The Pieta, Durham Cathedral
The Chapel of Saint Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral
The Astronomical Clock, Durham Cathedral
We first visited Canterbury over twenty years ago, but it’s become a bit of a go-to stopover when we travel to and from England on our regular roadtrips back from Istria. It’s so convenient for Dover and such a lovely place that we did it twice on this Christmas trip. And because we had two full days on the return trip, we decided to spend most of it investigating and exploring the Cathedral. When I did A’Level English Literature, we studied the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales – a nice do-able introduction to medieval English – and was fascinated by Canterbury and its Cathedral, so I was keen to get to know it.
Now, I thought that Durham Cathedral was impressive age-wise, but it’s just a baby cathedral, compared to Canterbury. Founded in 597, it was completely rebuilt between 1070 and 1077. Perhaps the most famous moment in its history was the murder of the archbishop, Thomas Becket, on Tuesday 29 December 1170, by knights of King Henry II. The king had frequent conflicts with the strong-willed Becket and is said to have exclaimed in frustration, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Four knights took it literally and murdered Becket in his own cathedral. After his death, the cathedral became a place of pilgrimage.
An impressive entrance into the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral
Intricate detailing. Canterbury Cathedral.
Even with renovation work being carried out, this is one impressive interior…
Murder in the Cathedral : Thomas Becket
The Shrine of Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral
Waving us off…
We spent a good few hours mooching around the Cathedral and its Cloisters and it was pretty magical. Not for the religious experience though – what blew us away was the architecture and historical significance. And, so across the channel and onto our next Cathedral…
NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL, STRASBOURG
We were entirely unprepared for this Cathedral, not even knowing that there was a Notre Dame here. We saw it first, late at night, after dinner, when it was bathed in a golden light – the Christmas lights were still very much up in Strasbourg, despite it being after the 6th January and the golden lights were for the festive season. To say it’s a jaw-dropping structure is an understatement…
The Rose Window, Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg
We were due to leave Strasbourg early the next morning for Brescia, but felt we couldn’t pass up the opportunity of a visit when we were in the city, and so squeezed one on before we left.
The Cathedral, in miniature, in front of Strasbourg Cathedral.
We expected to pay an entrance fee to get into the Cathedral, but after a brief security check, we were in, no charge. A bonus.
The impressive main entrance to the Cathedral
The Story of the Nativity
Gothic Interior : Strasbourg Cathedral
The Cathedral towering over the oldest building in Strasbourg, La Maison Kammerzell, constructed in 1427
So ended our Christmas Tour of Cathedrals. Completely unintentional and not pre-planned, but wonderful. Three gorgeous cities, full of history. A perfect way to bring our roadtrip to a conclusion.
It turns out Christmas Eve was just about the most perfect time to visit Salts Mill, in Saltaire, on our way up to the North East for our festive break.
Now a Unesco World Heritage Site, like the very beautiful Port Sunlight on The Wirral, Saltaire was an industrial village, purpose-built in 1851, by philanthropic industrialist, Titus Salt. The village’s huge factory was once the largest in the world and Saltaire was created as a model village of neat, honey-coloured cottages, leading down to the River Aire, intended to create a close and upright community of workers. Its name is a combination of Titus’s surname and the nearby River Aire.
Image : visitengland.com
Now, Salts Mill is a bright and airy cathedral-like building which houses a permanent exhibition of works by Bradford-born artist David Hockney, as well as being a wonderful opportunity for some pretty amazing retail therapy, with an excellent and vast book shop, and a fabulous homewares area, packed full of unique and exquisite furnishings, fabrics, accessories for the home and just general loveliness.
We didn’t have time to visit the Hockney exhibition, sadly, so made the decision to explore the bookshop an,d interiors areas and have a spot of lunch in Salts Diner, more of which later. The renovation of the mill has been extremely sympathetic, with many of the original features and much of the layout, retained. It is definitely cavernous – and amazing photographs illustrate what the mill would have been like in its heyday, full of people and noise. Today, it is a whole lot more tranquil – or at least it was on Christmas Eve. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to wander without throngs of frantic Xmas shoppers – most people seemed to be visiting on this particular day to have “a day out”.
We rarely now get a chance to visit bookshops, so it was a sheer delight to just browse the shelves, leafing through books. It would have been very easy to spend a fortune, but I managed to just about restrain myself, justifying purchases on the fact that I couldn’t buy the books I wanted in Istria. And, because we are giving the big bedroom a complete make-over, I couldn’t resist three Scandinavian Swan mobiles and a butterfly pop-up…
Scandinavian Swans : Flensted Mobile
Message In A Bottle : Pop Up Butterflies
The homewares section is truly fantastic. From small tealight holders to incredibly expensive pieces of one-off, bespoke furniture, there is definitely something for everyone and I would defy you to make a visit here and not spend a few pennies. Again, because it was Christmas, it was exquisitely styled – and I have to say, I’ve returned with a heap of new ideas. As a well a few bits & bobs to help the make-over along.
