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A day at Doncaster - and an hour out of Durham

Updated Friday 27th May 2016

The lure of the races proves overwhelming - as does the splendour of Durham.

The Doncaster Races lured us from our hotel at York, on the first day, as I had dimly foreboded they would. In fact, if there had been no lure, I might have gone in search of temptation, for in a world where sins are apt to be ugly, a horse-race is so beautiful that if one loves beauty he can practise an aesthetic virtue by sinning in that sort. So I made myself a pretence of profit as well as pleasure, and in going to Doncaster I feigned the wish chiefly to compare its high event with that of Saratoga. I had no association with the place save horse-racing, and having missed Ascot and Derby Day, I took my final chance in pursuit of knowledge—I said to myself, "Not mere amusement"—and set out for Doncaster unburdened by the lightest fact concerning the place.

Doncaster races Creative commons image Icon Mathew F under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 license Doncaster races

I

I learned nothing of it when there, but I have since learned, from divers trustworthy sources, that Doncaster is the Danum of Antoninus and the Dona Ceaster of the Saxons, and that it is not only on the line of the Northeastern Railway, but also on that famous Watling Street which from the earliest Saxon time has crossed the British continent from sea to sea, and seems to impress most of the cities north and south into a conformity with its line, like a map of the straightest American railway routes.

Unless my ignorance has been abused, nothing remarkable has happened at Doncaster in two thousand years, but this is itself a distinction in that eventful England where so many things have happened elsewhere. It is the market town of a rich farming region, and has notable manufactures of iron and brass, of sacking and linen, of spun flax and of agricultural machines and implements. Otherwise, it is important only for its races, which began there three hundred years ago, and especially for its St. Leger Day, of which Lieutenant-General St. Leger became the patron saint in 1778, though he really established his Day two years earlier.

Doncaster is a mighty pleasant, friendly, rather modern, and commonplacely American-looking town, with two-story trams gently ambling up and down its chief avenues, in the leisurely English fashion, and all of more or less arrival and departure at the race-grounds. In our company the reader will have our appetites for lunch, and if he will take his chance with us in the first simple place away from the station, he will help us satisfy them very wholesomely and agreeably at boards which seem festively set up for the occasion, and spread with hot roast-beef and the plain vegetables which accompany the national dish in its native land; or he can have the beef cold, or have cold lamb or chicken cold. His fellow-lunchers will be, as he may like well enough to fancy, of somewhat lower degree than himself, but they will all seem very respectable, and when they come out together, they will all be equalized in the sudden excitement which has possessed itself of the street, and lined the curbstones up and down with spectators, their bodies bent forward, and their faces turned in the direction of the station.

II

The excitement is caused by the coming of the King; and I wish that I could present that event in just its sincere unimpressiveness. I have assisted at several such events on the Continent, where, especially in Germany, they are heralded as they are in the theatre, with a blare of trumpets, and a sensation in the populace and the attendant military little short of an ague fit. There, as soon as the majesties mount into their carriages from the station, they drive off as swiftly as their horses can trot, and their subjects, who have been waiting for hours to see them, make what they can of a meagre half-minute's glimpse of them. But how different was the behavior of that easy-going Majesty of England! As soon as I heard that he was coming, I perceived how anxious I had been in the half-year of my English sojourn to see him, and how bitterly I should have been disappointed to leave his realms without it. All kings are bad, I knew that well enough; but I also knew that some kings are not so bad as others, and I had been willing to accept at their face the golden opinions of this King, which, almost without exception, his lieges seemed to hold. Of course it is not hard to think well of a king if you are under him, just as it is not hard to think ill of him if you are not under him; but there is no use being bigotedly republican when there is nothing to be got by it, and I own the fact that his subjects like him willingly. Probably no man in his kingdom understands better than Edward VII. that he is largely a form, and that the more a form he is the more conformable he is to the English ideal of a monarch. But no Englishman apparently knows better than he when to leave off being a form and become a man, and he has endeared himself to his people from time to time by such inspirations. He is reputed on all hands to be a man of great good sense; if he is ever fooled it is not by himself, but by the system which he is no more a part of than the least of his subjects. If he will let a weary old man or a delicate woman stand indefinitely before him, he is no more to blame for that than for speaking English with a trace of German in his th sounds; he did not invent his origins or his traditions. Personally, having had it out with life, he is as amiable and as unceremonious as a king may be. He shares, as far as he can, the great and little interests of his people. He has not, so far as noted, the gifts of some of his sisters, but he has much of his mother's steadfast wisdom, and his father's instinct for the right side in considerable questions; and he has his father's prescience of the psychological moment for not bothering. Of course, he is a fetish; no Englishman can deny that the kingship is an idolatry; but he is a fetish with an uncommon share of the common man's divinity. The system which provides him for the people provides them the best administration in the world, always naturally in the hands of their superiors, social and political; but we could be several times rottener than we administratively are, and still be incalculably reasonabler, as republicans, than those well-governed monarchists.

