Durham is in England
Last month I was discussing future plans with another American student at the Trinity May Ball. I mentioned that I was going to Durham, to which my colleague erroneously asked, “ah, you’re going to Duke?” He was referring to the university located in Durham, North Carolina famous for its basketball programme.
In this light, I thought I’d say a few words about the Durham located in the North Eastern part of England, nestled in green hills which make it — I’m told — the focal point of English weather. Durham is a historical city known for its towering cathedral. One Lonely Planet travel guide lists it as #6 of the top 25 things to experience in the UK. In fact, you may have already seen the inside of the cathedral as the set for one of Hogwart’s classrooms in the Harry Potter movies.
County Durham (“Durham County” in American parlance) is historically of a mining region, a heritage that lives on today in events such as the Durham Miner’s Gala. Americans are more likely to understand this if I mention that County Durham was the setting for the film Billy Elliot. The film more-or-less captures the Geordie accent, which I’m told has been the cause of some confusion by previous American students. (Not well represented in the film, on the other hand, is the Geordie reputation for hospitality.)
Durham University is [arguably] the third oldest university in England. Like its older siblings Oxford and Cambridge, Durham also is based on a college system (think of Griffindor to Hogwarts). The university commonly uses the term “Doxbridge” to connect it with the two more internationally-renowned universities… but I have to admit that I’ve never heard anybody use this term in Cambridge. At the same time, the University can boast being the 2005 Times University of the Year (at the risk of over-generality, the English are quite fond of these league tables). At any rate, Durham University is one of the UK’s forefront research centres, and it is its Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology that has brought me here (more on this in a later post).
Regarding Durham, Bill Bryson waxed poetic, writing in Notes from a Small Island:
Why, it’s a perfect little city. If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It’s wonderful.
He was later made the Chancellor of the university.
By my Californian sense of scale, Durham is a small town: it’s population is around 25,000 and any place within the city would be easily accessible by foot were it not for its San Francisco-esque hills. The closest Tesco and Sainsburys are a bus ride away, though there is a Waitrose and Marks & Spencer not too far from city centre. In fact, I seriously suspect that the mega-sized Tesco is larger than the whole of Durham’s city centre.
Tesco, by the way, is the reason why Walmart’s `Asda’ superstores have yet to take over the UK. The battle is something like Godzilla vs. Mothra; one supports the local beast, but then wonders what to do when it finally triumphs and can now stomp over Tokyo all by itself.
But alas, I digress. Few things in Durham can be said to exist on a Godzilla-esque scale. For the most part it retains all of the charm of a small town, where people recognise one another on the street and stop to chat a bit. (If you’ve never experienced this, it’s fantastically refreshing.) This weekend there was a “brass band” celebration as part of the city’s International Festival, which I found very enjoyable. Despite being a tourist attraction, it’s reasonably buffered from the outside world, leading to a scholarly seclusion that is rather reminiscent of Cornell. I’m told by my adviser that a walk along the river will do marvels for clearing one’s thoughts.
Unlike Cambridge, Durham is just a fifteen minute (and £3.60) train ride from Newcastle, a major metropolitan area and the end point of Hadrian’s Wall. I’m assured that anything I can’t find in Durham — a nonzero set, for sure — can be found in Newcastle. From Newcastle, one can take another short train to Seaham, brochures for which have promised me luxurious beaches. (If it ever stops raining I’d love to see this for myself.)
Like Cambridge, however, Durham is an English amalgamation of old and new. While the cathedral towers over the entire city, many areas have been renovated in the past few years (some as recently as the past months). This includes the founding of the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology (IPPP) and the Institute for Computational Cosmology, as well as commercial areas. My own college was just completed last year and I suspect I’m among the first international postgraduate students to take part in its budding traditions (a deliberate change from Trinity College).
Anyway, that’s Durham in a nutshell. I’ll post an advertisement soon about the IPPP with the implicit hope of bringing it to the attention of other American physics students.
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