Bill Bryson: I thought Durham was perfect when I first saw it - I still think so now
(2 February 2017)
Bill Bryson, the celebrated author and former Chancellor of Durham University, speaks about his enduring love affair with Durham, its Cathedral and its people.
More than 20 years after telling the world that Durham is “perfect”, best-selling author Bill Bryson’s love affair with the city is undimmed.
The writer, whose admiration for Durham was first revealed in his acclaimed travel book Notes From A Small Island, is only too happy to add his name to a campaign to promote Durham as an inspirational place to live, work, study and do business.
“I’m always happy to say warm things about Durham,” he replies in a swiftly-emailed response to a request for an interview about the ‘Durham, Place of Light’ campaign.
And that warmth is evident as soon as the interview begins: “Anything that promotes Durham positively is a good thing,” he says. There is a clear sincerity, not just in his affection for the city, but in his enthusiasm for wanting to tell others about what they may be missing.
He acknowledges that a place that is home to Lumiere, the UK’s largest light festival, is “fully justified” in adopting the brand ‘Durham, Place of Light’ and he goes on to assemble his thoughts on why Durham made such a lasting impression on him in the midst of his travels.
He begins by stating that “Durham and the North East in general are the friendliest parts of the country by far”. He follows that bold declaration with an appreciation of Durham’s beauty and its respect for history.
“The city of Durham itself is an intensely beautiful and historic place. There is so much history there but what makes it special is that it appreciates having that history – it looks after it and does positive things with it,” he says.
“You really get the sense that people, across all walks of life, are very proud to be in a place with such history.”
And then, of course, he turns his attention to Durham University. How could he not take the opportunity to extol the virtues of the institution which invited him to succeed Sir Peter Ustinov as its 11th Chancellor in April 2005? Mr Bryson carried out the role as the formal head of the university until December 2011 when he stepped down to create more time for his writing and his family.
“When you have beauty and history, then add in a world-class centre of higher education, Durham really has all you could ask for,” he says.
“Durham University is not just one of the most outstanding universities in the country but in the world. When you consider that the university is also part of a world heritage site, closely associated with stunning architecture and surrounded by a great wealth of history and beauty, that’s what makes Durham very special.”
Even now, he finds it hard to believe that Durham should have come as such a pleasant surprise to him when he was touring the country to write Notes From A Small Island.
As he reaches Chapter 24 in the book, the US-born author is making his way to Newcastle and does an “impetuous thing” by getting off the train at Durham. His expectations are not especially high. His plan is to merely “poke around the cathedral for an hour or so” but the anticipated brief flirtation turns out to be love at first sight as he writes:
“Why, it’s wonderful – a perfect little city – and I kept thinking: ‘Why did no-one tell me about this?’ I knew, of course, that it had a fine Norman cathedral but I had no idea that it was so splendid. I couldn’t believe that not once in twenty years had anyone said to me, ‘You’ve never been to Durham? Good God, man, you must go at once! Please – take my car’.”
In the book, which has sold more than two million copies, Mr Bryson goes on to lavish praise on the cathedral, not just its beauty but the unpretentious way it is run. He concludes, without hesitation, that Durham has “the best cathedral on earth” before he goes on to take a look at the city which he describes as “no less ancient and beguiling”.
Twenty one years on from that first enlightening encounter, Mr Bryson’s passion for Durham still burns brightly, which is why he so readily accepted the invitation to talk about the current campaign to promote the city, and the county that also bears its name.
These days, Mr Bryson lives in Hampshire and, at 65, he is working on a new book, although it is too early to talk publicly about its contents. Having been awarded an honorary OBE and becoming a British subject in November 2014, he is very much part of this small island.
As for the small city of Durham, he no longer has a formal role since the county’s celebrated opera star Sir Thomas Allen took over as the university’s figurehead. Consequently, visits to Durham are not as frequent as they were when he was throwing himself into the role of Chancellor to the down-to-earth level of supporting student litter picks.
That said, he is on record as saying his time as Chancellor was the happiest of his life and the proud association lives on through the university’s re-named “Bill Bryson Library”.
He returned to the city as recently as November and he and his wife Cynthia have already talked of another trip back in 2017.
Durham has clearly lost none of its allure and he wants as many people as possible to experience its beauty and heritage.
“Anything that promotes Durham positively is a good thing,” he had said at the outset.
When it is the world’s best-loved travel writer taking time to promote Durham, that is a very good thing indeed.
After all, in Bill Bryson’s book, it is nothing short of perfect.
This article was originally featured on ChronicleLive.