Some of us are apt to forget the immense advantage which we have of the monarchical peoples in having cast away the very name of King, for with the name goes the nature of royalty and all that is under and around it. But because we are largely a fond and silly folk, with a false conceit of ourselves and others, we like to make up romances about the favor in which thrones, municipalities, and powers hold us. Once it was the Tsar of Russia who held us dear, and would do almost anything for Americans; now it is the King of England who is supposed rather to prefer us to his own people, and to delight to honor us. We attribute to him a feeling which a little thought would teach, us was wholly our own, and which would be out of nature if not out of reason with him. He is a man of sense, and not of sentiment, and except as a wise politician he could have no affection for a nation whose existence denies him. He is very civil to Americans; it is part of a constitutional king's business to be civil to every one; but he is probably not sentimental about us; and we need not be sentimental about him.

He looked like a man of sense, and not like a man of sentiment, that day as he drove through the Doncaster street on his way to the sport he loves beyond any other sport. He sat with three other gentlemen on the sidewise seats of the trap, preceded by outriders, which formed the simple turnout of the greatest prince in the world. He was at the end on the right, and he showed fully as stout as he was, in the gray suit he wore, while he lifted his gray top-hat now and then, bowing casually, almost absently, to the spectators fringing, not too deeply, the sidewalks. He was very, very stout, even after many seasons of Marienbad, and after the sufferings he had lately undergone, and he was quite like the pictures and effigies of him, down to those on the postage-stamps. He has a handsome face, still bearded in the midst of a mostly clean-shaving nation, and with the white hairs prevalent on the cheeks and temples; his head is bald atop, though hardly from the uneasiness of wearing a crown.

It was difficult to realize him for what he was, and in the unmilitary keeping of a few policemen, he was not of the high histrionic presence that those German majesties were. The good-natured crowd did not strain itself in cheering, though it seemed to cheer cordially; and it did not stay long after the trap tooled comfortably away. I then addressed myself to a little knot of railway servants who lingered talking, and asked them what some carriages were still waiting for at the door of the station, and one of them answered with a lightness you do not expect in England, "Oh, Lord This, and Lady That, and the Hon. Mr. I-don't-know-what's-his-name." The others laughed at this ribald satire of the upper classes, and I thought it safer to follow the King to the races lest I should hear worse things of them.

III

The races were some miles away, and when we got to the tracks we did not find their keeping very different from that of the Saratoga tracks, although the crowd was both smarter and shabbier, and it had got to the place through a town of tents and sheds, and a population of hucksters and peddlers, giving an effect of permanency to the festivity such as a solemnity of ours seldom has. When we bought our tickets we found, in the familiarity with the event expected of us, that there was no one to show us to our places; but by dint of asking we got to the Grand Stand, and mounted to our seats, which, when we stood up from them, commanded a wholly satisfactory prospect of the whole field.

I do not know the dimensions of the Doncaster track, or how far they exceed those of the Saratoga track. Possibly one does not do its extent justice because there is no track at Doncaster: there is nothing but a green turf, with a certain course railed off on it. I hope the reader will be as much surprised as I was to realize that the sport of horse-racing in England gets its name of Turf from the fact that the races are run on the grass, and not on the bare ground, as with us. We call the sport the Turf, too, but that is because in this, as in so many other things, we lack incentive and invention, and are fondly colonial and imitative; we ought to call it the Dirt, for that is what it is with us. As a spectacle, the racing lacks the definition in England which our course gives, and when it began, I missed the relief into which our track throws the bird-like sweep of the horses as they skim the naked earth in the distance.

