5 months in Brussels in 5 Moments

Hi, I’m Ruth, a finalist in French and German. I spent five months of my year abroad in Brussels and it has easily become one of my favourite cities. The Belgian capital has a really special atmosphere because it’s so vibrant and multicultural and it was an absolute joy to get to know it a little over my time there. Here are five of my favourite spots in Brussels!

#5 Molenbeek Street Art


The Molenbeek quarter of Brussels isn’t somewhere you’d necessarily visit on the tourist trail but it’s well worth a visit if you love modern art. The canal especially is a hotspot for street art as I discovered when I was exploring the city with friends. The walls of the canal and many of the buildings are covered in amazing graffiti and paintings, which gleamed in the summer sun!


#4 Parking 58

At a first glance, Parking 58 is just an unassuming car park in the centre of Brussels. However, the highest storey of the car park is open air and basically acts as a giant viewing platform right in the middle of Brussels’ beautiful skyline. From the top of the car park, you can see the Town Hall in the Grand Place and the Cathedral on one side, and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the other. The ideal time to visit is at sunset, but the Brussels skyline is really special at night-time too. If you look closely, you can even see St. Michael standing on the spire of the town hall!


#3 Parc du Cinquantenaire

The Parc du Cinquantenaire or the Jubelpark is in the east of Brussel’s European Quarter. The park is the ideal place to hang out with friends on a warm summer’s day. As well as a relaxing atmosphere in the middle of the big city, there is also a stunning backdrop – the Arcade du Cinquantenaire. The triumphal triple arch was completed in 1905 and, together with the park, commemorates Belgian independence.

#2 MIM Restaurant

The Mont des Arts has made it onto our top 5 because the view over Grand Place and the rest of the city is absolutely stunning! The hill is the traditional art hub of the city as it’s home to the Musée des Beaux Arts where I spent quite a lot of my time. The Musical Instrument Museum is also located here in a former department store called Old England. I never plucked up the courage to wander around this 9-storey museum but I did make my way to the 10th floor. Instead I preferred to sit and take in the gorgeous views of Brussels from the terrace over a coffee or lunch in the fantastic restaurant (which does an amazing all-you-can-eat brunch with bubbly on Sundays).


#1 La Grand Place (after dark)

La Grand Place de Bruxelles (or Grote Markt) is absolutely stunning and it only gets better after dark! The square in the centre of the oldest part of the capital is definitely my favourite spot in the city. It’s also arguably the most beautiful square in the world (although I’ve yet to meet someone who can argue against this convincingly!).


In May each year the square is lit up for Pride. The rainbow colours adorn the town hall and all the former guild halls and it looks absolutely gorgeous. It’s an amazing display of solidarity and love for all in the most beautiful square in the world!


This article has been adapted from my own blog anitemabroad.com. All my year abroad adventures and travels since are documented on an.item.abroad, if you’d like to see more!

4/6/18 – A Day of Numbers

By Martin Gibson

95 miles, 5 bikes, 4 intrepid students, 4 missed turnings, 3 level crossings, 5 castles, 2 abbeys, 1 causeway crossing, 1 slightly decrepit member of staff  and 1 puncture.

During a staff news time meeting, the College Principal, Revd Professor David Wilkinson mentioned that we still needed to raise some money for the new St John’s College Learning Resource Centre (LRC). Having done a sponsored bike ride for the LRC 3 years previously, I thought it might be a good time to do another one. I mentioned this to David and he suggested a ride from Lindisfarne (Holy Island) back to Durham and see if any students would be interested.

Asking for volunteers, 4 students agreed: James Caple, Andrew Hess, Joash Lawrence and Sebastian Nickols.

We chose the date of 4 June as the Cranmer Hall students were going on an end of year retreat to Lindisfarne that day and we could “hitch” a lift, with students on the bus, and the bikes and me being transported in the college van. We all cycled into college for about 8.15 in the morning to load the bikes onto the van and catch the bus to Lindisfarne.

Before setting off for Lindisfarne, I reminded the students that I am a similar age to their parents and as I (sort of) know the way back to Durham, would they mind not leaving me behind…..