Salts Diner reminded me very much of the lovely Tebay Services on the M6. Well thought out in terms of industrial design and interiors and with fresh food, largely made on the premises – the open kitchen is huge and you can see exactly what’s going on. Its reputation obviously precedes it, as it was very, very busy even with early closing on Christmas Eve.
The food was amazingly delicious – so much so that it was snaffled away before anything could be captured for posterity!
We absolutely loved our short, but sweet, visit to Salts Mill. There’s so much more to see than we experienced and so we will, on our next visit up north, take the opportunity to stop and get to know this wonderful place a little bit more.
Although it’s been a while since I lived in the North East, we do still get to experience it when we visit family. It’s become a bit of a tradition that we do a bracing post-Christmas walk, usually on the coast, and this year was no exception. On the day after Boxing Day, we headed to Tynemouth. The weather was as we expected – windy, cold and drizzly. But that didn’t stop people being on King Edward’s Beach, under the imposing priory.
The Priory, Tynemouth, England
We decided that the weather was just perfect for a fish lunch. This being the hardy north east, where a blustery wind from Scandinavia doesn’t stop things – you just adapt and do them differently – Riley’s Fish Shack was open, and a very long queue starting to form. If you’ve not heard about this place, where have you been? Snuggling in under the cliffs – if you don’t peer over the Edwardian railings at the top, you’ll miss it – is the most wonderful eatery, we swear you’ll ever encounter. Constructed from two open-fronted shipping containers, this is steampunk heaven. With fish. The best, freshest fish you can imagine.
Riley’s Fish Shack Menu
The menu is simple. It consists of what fresh fish they have, at the time you arrive. When it runs out, it runs out. Everything is sourced locally – I mean, how could you source from anywhere else other than the North Sea, when it’s literally lapping around the containers? There’s always a buzz in the queue – and there is *always* a queue as this place is beyond popular – about what’s on the menu. Listen to what other people are drooling over, because if they’re in the queue ahead of you, they’re watching their fish being prepped and cooked. We knew on our last visit that the Goan Monkfish Curry and the Monkfish Tail Kebabs were dead certs – more of the food later, but wowsers!
If you like your interiors to be pristine, with bookable tables and table service etc, this may not be for you. But, if you like quirky surroundings, where you sometimes need to table-share with strangers, and be warmed up with throws and by woodburners, this place is probably right up your street. There is bench-like seating at the front, overlooking the beach and three or four larger tables inside, behind glass doors. For the super-hardy – of which there were many on this very brisk December day – there are groups of canvas deckchairs, around a number of firepits on the beach itself. So, plenty of seating options, but you need to be prepared to be flexible as you might not get exactly where you want.
Looking out to Denmark from Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth
As you can see, it was a cold day, so we were very lucky to grab a table indoors, with a woodburner in a little nook, at the end of it. Although we did have to share it, as you can see…
I think the interior has been really well thought out – very industrial and very raw, with some beautiful touches to soften the edges. Just like its surroundings.
King Edward’s Bay, Tynemouth
Deck chairs and fire pits, King Edward’s Bay, Tynemouth
But, what about the food?
Well, let’s say, we’re on the same page as Jay Rayner and GQ Magazine on this one. The menu, on the day we visited, was extensive – sea food wraps, mackerel, cod, monkfish, kebabs, lobster, squid and side dishes such as Brussel Sprouts (it was still Christmas!), garlic potatoes and breads. The choice was amazing, but monkfish can never be resisted, so the curry and the kebabs were ordered. With drinks, the bill came to £48, so not cheap, BUT the portions were huge! The chunks of monkfish were plentiful and succulent in the Goan Curry and this dish came with jasmine rice and a very large flatbread. Be aware, though, this dish comes with a kick…
Goan Monkfish Curry : Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth
The monkfish tail kebab dish was equally as huge. Again, big, fat, succulent chunks of fish accompanied by salad, rice, flatbreads and lovely garlicky potatoes with relishes.
Monkfish Tail Kebabs, Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth
Over Christmas we travelled from Istria in northern Croatia, through Italy, Austria, Germany and France on our way to and from England. And, without a shadow of a doubt, our meal at Riley’s Fish Shack was miles ahead of anything else we ate in the various restaurants we visited, on our trip. We cannot recommend this little slice of culinary heaven enough. Just don’t forget your hat & scarf!
Photograph: Alex Telfer/The Observer
Image : https://rileysfishshack.com