I missed also the superfluity of jockeying which delays and enhances the thrill of the start with us, and I thought the English were not so scrupulous about an even start as we are. But, above all, I missed the shining faces and the gleaming eyes of the black jockeys, who lend so much gayety to our scene, where they seem born to it, if not of it. The crowd thickened in English bloom and bulk, which is always fine to see, and bubbled over with the babble of multitudinous voices, crossed with the shouts of the book-makers. Having failed to enter any bets with the book-makers of The Pavement in York, I did not care to make them here. With all my passion for racing, I never know or care which horse wins; but I tried to enter into the joy of a diffident young fellow near me at the Grand Stand rail, who was so proud of having guessed as winner the horse next to the winner at the first race; it was coming pretty close. By the end of the third or how far they exceed those of the Saratoga track. Possibly one does not do its extent justice because there is no track at Doncaster: there is nothing but a green turf, with a certain course railed off on it. I hope the reader will be as much surprised as I was to realize that the sport of horse-racing in England gets its name of Turf from the fact that the races are run on the grass, and not on the bare ground, as with us. We call the sport the Turf, too, but that is because in this, as in so many other things, we lack incentive and invention, and are fondly colonial and imitative; we ought to call it the Dirt, for that is what it is with us. As a spectacle, the racing lacks the definition in England which our course gives, and when it began, I missed the relief into which our track throws the bird-like sweep of the horses as they skim the naked earth in the distance.

I missed also the superfluity of jockeying which delays and enhances the thrill of the start with us, and I thought the English were not so scrupulous about an even start as we are. But, above all, I missed the shining faces and the gleaming eyes of the black jockeys, who lend so much gayety to our scene, where they seem born to it, if not of it. The crowd thickened in English bloom and bulk, which is always fine to see, and bubbled over with the babble of multitudinous voices, crossed with the shouts of the book-makers. Having failed to enter any bets with the book-makers of The Pavement in York, I did not care to make them here. With all my passion for racing, I never know or care which horse wins; but I tried to enter into the joy of a diffident young fellow near me at the Grand Stand rail, who was so proud of having guessed as winner the horse next to the winner at the first race; it was coming pretty close. By the end of the third race he had softened into something like confidence toward me; certainly into conversability; such was the effect of my being a dead-game sport, or looking it. But how account for the trustfulness of the young woman on my other hand who wore her gold watch outside her dress, and who turned to the elderly stranger for sympathy in a certain supreme moment? This was when the crowd below crumpled suddenly together like the crushing of paper and the sense of something tragically mysterious in the distance clarified itself as the death of one of the horses. It had dropped from heart-break in its tracks, as if shot, and presently a string of young men and boys came dragging to some spoliarium the long, slender body of the pretty creature over the turf which its hoofs had beaten a moment before. Then it was that the girl, with the watch on her breast, turned and asked, "Isn't it sad?"

IV

She was probably not the daughter of a hundred earls, but there must have been some such far-descended fair among the ladies who showed themselves from time to time in the royal paddock across a little space from our Grand Stand. The enclosure has no doubt a more technical name, which I would call it by if I knew it, for I do not wish to be irreverent; but paddock is very sporty, and it must serve my occasion. The King never showed himself there at all, though much craned round for and eagerly expected. But ladies and gentlemen moved about in the close, and stood and talked together; very tall people, very easily straight and well set up, very handsome, and very amiable-looking; they may have been really kind and good, or they may have looked so to please the King and keep his spirits up. I did not then, but I do now, realize that these were courtiers, such as one has always read of, and were of very historical quality in their attendance on the monarch. I trust it will not take from the dignity of the fact if I note that several of the courtiers wore derby hats, and one was in a sack coat and a topper. I am not sure what the fairer reader will think if I tell that one of the ladies had on a dress with a white body and crimson skirt and sleeves, and a vast black picture-hat, and wore it with a charming air of authority.