We set off from Lindisfarne at about 10.45, in cold and dry conditions but with a favourable wind and lots of encouragement from the Cranmer Hall students and staff. We had a damp crossing of the causeway to the mainland as the tide had only just gone out an hour or so earlier and the road was still rather wet. Once onto the mainland we generally followed the Coast and Castles Cycle Route until we reached Warkworth, just under halfway back to Durham. This route stays away from main roads as much as possible meaning we had an almost traffic free ride for most of the way.

Even with the Coast and Castles Cycle Route being well signposted and using a Garmin cycle computer as a “sat nav”, I still managed to take us off course twice in the first 10 miles or so, luckily realising very quickly and helped by my cycle computer beeping at me. Apart from heading about 100 metres down a rather steep hill in Belford which we had to ride back up, no harm was done.

Following the Coast and Castles Route to Bamburgh we enjoyed some spectacular views of the coast and Bamburgh Castle. Bypassing Seahouses and Beadnell, we continued on to Embleton and Longhoughton enjoying more brief glimpses of the coast and Dunstanburgh Castle ruins.

Just before reaching Alnmouth we passed a nursery where the children and teachers all applauded and cheered us as we cycled by.

Eventually we reached Warkworth for a quick cuppa & large pieces of cake for most of us (one of the many advantages of doing long bike rides).

bamburgh castle

After Warkworth we moved away from the coast but still keeping to virtually traffic free roads we headed towards Morpeth. Just before the hamlet of Tritlington, someone shouted “Puncture”. Seb had clipped something in the road and sufferred a rear wheel puncture. After a quick change of innertube and check of the tyre, we were on our way again in less than 10 minutes, arriving at the outskirts of Morpeth a few minutes later.

Avoiding Morpeth town centre, we passed Newminster Abbey and headed south towards Ponteland, again keeping to quiet back roads. Having enjoyed about 60 – 70 miles of virtually traffic free roads, meeting a traffic jam in Ponteland was a bit of a surprise. Luckily, we managed to negotiate our way through and on towards Throckley and Newburn to the west of Newcastle.

Crossing the River Tyne on Newburn Bridge (currently closed to motor traffic but still open to pedestrians and cyclists), we headed on through Blaydon, Dunston and Team Valley before the gentle drag up to Birtley seeing the Angel of the North to our left. From Birtley, through Chester le Street, almost there.

From Chester le Street, we followed the cyclepath alongside the busy A167 for a few hundred metres before turning into the back road to Durham. The penultimate climb of the ride took us passed Finchale Training College, Newton Hall and the Arnison Shopping Centre as we arrived at the outskirts of Durham. Final couple of miles into Durham was rather busy with traffic but we took things carefully.

Descending Framwellgate Peth (with one of the best views of Durham Castle and Cathedral – though with the traffic we didn’t really have the chance to enjoy it), across Milburngate Bridge and up the slip road to the Market Place.

The last half mile to college, including Saddler Street, the final climb of the ride, was a nice finish. As was being welcomed back to college with a round of applause from some of the college staff members having cycled 95 miles in total from Lindisfarne to Durham, raising more than £400 (so far) for the new Learning Resource Centre for College.

Well done to the 4 students for completing the ride, a very impressive achievement as this was the furthest any had ever cycled in one day. Hopefully they even enjoyed the day, the route we took and the scenery as well.

Thanks to all who have very generously sponsored us. If you have read this, and would like to consider sponsoring us, please see the link at the end of the article. Please mention that you are sponsoring the Lindisfarne to Durham cyclists.

This was not the end of our cycling for the day as we all had to ride our bikes back home, and Joash wanted to complete his 100 miles, which he did.

bike ride thank youThanks to all who have very generously sponsored us. If you have read this, and would like to consider sponsoring us, please see the link at the end of the article. Please mention that you are sponsoring the Lindisfarne to Durham cyclists.


Home and Away

By Caragh Aylett

Last year, I was lucky enough to take a year abroad, this year I’ve been lucky enough to be elected as the SJCR year abroad rep.

Many students choose to take a year abroad for a variety of reasons: a chance to develop language skills for their degree or otherwise, to see the world, to make new friends from tonnes of different places or maybe even just to extend their degree by a year!

