Durham City in 50 Buildings by Derek Dodds (Amberley, £14.99)

THERE is so much more to Durham than its headline-grabbing cathedral, castle and churches, and although this book does tell their stories, it also looks at some of the enigmatic yet anonymous buildings that catch the eye as you walk around.

For example, in North Bailey it tells of the Assembly Rooms, “an unusual building which is a genuine hidden gem”. It was built before 1750 as a venue for fashionable balls and there are examples of fine panelling and an ornate ceiling that survive from those dancing days.

The Northern Echo: The front of the Assembly Rooms, Durham, shows centuries of changesThe front of the Assembly Rooms, Durham, shows centuries of changes

The Northern Echo: The curved front of St Chad’s College – does it look like a bishop’s mitre?The curved front of St Chad’s College – does it look like a bishop’s mitre?

The Northern Echo: The baroque facade of Haughton House in the South Bailey, DurhamThe baroque facade of Haughton House in the South Bailey, Durham

The Northern Echo: The render on the front of Bowes House in Durham hides the building’s many changes over the centuriesThe render on the front of Bowes House in Durham hides the building’s many changes over the centuries

The Northern Echo: A drawing from Durham City in 50 Buildings by Derek Dodd of how the Assembly Rooms looked after the 1890 restylingA drawing from Durham City in 50 Buildings by Derek Dodd of how the Assembly Rooms looked after the 1890 restyling

But in 1890, Thomas Rushworth of Saddler Street demolished the “dancing rooms” and created the assembly rooms in which operas, plays and, very soon, films could be enjoyed. He gave it a grand new entrance with feature brickwork above, and in 1909, it became the city’s first cinema.

In 1930, it was taken over by the university, and a post-war modernist front, with metal windowframes was put in, leaving the 1890 brickwork standing out above.

It is now, says the author, undergoing a £2m restoration to become the university theatre.

Moving south, we pass the gently curving brickwork of St Chad’s College, built opposite the cathedral in 1961, supposedly to look like a bishop’s mitre, and we come to Haughton House in South Bailey.

A terribly imposing building, it was built in the 1720s for the Eden family of West Auckland. Its front is finished with massive sandstone blocks with large gaps inbetween to make it look even more heavy. The grandeur was continued inside, where one of “the city’s best historic staircases” remains.

Then we come to Bowes House, a hotch-potch of history covered by a thick coat of peachy lime render. It has almost organically grown out of the bailey – the defensive gap inside the city walls – over the centuries, with the Bowes family of north Durham coalowners owning at last part of it since the 15th Century.

At the end of the 17th Century, Cuthbert Bowes added another impressive staircase, dog-legged with barley sugar balusters, before his successor, the Earl of Strathmore added “what is said to be the bailey’s finest room”.

The author says: “Now called the Tristram Room, after Victorian botanist Henry Baker Tristram, it has a gilded rococo ceiling and ornate woodwork with a ‘bolection’, or projecting frieze, above the door.”

We can go and inspect many of the buildings in Durham’s top 50, and it is fascinating to know what gems lie behind the facades of the more private ones.

A-Z of Gateshead by Sandra Brack, Margaret Hall and Anthea Lang (Amberley £14.99)

The Northern Echo:

A FASCINATING compendium of the people and places that make up the history of Gateshead, written by three leading lights of the local local history society.

Under W, we find more information about Bishop William Walcher, who featured here a couple of weeks ago as one of the earliest bishops of Durham. The people of Gateshead assumed that his men had killed one of their popular leaders, Lyulph, and enticed Walcher – a Frenchman – north to try to pacify them.

The Northern Echo: Ravensworth Castle from The A-Z of GatesheadRavensworth Castle from The A-Z of Gateshead

But such was his hostile reception that he was forced to seek sanctuary in St Mary’s Church, which the locals then set ablaze.

On May 14, 1080, they captured the bishop and shouting “short rede, good rede, slay ye the bishop” (redan Anglo-Saxon word meaning plan or solution), they hacked him to death.

Under R, we were taken by the story of Ravensworth Castle, which could be the oldest fortified house in the county as it dates back to at least 1080. Over the centuries, it was owned by the Lumleys, the Gascoignes and, from 1607, the Liddells.

In 1724, they built a house inside the castle walls, and gradually demolished much of the castle itself.

The Northern Echo: Lewis Carroll’s photo of Alice Liddell as a beggar child was taken at Ravensworth CastleLewis Carroll’s photo of Alice Liddell as a beggar child was taken at Ravensworth Castle

They were a powerful family, and had many visitors: the Duke of Wellington and Sir Walter Scott, and Lewis Carroll photographed Alice Liddell there – the inspiration for his Alice in Wonderland – when she was holidaying from Oxford with her relations.