The weather, in the excitement of the races, had not known whether it was raining or not, but we feared its absent-mindedness, and at the end of the third race we went away. It is not well to trust an English day too far; this had begun with brilliant sunshine, but it dimmed as it wore on, and we could not know that it was keeping for us the surprise of a very refined sunset. My memory does not serve as to just how we had got out to the race-ground; I think, from our being set down at the very gate, that it was by hansom or by fly; but now we promised ourselves to walk back to town. We did not actually do so; we went back most of the way by tram; but we were the firmer about walking at the outset, because we presently found ourselves in a lane of gypsy tents, where there was an alluring sight and smell of frying fish and potatoes. In the midst of the refection, you could have your fortune told, very favorably, for a very little money. All up and down this happy avenue there went girls of several dozen sizes and ages, crying a particular kind of taffy, proper to the day and place, and never to be had on any other day in any other place.

We had an hour before train-time, and we thought we would go and see the Parish Church of Doncaster, which we had read was worth seeing. Our belief was confirmed by a group of disappointed ladies in the churchyard, who said it was a most beautiful church inside, but that they had not seen it because it was shut. We proved the fact by trying the door, and then we came away consoling ourselves with the scoff that it was probably closed for the races. At the bookseller's, where we stopped to buy some photographs of the interior of the church we had not seen, we lamented our disappointment, and the salesman said, "Perhaps it was closed for the races." So our joke seemed to turn earnest, and on reflection it did not surprise us in that England of close-knit unities where people and prince are of one texture in their pleasures and devotions, and the Church is hardly more national than the Turf.

V

At Durham, which was my next excursion from York, I cannot claim, therefore, that my mission was more serious because it almost solely concerned the Church, or that it was more frivolous at Doncaster, where it almost solely concerned the Turf. My train started in a fine mist that turned to sun, but not before it had shown me with the local color, which a gray light lends everything, a pack of hounds crossing a field near the track with two huntsmen at their heels. They were not chasing, but running leisurely, and with their flower-like, loose spread over the green, and the pink-coated hunters on their brown mounts, they afforded a picture as vivid and of as perfect semblance to all my visions of fox-hunting as I could have asked. I had been hoping that I might see something of the famous sport, almost as English as the Church or the Turf, and there, suddenly and all unexpectedly, the sight fully and satisfyingly was. Now, indeed, I felt that my impression of English society was complete, and that I might go home and write novels of English high life, and do something to redeem myself a little from the disgrace I had fallen into with my fellow-plebeians by always writing of common Americans, like themselves, and never grandes dames or ideal persons, or people in the best society.

But I did not want to go home at once, or turn back from going to Durham through that pleasant landscape, where the mist hung between the trees which seemed themselves only heavier bulks of mist. The wheat in some of the fields was still uncut, and in others, where it had been gathered into sheaves, the rooks by hundreds were noisily gleaning in the track of the reapers. From this conventionally English keeping, I passed suddenly to the sight of the gaunt, dry, gravelly bed of a wide river, such as I had known in Central Italy, or the Middle West at home; and I realized once again that England is no island of one simple complexion, but is a condensed continent, with all continental varieties of feature in it. You must cover thousands and thousands of miles in our tedious lengths and breadths for the beauties and sublimities of scenery which you shall gather from fewer hundreds in England; I have no doubt they have even volcanoes there, but I did not see any, probably because the English are so reticent, and hate to make a display of any sort.

VI

It is because they are so, or possibly because of my ignorance, that I did not know or at all imagine how magnificent the Cathedral of Durham is, or what a matchless seat it has on the bluffs of the river, with depths of woods below its front, tossing in the rich chill of the September wind. As it takes flight for the heavens, to which its business is to invite the thought, it seems to carry the earth with it, for if you climb those noble heights, you find your feet still on the ground, in a most stately space of open level between the cathedral and its neighbor castle, which alone could be worthy of its high company.

The castle is Tudor, but the cathedral is beyond all other English cathedrals, I believe, Norman, though to the naked eye it looks so Gothic, and probably is. Here I will leave the reader with any pictures or memories of it which he happens to have, for I have always held it a sin to try describing architecture, or if not a sin, a bore. What chiefly remains to me of my impression of Durham Cathedral is, strangely enough, an objection: I did not like those decorated pillars, alternating with the clustered columns of the interior, and I do not suppose I ever shall: the spiral furrows, the zigzag and lozenge figures chiselled in their surfaces, weakened them to the eye and seemed to trifle with their proud bulk.