It can be difficult to leave the lovely community in John’s, especially if you know that many friends will graduate before you return. As a result, I’ve worked hard this year to ensure that students abroad feel a part of the community even while they’re a thousand miles (or more!) away.

At the beginning of the year, I, along with other students who had just returned from a Year Abroad and the welfare team created a Year Abroad Handbook to help students if things don’t go so well during the year. It covered key topics such as homesickness, loneliness and culture shock, as well as more positive things such as sharing people’s favourite parts of their Year Abroad.

In Michaelmas term, I ran an event to allow first and second year John’s students to consider whether they might want to take a year abroad. As always, John’s students were quick to support this idea and those who had already done their year away were ready to answer any questions and encourage other students.

Last term, I hosted a postcard writing event where students in Durham could write a postcard to those on their Year Abroad. It was great to see first year students writing postcards to people that they had never even met, as well as older students using this as a great opportunity to keep in touch with their friends. To me, this event really reflected the welcoming and friendly community of the college and reminded me of why I’m so proud to be a Johnian!

At the end of Epiphany term, Ruth took over as Year Abroad Rep and has been continuing to send out postcards and encouraging emails to those away. Alongside this, she is currently working on updating the handbook as well as planning another information event at the end of this term.

Looking forward, I hope that the SJCR will continue to find new ways to support students on their Year Abroad and ensure that they continue to feel part of the great community that we have in John’s.

Pamplona’s Top 5

By Andrew Dean

When I was told last June that I’d spend the next 8 months of my life living in Pamplona, the first question I asked myself was ‘where on Earth is it?’ The capital of Navarre (in Northern Spain) was made famous by Hemingway’s novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and is now known throughout the world as the location of the annual bull run at the San Fermín Festival. Apart from that, I knew nothing about Pamplona, but there’s so much to see and do!

Not only do tourists flock to the city for the July fiesta, but pilgrims make their way through the town on their journey along the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) to Santiago de Compostela.  After being back in Durham for a year, looking back on my time abroad, here’s my top 5 things to do in Pamplona!

1. Bull Ring

The end point of the Encierro (Bull Race), the bull ring is an excellent place to visit to really understand the local culture and the historic traditions of bull fighting. With an audio guide, you are taken round the arena and the supporting buildings, including the corrals. A highlight is the Bullfighters’ chapel, where you can really imagine what it must feel like for the bullfighters in the minutes before they enter the ring!


The Plaza de Toros

2. Paseo

What is more Spanish than having an evening stroll? And what better place to do it than Pamplona’s old town? We recommend starting in the Plaza del Castillo (the main square and former bull ring). This is where most people meet if they’re heading out for the evening and in the summer it feels like the whole town’s come out to be together!


The Plaza del Castillo

The Casa Consistorial (Town Hall) is also a must on your wander round of the city. It was first built in 1423 by order of King Carlos III in an attempt to unite the people of the three different districts of Pamplona, although its current appearance is much more recent. Its façade is a mix of baroque and neoclassical.


The Town Hall by night

The Murallas or city walls are an excellent way of getting to know more about Pamplona’s history. Starting in the Taconera Park, you can admire the Portal de San Nicolás (one of the city’s former gated entrances) and the menagerie of different animals! From the Taconera, you can walk all around the existing wall, towards the Portal de Francia, the pilgrims’ entrance to the city on the way to Santiago de Compostela. The Baluarte del Redín, which follows, is the oldest Bastion in the walls and has a wonderful old bar, the Caballo Blanco (White Horse), which is open mostly in the summer. From there, you can walk around the back of the Cathedral to the San Bartolomé Fort, which houses a museum about the walls.


The Portal Nuevo

The Ciudadela (or Citadel) is also a lovely place to wander around at any time of day. Usually, there are some temporary exhibitions in the buildings and quite often there is live music. It was used for military purposes until 1964 when it was turned into a park.

3. Museums

The San Bartolomé Fort houses a museum about the city’s fortifications and gives a great insight into Pamplona’s history, particularly during the 18th and 19th Centuries.


