Liz Woolnough was hoping for a double celebration.
On the day she was celebrating her 30th birthday, she drove from her home in Lancashire to the historic town of Chester where, bathed in sunlight by the River Dee, she was to compete in the inaugural World Ladies Town Crier Tournament [pictured above].
There, locked in vocal combat, she hoped to strike a blow as the world’s youngest town crier to challenge the old guard of town crying head on — and go home with the gong.
“I like nothing more than dressing up and being a bit theatrical,” says Liz, who fronts a pub covers band and cites Joni Mitchell, Prince and The Darkness amongst influences on her vocal style.
“I’m not a rock-chick town crier, but I have been blessed with big lungs and a deep voice.”
Historically town criers have provided a cornerstone of community life.
William the Conqueror is credited with importing their trademark call of ‘Oyez’ (it means ‘listen up’ in French) but bell-totting criers also appeared in the Bayeux Tapestry and are cited by The Old Testament in The Book of Proverbs.
Far from a dying art, however, town crying is today enjoying something of a renaissance thanks to its tourist appeal. There are currently around 300 town criers across the UK, their numbers swollen by a slew of young recruits such as Liz.
The man championing a more forward-looking groundswell is David Mitchell, secretary of The Loyal Company of Town Criers, Chester’s working crier and organiser of the tournament.
“In the early 20th century town crying was a dying art as many criers never returned from the war,” says Mitchell, an ex-teacher, who swapped classrooms for walking the streets of Chester in £2,000 worth of frilly garb.
“But since I organised the first ever world tournament in mainland UK in 2001, Chester has led the town crying revival.”
Today he and his town-crying wife deliver a daily proclamation at noon from The Cross, the focal point of Chester’s community spirit since the Middle Ages.
But can The Loyal Company really drag town crying into the age of the iPod?
Michael Wood, the town crier of East Riding, Yorkshire and reigning male champion, thinks so. “We’re trying to open things up and move away from the Toby Jug stereotype,” he says.
“Town crying has been stigmatised as the preserve of old men in tights and weekend warriors with too much time on their hands.”
On the day of the competition, Liz draws nervously on a cigarette as time for her debut cry approaches.
Dressed in a tricorn hat, a jabou (cravat) and purple livery (uniform), she takes the stage and delivers her first four-minute, 125-word cry based around the theme of ‘A Woman’s Place’.
The crowd applauds enthusiastically but Liz looks worried, all the more so after a strong performance from July Campbell, the official crier for Murray River Paddle Steamers in Australia.
The second round, a self-scripted cry on the theme ‘Men!’, goes better.
But it’s Caroline Robinson of Palmerston North, New Zealand, who really catches the judges’ eyes with her rhyming couplets and hammed-up style. The judges just aren’t ready, it seems, for a rock n’ roll crier.
Liz may be going home empty-handed but she remains sanguine. “I may not have won but I’ve learnt a lot,” she says.
“Besides,” she laughs, “One of the old boys came up to commiserate me afterwards and said, ‘It’s lovely to see a bit of totty around the place at last’.”
Oyez to that.
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This article was first published in the Weekend FT in 2004.
* A lot of my stories these days are close to home and this is a good example of finding a story on my own doorstep.
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The locals know him affectionately as ‘Cuddy’.
He was a teenage shepherd boy who saw a holy vision, went on to join a strict monastic order and was elevated to sainthood after his death in 687AD.
His body then spent almost 200 peripatetic years criss-crossing northern Britain in search of a resting place. Even today, his presence permeates every nook and cranny of the historic city where he was ultimately entombed.
We even still toast his longevity with pints of local ale bearing his name. His contemporary, The Venerable Bede, may be better known internationally for his work as a chronicler and scholar but without St Cuthbert, there would be no Durham.
“To modern eyes, Cuthbert seems a bit serious and worthy, while Bede is the all rounder who would bat for England in a cricket match,” smiles the Durham-based Blue Badge Guide Jan Williams.
“While modern Durham is an amalgamation of many stories, we can trace all of those stories back to Cuddy.”
Cuthbert’s body was eventually brought to medieval Dun Holme, modern-day Durham, in 995AD.
The cathedral is the third church on the site and replaced a Saxon stone church and was founded as a shrine to the saint on the well-protected natural peninsula formed by the River Wear. Prior to that, small settlements existed near the peninsula, but not on it, with a clutch of Roman encampments around the fringes.
The main settlement was little more than a clearing in a woodland glade. But pilgrims soon followed to worship at Cuthbert’s shrine and Durham’s place in history was henceforth assured.
Pilgrims still come to Durham to pay their respects to Cuddy but, these days, the city that grew up around him has become one of the key heritage sites in northeast England.
This year marks 25 years since Unesco first designated Durham Cathedral and Castle a World Heritage Site – it was among the first sites recognised in the UK. In 2008 the boundaries of the site were revised to include the historic buildings sandwiched between the two iconic buildings on Palace Green.
A brand-new World Heritage Visitor Centre officially opens its doors this month to act as a gateway to the expanded Durham World Heritage Site.
“Heritage is a huge asset but you have to do something useful with it,” says Seif El Rashidi, World Heritage Site Coordinator.
“We want to present a less fragmented vision of the site and act as a springboard for new projects, working with students from the university.”