But to the castle of Durham I have no objection whatever. I should like to live in it, as I should in all other Tudor houses, great or small, that I saw, where, as I am constantly saying, a high ideal of comfort is realized. It is almost as nobly placed as the cathedral, and it is approached by a very stately courtyard, of like spacious effect with the cathedral piazza. Inside it there is a kitchen of the sixteenth century, with a company of neat serving-maids, too comely and young to be, perhaps, of the same period, that gives the tourist a high sense of the luxury in which the Bishop of Durham and the Judges of the Assize Courts live when they are residents in the castle. One sees their apartments, dim and rich, and darkly furnished, but not gloomily, both where they sleep and where they eat, and flatteringly envies them in a willingness for the moment to be a judge or a bishop for the sake of such a fit setting. There is also a fine crypt, with a fine dining-hall and a black staircase of ancient oak, and a gallery with classic busts, and other pictures worthy of wonder, let alone a history from the time of William the Conqueror, who first fancied a castle where it stands, down to the present day. The memory of such successive guests as the Empress Matilda and Henry II. her son, King John, Henry III., Edwards I., II., and III., Queen Philippa, Henry VI., and James I., and Charles I., and Edward VII., abides in the guidebook, and may be summoned from its page to the chambers of the beautiful old place by any traveller intending impressions for literary use from a medieval environment in perfect repair.

VII

One must be hard to satisfy if one is not satisfied with Durham Castle, and its interior contented me as fully as the exterior of the Cathedral. I went a walk, after leaving the castle, for a further feast of the Cathedral from the paths along the shelving banks of the beautiful Weare. There, at a certain point, I met a studious-looking gentleman who I am sure must have been a professor of Durham University hard by; and I asked him, with due entreaty for pardon, "What river was that." He quelled the surprise he must have felt at my ignorance and answered gently, "The Weare." "Ah, to be sure! The Weare," I said, and thanked him, and longed for more talk with him, but felt myself so unworthy that I had not the face to prompt him further. He passed, and then I met a man much more of my own kind, if not probably so little informed. That rich, chill gale was still tossing and buffeting the tree tops, and he made occasion of this to say, "This is a cold wynd a-blowin', Mister." "It is, rather," I assented. "I was think-in'," he observed from an apparent generalization, "that I wished I was at home." Then he suddenly added, "Help a poor man!" I was not wholly surprised at the climax, and I offered him, provisionally, a penny. "Will that do?" He hesitated perceptibly; then he allowed, with a subtle reluctance, "Yes, that'll do," and so passed on to satisfy, I hope, the wish he thought he had.

I pursued my own course, as far as the bridge which spans the Weare near a most picturesque mill, and then I stopped a kindly-looking workman and asked him whether he thought I could find a fly or cab anywhere near that would take me into the town. He answered, briefly but consistently with his looks, "Ah doot," and as he owned that it was a long way to town, I let his doubt decide me to go back to the station.

I felt that I ought to have driven from there into the town, and seen it, and taken to York a later train than the one I had in mind. In the depravity induced by my neglect of this plain duty, I went, with my third class return ticket conscious in my pocket, into the first class refreshment room, and had tea there, as if I had been gentry at the very least, and possibly nobility. Then, having a good deal of time still on my hands, I loitered over the book-stall of the station, and stole a passage of conversation with a kindly clergyman whom I found looking at the pretty shilling editions filling the cases. I said, How nice it was to have Hazlitt in that green cloth; and he said, Yes, but he held for Gibbon in leather; and just then his train came in and he ran off to it, and left me to my guilt in not having gone to see Durham. It was now twilight, and too late; but there the charming old town still is, and will long remain, I hope, with its many memories of war and peace, for whoever will visit it. Certainly there had been no lack of adventures in my ample hour. It was as charming to weave my conjectures, about the two gentlemen with whom I had so barely spoken, as to have carried my acquaintance with them further, and I cannot see how it would have profited me to know more even of that fellow-man who, in the cold wynd a-blowing, had just been thinking he wished he was at home.

 

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