The fortifications at the San Bartolomé Fort

The Museum of Navarre is a great place to start to find out more about the region’s history. Free to get into, it contains artwork and artefacts dating from prehistory to the 20th Century. Highlights include a huge Roman mosaic and a portrait by famous Spanish painter, Francisco Goya.

A little further out of town is the Museum of the University of Navarre, which contains lots of artwork, including one of Picasso’s famous Mosqueteros. A short bus journey or a 20 minute walk from the city centres, it’s definitely worth paying a visit to the university’s beautiful campus!


Picasso’s Mosquetero in the Museo de la Universidad de Navarra

4. Cathedral

The Catedral de Santa María la Real is one of the most significant buildings in the city. Although its neoclassical façade was constructed in the 17th Century, its cloister is Gothic and dates from the 13th Century. As well as exploring the church, with its magnificent collection of art and sculptures (including the tombs of King Carlos III and Eleanor of Castille), you can also visit the refectory, kitchen and cloister. At 11 am, there is also a tour of one of the bell towers, where there is an excellent exhibition and stunning views over Pamplona.


The Cathedral’s Baroque Façada

5. Juevintxo

Perhaps the highlight of the week for many locals, Juevintxo is an initiative to encourage people to go out on a Thursday evening to the old town. Many bars offer a special deal of pintxo (a small bite to eat) and a drink (either a glass of wine or beer) for an incredibly cheap price! The best deal is around 2€ but anything up to 3€ is reasonable. The best locations for Juevintxo is the Calle de la Estafeta and the Calle San Nicolás. We recommend trying as many different pintxos as you can but absolute musts include tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette) and txistorra (a spicy sausage). Lots of bars have their own specialities and it’s definitely worth spending some time looking down the bar to see what there is before ordering!


Trying some house specialities!

These are only a few selections of things to do in Pamplona; the city and region offers so much more and it’s definitely worth a visit!

An adventure in Bishop Auckland

Join Alex on an epic adventure involving the crumbling walls of Rome, an Anglo-Saxon church, and an escape from a horse in hot pursuit

By Alexander Hibberts

This article is from my website (hiddenbritain.wordpress.com), please follow the link for interesting articles on local and national history.

The valley of the River Wear around Bishop Auckland in County Durham hides many secrets and, as I and a good friend found out, it often reluctantly shares its treasures.

Our Journey Began

In the early hours of a cold April morning, my friend and I set off from the deserted market place of Bishop Auckland, passing by the open castle gates, and onward back into the seventh century. Descending a steep hill from the town we followed the road for a while before, stepping off tarmac onto earth, our journey really began.

As we struggled up a steep bank, the River Wear glistened behind us in the early morning sun. The trail was narrow, but the difficulties of our journey only made us feel more like early Christian missionaries on a journey to convert the Anglo-Saxon populations of the Kingdom of Northumbria. We were headed for the historic Anglo-Saxon church at Escomb.

Romans at Binchester

But first, let us travel back to the fifth century and two miles further downstream from Escomb when the Roman fort of Vinovia, now known as Binchester, hosted a disintegrating community amongst its crumbling and stone-robbed walls. It was once the largest Roman fort in Northern Britain and housed an auxiliary cavalry unit sourced from central Spain and, for a time, Holland.

By the fourth and fifth centuries, the Roman empire was fast breaking apart ridden by political ills, invasion from Germanic tribes and the inability of the Western emperor (there were two emperors by the fifth century) to hold onto Rome’s hard won territorial conquests.

This led to a rising localism where fort commanders, as at Binchester, became increasingly responsible for retaining order, caring for those under their command and finding food and pay for their troops. As Roman power, and interest, retreated to the centre of its collapsing empire, the city of Rome, so Binchester and its ancient river bend retreated into the shadows of unrecorded history.

An Unfortunate Meeting with a Shire Horse

Fast forward to the seventh century. My good friend and I continued our journey in the late spring sunshine towards the village of Escomb but first we had to overcome a significant obstacle. After trekking through forest and through fields, we were walking through yet another field, when a large shire horse began closely following us.

Unperturbed, we continued, deep in conversation. However, this horse moved closer and to our great concern, began circling us. Then alarmed by the horse, my good friend ran and jumped headfirst over a nearby fence, the horse in hot pursuit.