Seif moved to Durham three years ago from the al-Darb al-Ahmar medieval heritage project in Cairo. “Before I arrived,” he smiles, “the only thing I knew about Durham was the view of the castle and cathedral from the train to Edinburgh.”
The visitor centre, converted from a former almshouse, features three key sections: a hands-on illustration of what makes a Unesco World Heritage Site; a film explaining Durham’s place on the prestigious Unseco list, along side the likes of the Taj Mahal and Robin Island; and a guide to the hidden-gem discoveries to be found around the site.
Across the manicured green is the Palace Green Library, which unveiled its refurbished Wolfson Gallery in January this year. With a permanent collection of books, documents and objects from the extensive university collection, it’s also home to temporary exhibitions.
Highlights of the collection include a sculpture of a Nubian servant girl from 1360BC, Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, prints of creatures and natural structures as seen through a microscope, from 1665, and Benedictine Gradual, a 11th-century cathedral service book from just after the Norman Conquest.
New galleries and visitor facilities will be added over the next year.
But before following the well-trodden pilgrim trail, heading uphill from the bustling Market Place to the tranquil Palace Green, it’s worth taking time to explore some of the lesser-known attractions of the former medieval hilltop town.
Just before Franwellgate Bridge, the first river crossing from 1120, Moatside Lane marks the original pilgrim’s route to the cathedral shrine.
The lane is one of Durham’s historic vennels, narrow-width passageways, which traditionally provided a short cut through the squalor of the cholera-riddled medieval centre. Today they’re packed with cosy little cafes and boutiques.
The Market Place, still home to the Victorian Indoor Market and the Town Hall, looks refreshed following the recent completion of the Heart of the City regeneration project to open up the public space for events.
This summer, BRASS: Durham International Festivals runs July 1-17 July while Streets Of, a summer festival of street art and performance will be held from August 27-29.
The Town Hall may be tucked away behind a nondescript façade, but it’s worth venturing inside for a glimpse of the Victorian Main Hall.
A stained-glass window of Edward III, astride a white stallion, against a backdrop of medieval Durham dominates the room. A series of plaques down the left-hand wall offers a roll call of the prestigious names to have been conferred the Honorary Freedom of the City.
Among them are Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who addressed the crowd from the Town Hall’s balcony in 1987, and the author Bill Bryson, currently outgoing Chancellor of Durham University, who has been a regular visitor since 2009.
Exploring the city outside the World Heritage site, reminders of Cuddy’s legacy are all around.
The Journey, a bronze-cast sculpture of followers bearing his coffin outside the tourist information centre, a statue of him lost in contemplation in the garden of the small but compelling Durham Heritage Centre.
Some of the public artworks lining the steep riverbanks, gazing up to the castle and cathedral looming majestically above, also celebrate his influence.
This view, the sweeping panorama from the Millhouse across the weir by Prebends Bridge, is the iconic view of Durham that has inspired writers and artists over the centuries.
JMW Turner, fascinated by the quality of the light in northern Britain, came to paint the view in watercolour, while Sir Walter Scott was suitably moved to pen the a few stanzas:
“Grey towers of Durham, yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles. Half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scots.”
The dramatic denouement to the Durham tour, however, is the steep walk up from Kingsgate Bridge to the World Heritage Site anchored between the cathedral and the castle.
The latter, in particular, is crucial to another important aspect of Durham’s history.
Work started on Durham’s motte-and-bailey castle in 1072 and the grand structure was to become home to the Prince Bishops. It was William the Conqueror who created the role of the quasi-monarchical bishop as a safe pair of hands to represent his regional affairs between London and Scotland.
Their power and influence was concentrated between the River Tyne to the north and the River Tees to the south. The subsequent appointees, often flamboyant characters with larger-than-life personal histories to match their status, enjoyed over 800 year of power and influence over their fiefdom.
The powers of the Prince Bishops were diminished by the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 and the commonwealth period in the 1650s.
The last Prince Bishop, William van Mildert, donated the castle to the founding of the university in 1832, just before his death and the final absorption of powers back into the crown.
His legacy was to create the third oldest university in England after Oxford and Cambridge, an august institution that today supports over 12,000 students in a collegiate system and brings a huge sense of vitality to the small, rather quant, 40,000-strong city.
The castle visit is now based around an official tour, while the Cathedral remains both free to visit and the jewel in Durham’s heritage crown. Its complex engineering feats of Romanesque stone vaults, huge pillars and early Gothic pointed arches in the East End are enough to stun most visitors into a hushed, reverential silence.
In the crypt
Cuddy rests, finally, in peace in the feretory (the place of the bones is the literal translation), a plain slab marked Cuthbertus, the only epitaph.
Beade Venerabilis lies in the Galilee Chapel, having been moved to Durham in the 12th century from Jarrow, east of Newcastle.
Outside the cathedral, students dash to lectures, tour groups explore the historic buildings around Palace Green and children try hunt in the treasure box, one of the more hands-on attractions in the new Visitor Centre.
Durham may be a city rich in medieval heritage, but it’s not a cobweb-strewn museum. It feels alive.
“I admire the fact that Durham is not too precious about its heritage,” says Jan Williams.
“Despite its historic riches, it’s still a working town, not preserved in aspic.”