Durham is one of those cities that didn’t get to be a city being big or covering a vast amount of ground – it got there by being old and having a very impressive cathedral at its heart. Durham is a small city compared to many but with the magnificent Norman cathedral and castle overlooking it, there are few places that can outshine it. And there are a correspondingly impressive number of ghosts of Durham amid the beautiful buildings.
A little history
People have lived in the area of the city of Durham going back to 2nd century BC but the city as it today really took off when a group of monks arrived there in AD 995. They had travelled from the nearby town of Chester le Street with the body of St Cuthbert and were searching for somewhere to build a permanent shrine to him. They realised it was the spot when the spirit of the saint appeared to one of the monks and gave them the thumbs up (the first ghost of Durham?)
In medieval times, the resting place of the saint was further enhanced by the arrival of St Bede the Venerable, who was interred alongside him. The shrine of St Cuthbert now stands at the High Altar of Durham Cathedral.
The other main historical claim to fame that Durham has are the Prince Bishops. These guys were different from normal bishops because of the way the city had come to be – they were termed as Bishops of Divine Providence rather than Bishop of Divine Permission like most others. This meant that they got their own parliament, had their own armies and appointed their own sheriffs and judges, as well as collecting in taxes from the people and even minting their own coins. They themselves, however, wouldn’t have recognised the term – it’s a modern description to show their difference from the bishops with less powers elsewhere.
Durham Castle stands across the green from the Cathedral, both overlooking the town and the River Wear below. The castle dates from Norman times but since 1840 has been a part of the University of Durham, which remains very prominent in the city. Among the impressive features of the castle is the Great Hall, added by Bishop Antony Bek in the early 14th century, remaining the largest hall of its kind until the end of the 15th century. There is also a library and two chapels within the castle, used for both religious ceremonies and theatrical performances.
With the age of the castle, it isn’t surprising that it has picked up a few ghosts over the years. Many students have reported seeing strange figures within its walls, and some of them may actually have been ghosts. One of the most famous haunted the Black Staircase and is said to be Isabella Van Mildert, wife of a 19th century Bishop of Durham who was said to have fallen to her death from the top of the staircase. She is often termed as a Grey Lady and is said to walk at a different level to the modern stairs, reflecting their level in her day.
Another ghost is the sad spirit of a student who was said to have killed himself after terrible results in his exams and is associated with Room 21, currently the Student Union bar manager’s room. The saddest part of the story, according to a report on the BBC website, is that the students’ results were actually excellent and at the top of the list, but his name had been obscured by other lists and he killed himself before he realised. One paranormal group investigating the spirit encountered some poltergeist activity in the room while others have reported similar events.
Jimmy Allen’s Nightclub received its name from the man whose spirit is said to haunt the building. Allen was a pipe player and petty crook who was imprisoned for stealing a horse in Gateshead and died aged 77 years in the cell under Elvet Bridge in 1810. The building is now the nightclub carrying his name and he makes his presence felt by playing the Northumbrian pipes.
Crook Hall is a medieval hall dating from the 13th century just outside the centre of Durham with beautiful views of the city. It is also said to have a grey lady haunting the staircase while a woman in white has been seen in other parts of the building. She is particularly associated with the Jacobean Room and is said to be a niece of Cuthbert Billington, who inherited the house back in 1615.
Finchale Abbey is a 13th century Benedictine priory four miles outside the city on the river Wear. It is in ruins today but there is still plenty to see. The main paranormal sight is kept hidden however – a tunnel said to run from the priory to Durham Cathedral that is haunted by something so terrible that anyone who enters it dies of fright. The abbey grounds are also haunted by the spirit of a woman killed there, still clutching her small child.