My friend may have been alright, but the horse had turned around and was glaring at me. I panicked and ran straight into a hedge immediately getting my foot stuck on barbed wire. In a moment that seemed to last for hours, the horse began to move towards me, my friend was hastily untangling my foot and I was pulling my bag over the fence. Finally, my foot was free and, with my bag, we jumped back from the fence as the horse’s head poked through after us.

Relic of the Past

Having found another route to Escomb, we had arrived, albeit covered in a mixture of mud, twigs, and blood. And there, in the centre of the village, somewhat stranded by a ring of modern council housing, stood Escomb parish church.

A high wall separated this relic of the past from the surroundings of modernity whilst stout trees formed a protective guard of honour around the church and its graveyard.

Historians have much debated the significance of the circular churchyard. There are suggestions that Escomb was founded on a Romano-British site which had possessed some association with the divine for centuries. The presence of a now-culverted stream makes this suggestion even more likely, as pagan holy sites are often found at watercourses.

Church at Escomb

Digging Deeper

However, the church building itself is where most of Escomb’s treasures are buried and it is well worth digging deeper. The actual foundation date of Escomb and what purpose the church building had is still largely lost to history, but some sensible conjectures can be made.

The narrow, tall nature of the nave and the treatment of stone like wood suggests the current church is a more permanent replacement of a wooden predecessor constructed by builders who had little expertise in working stone. This may suggest the original foundation date of Escomb may never been known.

Archaelogical Investigation

But at least, due to excavations in 1979, we can date the stone church to c. 670-700 from an architectural fragment interred in a large retaining wall identified under the present churchyard wall and apparently contemporary with the stone church.

Thus, so far, we have two forms of evidence which suggest conflicting reasons why a church was built at Escomb. The pattern of replacing a wooden church, likely to have been predated by a preaching cross at which missionaries converted the local population, with a stone church suggests Escomb was an early missionary church.

What is more probable, is that Escomb was a monastic establishment from the beginning, a small offshoot of a regional monastic centre such as Monkwearmouth, Jarrow, or even Whitby. The fragment, with which we have dated the stone church, was found in a retaining wall of a raised tumulus most likely to have provided an islet for the church in the centre of a marsh.

The isolated position for Escomb which the marsh would have provided meant the church was more suited for the retreat of godly men from the world rather than the active centre of a (no-less godly) community.

Insights from Bede

It was common for monasteries to be founded in wild and isolated locations where monks (and nuns) could live a life to focus on spiritual affairs isolated from the petty affairs of men. Bede (672-735), with whom the church is contemporary, refers to a similar monastery at Lastingham which was ‘amid some steep and remote hills’ amongst ‘robbers’ and ‘dens of wild beasts’, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Bede, like us, has been on a journey of his own. After his death, he was buried in the church at the monastery of Jarrow. However, one night, a monk from Durham successfully stole Bede’s bones. Bede now rests, somewhat jumbled, in a tomb in the Galilee chapel at Durham Cathedral.

Earlier excavations in 1968 whisper of a monastic connection between Jarrow (Bede’s monastery) and Escomb’s west annexe, remains of the annexe roof line providing a shadow of its former presence on the west wall. This was identified along with a north porticus which contained fragments of glass very much like those at Jarrow or even Monkwearmouth whilst architectural fragments found further echoed Jarrow.

Echoes of Rome

Whilst Escomb may have been an isolated dependent monastery before becoming a parish church, the north wall draws us in to explore the identity and ideology that helped to create the church. It is in this wall Binchester and its community have been kept alive for over a thousand years.

The echo of chariots travelling along Dere Street, the nearby Roman road, are seen in a stone which bears the mark of a chariot rut, and Roman faith in unseen deities is powerfully seen in the remains of a Roman altar shaft embedded high in the stone work.

Another stone, bearing the mark of the sixth legion, based at Binchester, reveals that the church of Escomb was built out of the remains of Binchester. Stone craftily carted upstream to serve another purpose after Binchester was abandoned by her makers.

Stolen Archway?