But the Liddells allowed their great castle to be fatally undermined by coalmining. They moved out after the First World War as the first cracks began to appear. By the 1930s, they were dismantling it and reusing the stone elsewhere.

Now only a couple of towers and a stable block remain which nature is doing her best to reclaim. “Since November 1, 1985, the remains of Ravensworth castle have been Grade II* listed,” say the authors, “and the building is on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk register.”

Other new Amberley titles that may be of interest: Wallsend at Work, by Ken Hutchinson, looking at the industries and firms of the Tyneside town; The Archaeology of Roman York, by Adam Parker, the assistant curator of archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum; and Secret Ripon by David Winpenny.

Through the Blue Doors by Harry Bunting (Rossendale Books, £5.50)

The Northern Echo:

IN March, St George’s Church in Northgate, Darlington, celebrated its 150th anniversary, and from those commemorations sprang this book, written by Harry Bunting who has been connected with the church for 50 of those years.

St George’s is the church with the slender, 120ft spire near the town centre, although its huge, forbidding Victorian doors have today been replaced by bright blue, glazed doors which are far more welcoming and give the book its title.

As Memories told in March, St George’s was initially a Presbyterian church, with its congregation drawn from Scottish immigrants. That Scottish strand has proved important throughout its life, as in 1951, its congregation was bolstered when wool makers Patons & Baldwins relocated its staff to Darlington from Alloa, and again in 1964, when Cummins brought its engine-makers from Shotts in Lanarkshire.

In 1976, the Presbyterians amalgamated with the Congregationalists, who met in the chapel in Union Street behind Boots, and St George’s became a United Reformed Church.

As well as doing all the history bit, with dates and anecdotes, Harry tells the story of the church through the eyes of the congregation.

For instance, Margaret Brabbs remembers as seven-year-old being in the church at about 11.15am on Sunday, September 3, 1939.

“One day at morning worship, the beadle (an usher) walked up to the minister, the Reverend Norman Robinson, and spoke to him for a few minutes,” she recalls. “Then Mr Robinson said: ‘It is with great sorrow that I have to announce that Great Britain is at war with Germany.’

“I didn’t know what war was, but I realised that it was very important, and I have never forgotten that day.”

For more details about the book, email harrybee56@outlook.com

The Times Golden Years of Rail Travel by Julian Holland (HarperCollins, £30)

The Northern Echo:

A LOVELY coffee table book packed colourfully with photographs, posters and ephemera from the heyday of passenger rail travel. It concentrates on the pre-war period, including The Silver Jubilee streamlined service introduced in September 1935, taking just four hours to do Newcastle to London.

But there is also plenty on the post-war trains as steam was replaced by diesel. There’s definitely a note of sadness as the author notes that the Tees-Tyne Pullman introduced in 1949 took five hours to travel the same route.

There are excursions down little know routes, such as the Tees-Thames special which ran from November 2, 1959. It left Saltburn at 7.05am, stopped at all the Teesside stations on its way to York from where it ran non-stop to Welwyn Garden City. It arrived at King’s Cross at 12.28, and the return departed at 2pm, arriving back behind the Zetland Hotel at 7.34pm.

It only lasted as a route until September 1961.

The book also tells of the curious phenomenon of Motorail. As recently as 1995, holidaymakers would drive their cars to as station where they would be loaded onto transporter wagons and towed behind the train which was carrying their drivers to the coast.

This curious idea was introduced in 1960 as an overnight service from London to Scotland, but you in the Motorail heyday, you could also go from Newcastle to Exeter or Dover, or York to Inverness. It would be wonderful to hear from anyone who has any memories of a Motorail holiday.

Rail enthusiasts may also like:

Directory of British Railways. New and Reopened Stations (1948-2018) by Paul Smith and Sally Salmon (Pen & Sword, £25)

In January 1978, there were 2,358 stations but by January 1, 2018, there were 2,560 in Britain – this book gives the locations, dates and statistics for each of those new ones. For instance, Teesside Airport opened on October 4, 1971, but whereas all the stations around it have stratospheric user numbers – directly before it, Tame Bridge in the West Midlands had 588,856 users in 2016-17 and directly after it, Telford Central in Shropshire had 1,207,406 users – just 30 people used it in 2016-17.

Britain’s Last Mechanical Signalling, Salute to the Semaphore by Gareth David (Pen & Sword, £30). Network Rail is eliminating its last mechanical signalling, which has been on the way out since the 1920s. This book tells its story, with loads of colour pictures, before it goes.