You may already be familiar with Durham even if you’ve never been here. I’ll tell you why. If you watched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, you’ll remember the scene in which Harry teaches Hedwig to fly and the scene in which Ron throws up those disgusting giant slugs in HP and the Chamber of Secrets.
Those were shot in the cathedral’s cloisters. And if you like British series like George Gently, you already know it is set in Durham in the 70s.
We stayed in Durham, in the northeast of England, for two and a half days in early December. It was cold but bearable, no sign of snow yet. A word to the wise, if you have mobility problems, the steep cobbled streets, and even steeper steps down to the river Wear can be an issue. As I said, the streets were snow free but constantly damp, which made the cobblestones rather slippery.
So, why Durham? Because we like to do short getaways and I wanted to see the cathedral. You probably know by now that I’m a nerd and a sucker for all things medieval.
The Benedictine monks built the cathedral in 1093. Some bits were added in subsequent centuries and it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. The cathedral was built in the Romanesque style and is very impressive. It opens every day and entrance is free of charge, although you need to buy a ticket for the Treasure. We did and thought it was well worth it.
Unfortunately for me, photography is not allowed inside the cathedral, only in the cloisters. During the Middle Ages, Durham became a massive pilgrimage center because people came to see the shrines of St. Cuthbert –a 7th-century English saint- and of the Venerable Bede – of Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum fame.
The imposing Durham Castle, former home of the Prince Bishops who ruled the North (Durham was a principality until 1830), is perched on top of a hill. It was built in 1070 and in 1837 became the University of Durham students’ residence. I can only imagine how wonderful living in a castle must be! The castle is not open to the public except for guided visits.
Durham is undeniably a college town. Students come and go at all times. I’ve seen some wearing the black robes I had only seen in British films. Wednesday night is party night, so Thursday morning is probably the quietest time in town.
If you, like me, enjoy walking along winding little streets lined with ancient crooked buildings, then you’ll love Durham. The most interesting streets to see are Saddle Street, Silver Street and Owengate, which leads to the cathedral grounds.
How we got there
We drove from the South West but if you’re in London, you can take the East Coast Railway from King’s Cross.
Where we stayed in Durham
We stayed at the Marriott Royal County Hotel. This hotel has a great location at the foot of the Elvet foot bridge, which took us straight into the old town, the prettiest part of Durham. The hotel’s oldest bits date back to the 17th century but it has all manner of modern conveniences, although floors creaked at every step.
Where we ate
Vennels Café, a tea house set in an ancient building, is one of those places everyone recommends. We got there 30 minutes before closing time but they were already closing. We left and never came back. It looked twee, anyway. We randomly chose a café called Lounge and it ended up being a great find: good coffee and delicious tapas.
A fellow blogger recommended Flat White Kitchen, which turned out to be a fantastic place for breakfast (we chose Marriott points over the breakfast buffet). Every dish was delightful and very fresh, from the eggs Benedict to the house made granola.
We asked the publican at the Shakespeare for dinner recommendations. He directed us to Lebaneat, where we had the most amazing Lebanese feast.
As to pubs, we patronized the Market Tavern, right next to the Marketplace, a charming Victorian pub. The Shakespeare Pub is said to be one of the most haunted pubs in England. The buildings, or parts of it, dates back to 1109. An inn was in place by 1468. I didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary, but then, I never do. We chatted with a man from Newcastle, whose Geordie accent was especially difficult for me because he was drunk, for which he apologized profusely.
What we did
Have I mentioned the cathedral yet? I was in awe of its history and architecture.
We strolled around the winding streets of the historic centre and wondered how the old crooked buildings are still standing.
We walked along the River Wear and around the peninsula. It sounds like a long trek but it actually is not, it’s a relatively short and easy one. We saw the cathedral and the castle from below, an ancient mill on the river, students rowing, the 1877 Durham University Boat Club’s boathouses, and the beautiful old bridges across the Wear: Framwellgate, Elvet, Prebends and the modern monstrosity of Kingsgate.
We bought two paintings and a papercut by local artists from the lovely young lady who mans the framing shop next to the Shakespeare Pub.
We visited the Market Place, a Victorian covered market with all kinds of merchandise for sale, from haberdashery to wild game.
I strongly recommend you add Durham to your itinerary on your next trip to the UK.
Thank you, Weekend Candy, for the recs!