By Luke Payne
A five minute walk north of the railway viaduct, upon a hill camouflaged by trees from almost all sides, sits a 150 year-old, 30-metre-high tower. Despite being one-and-a-half times the height of The Angel of The North, it is less of a tourist attraction and more of an abandoned relic of the University’s astronomical research heritage.
The observatory obelisk, an impressive sandstone monument, was once lit up at night to inform Durham Observatory researchers of the location of true North. It must have been a spectacular sight. The observatory was established in 1842, and fitted with an eight-foot telescope. The official observer was a full-time position requiring the incumbent to be a permanent resident at the observatory and, until 1866, be an unmarried man. Local philanthropist William Lloyd Wharton built the obelisk in 1850 to provide a northern marker for the university observatory (which is indeed located about 1 mile due south of the obelisk), but also to grant ‘employment for idle men during a bad period of depression’.
After a long period of much research, Durham University Observatory ceased astronomical measurements many years ago. It continues to operate as a weather station and has an unbroken record of measurements older than any other station in the UK bar the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford. The obelisk has long been without any purpose.
You will find no mention of the obelisk on the university’s website or the observatory’s Wikipedia page. The nearest street, Obelisk Lane, however, does taunt passers-by with its presence, despite it being impossible to spot the tower whilst standing in the street. It is only up-close that one appreciates the scale of the structure. The base of the tower is reminiscent of Grey’s Monument in central Newcastle and is adorned with inscriptions giving its exact geographic coordinates and height above sea level. Even the entrance to the hidden internal stairway can be seen, which once would have allowed access to the tower’s upper echelon, although it seems it was bricked up some time ago. Standing at the base, the neck of the Victorian beast stretches wonderfully skyward with only the odd tree branch obscuring the view.
It continues to operate as a weather station and has an unbroken record of measurements older than any other station in the UK bar the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford.
The tower sits on the private land of St Leonard’s Catholic School and so is not open for viewing to the public. Time and neglect have not been kind, and though the general structure appears robust and sound, the tower has been attacked with graffiti and litter. Dense thickets of trees closely surround the site, making access difficult. Cracks have appeared over the inscriptions and a damaged ugly perimeter fence is dressed around the base.
The university’s knowledge of the obelisk appears to have been lost to the ages. When contacted, the current director of the observatory, Professor Tim Burt, said he was aware of the structure but had never visited and did not know much about it. Ustinov College have recently begun making use of the observatory building on a temporary basis. According to their principal, Professor Glenn McGregor, Ustinov is interested in incorporating the history of the observatory into the college experience. The head of St Leonard’s Catholic School, Mr Simon Campbell,
stated that access for the public to the monument ‘would be very difficult with the monument being on the school site’ but it was ‘occasionally arranged for interested visitors to have a look during holiday times’.
Photographs and infographic by Luke Payne