The deep and lasting connection between Escomb and Binchester is further revealed in the chancel arch at Escomb. What may appear inconspicuous at first is, at closer inspection, the archway taken whole from the Roman bathhouse at Binchester!

Why the Anglo-Saxons used a Roman archway will never been known. Some suggest it was a direct attempt to emulate the glories of a lost Rome in the context of the church or, it may have been a handy ready-made arch. As we left Escomb on that April morning, the sun had now fully risen, and was shining brightly across the River Wear to where on a hill Binchester Roman fort watched down upon its holy neighbour, at Escomb and a disgruntled shire horse, in the valley below.

(My thanks to Escomb Parish church for its invaluable website, for the archaeological summaries of excavations from 2013-2015 by Durham University, Stanford University and the Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland. I also credit Pevsner’s magisterial work, revised by Williamson, The Buildings of England: County Durham (Yale, 1985), and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Photo credits to Matteo Lai.)

Uppsala Nations vs Durham Colleges – notes from an exchange visit to Sweden

Jess Rackham (SJCR President)

A student-staff delegation (representing three of the Durham University colleges) recently visited Uppsala University in Sweden in order to explore the curious concept of the Uppsala Nations: centuries’ old student-led institutions, historically representing different regions in Sweden, but otherwise too dissimilar from Durham’s Colleges….or are they? Here is Jess’ reflection.

I travelled to Uppsala intrigued and left feeling both fascinated and frustrated.

I joined the group relatively late, being asked to visit Uppsala in March. This meant that I had very little knowledge of the University before my visit – I merely had a rumour that their Nations (effectively Colleges) were entirely student lead but no clear idea of how this was possible.

After chatting to the Nation Presidents, Bar Officers and other students, it turns out that running a College by students for students, is actually pretty simple. When students are trusted and respected, they can do great things.

Now it has to be noted that the Nations are, in some senses, simplified Colleges. They have no accommodation onsite which removes the need for students to clean or maintain student rooms. Further, only some Colleges offer food (I don’t think any College was fully catered). However, any food which was cooked and served to students was cooked by their peers. Additionally, law in Sweden specifies that any bar which serves alcohol must also serve food and therefore each student bar served burgers, pizza and snacks throughout each night. The occasional formal dinner or white tie ball was also catered by a student team.

In Uppsala, student responsibility extends further than running a College. Within Uppsala, student representatives sit on the highest University committees – Uppsala’s ‘UEC’ equivalent sees the student need being directly vocalised to staff.  Here in Durham, only the SU President is present in these meetings, that’s one person representing 17,000 students (soon to be over 20,000).

It was this aspect which left me feeling both fascinated and frustrated. As a President of a Common Room, I am mandated to represent the student need and work to ensure that all decisions made are in the best interest of those I represent. Yet often the decisions I seek to influence are decided at meetings that no Common Room President is invited to attend. The question I ask is, why is this the case? I appreciate there are numerous logistical reasons as to why 16 Presidents aren’t invited to every University meeting yet it is debatable as to whether these reasons outweigh the benefits of having of having the student voice heard at the highest level.

Student representation at this high level has proven to work, as shown in Uppsala. This isn’t to equate the two Universities, clearly there are differences, however, we are not so different that a Presidential presence at various meetings wouldn’t work. A proposal which, in an ideal work, the University Executive would take under consideration.

Any business works best through collaboration, collaboration between a diverse range of people offering different perspectives. While the University is a business, it is one that should be focused on the wellbeing of the students. Students who are best represented by the Presidents they elect. And yes, I am biased as a President myself but I don’t see any reason as to why student representatives shouldn’t be consulted on those issues which affect the students.

This isn’t to say that the student voice in Durham University isn’t represented at any meeting, nor is it to undermine the work which has already been done to engage with Common Room Presidents, and the wider Presidents’ Committee. Having representation on SDC, SFAAG, and similar is fully appreciated by students and their representations. I simply think that we could go further – engage with students more and at higher levels, to ensure that the best interests of the students are at the forefront of every decision possible.

As I said, when students are trusted with power and responsibility, great things can happen as highlighted by the structures in place in Uppsala University. They are a leading example, one which I hope that Durham can follow.