What’s the Big Idea?

There are several well-known spas near this lovely little city. I’d wager that the inspiration for the came from the city of Durham itself.
 
You see, given Durham essentially started life as the final resting place for Britain’s most famous saint of the time, and its history as a place of refuge, together with the achingly beautiful cobbled streets, cathedral, views and so much greenery, a visit to Durham the city can be the equivalent of a spa break for the soul.

A place to rest

It’s interesting to ponder if Durham would actually exist without the intervention of the spirit of St Cuthbert just over a thousand years ago (read more about him in the history section).
 
But what’s little known is the number of other famous figures from mediaeval times also resting or residing in the area. Legend has it that one of the priests of the day became convinced it was God’s will for him to travel around Northumbria collecting the bones of, for example, the venerable Bede (Britain’s first historian) and St Oswald, King of Northumbria, both ending up resting at Durham.
 
Carrying this theme into today, Durham has numerous peaceful spots to rest; the churchyard of St Oswald’s church down by the river is like stopping the proverbial clock, stunning gardens in the area such as the English garden that is Crook Hall, the 13th-century country house set in the centre of the city (described by Country Life as having ‘history, romance and beauty’), or the botanic gardens set within Durham University’s 22 acres of woodland.
 
And a visit to the cathedral door further reminds you of the importance of simply stopping and literally ‘taking time-out’. Durham already had a reputation as a special place because of the Cuthbertian links, in that it was granted the right of sanctity, so any fugitive reaching the door would have their confession heard before Durham’s own Palatine coroner and be sent to a port as soon as possible to seek passage abroad.
 
If further proof were needed, take a look opposite the cathedral to the castle; now many cities have one, but they’ve tended to be used as a castle, i.e. for defending a city.
Not Durham. This castle quickly became a place for entertaining, for relaxing and for hosting visiting dignitaries, and by the 16th century it was effectively changed from a fortress into a comfortable lodging, over time entertaining numerous English monarchs.
Nothing as stressful as mere defending.


Class.

A thing of beauty

Take a look at the pictures of Durham on this page; what thing strikes you the most?
How about the sheer amount of greenery?
 
There are simply so many trees here, offering both calm and shade to many parts of the city, and a variety of colour throughout the seasons.
 
Quite simply Durham is home to beautiful things.
 
Consider the cathedral, an architectural masterpiece widely acknowledged as the finest Norman cathedral in the country, whose towers are said to quite literally ‘reach up to heaven’ (if you approach Durham as a newbie it’s a stunning sight when the cathedral, atop the peninsula, first comes into view). And here’s a thing: it’s remarkably uncluttered with tombs unlike so many churches, originally because of the sanctity of Cuthbert others weren’t allowed; the resultant effect is a cleaner, almost minimalist, beauty. And this beauty is enhanced by the fact the sheer scale of it is not surrounded by other buildings; hence, it simply appears big and beautiful.
 
Opposite, and over the lawns, at the Castle is a tiny pretty Norman chapel, which provides some of the most interesting Norman sculpture in existence. St Nicholas Church, near the market place, described over a hundred years ago in the national press as ‘the most beautiful specimen of church architecture in the North’. And in the area nearby is the famous sweeping Georgian architecture known as The Baileys. Finally, the views from the viaduct and the bridges simply encourage you to linger longer.
 
OK, getting the message? This city is truly an Optrex for the eyes
 
But how about some aural beauty, some music for your ears? The famous Choristers School is based in Durham, and don’t forget this city was also home to England’s most famous makers of organs, Harrison & Harrison, who supplied organs to many other cathedrals as well as the Royal Albert Hall and Westminster Abbey amongst other places/

The essence

Beautifully relaxing.

(if you want a break, Durham is the most relaxing of English cities).

Interesting bits in the history

Durham’s a relatively young city compared to many in England. So while the Romans were busy building temples and mansions in other parts of England, and latterly the Saxons settled the South, Durham remained pretty much a rock, surrounded by trees, near to the sea (incidentally, the name Durham likely comes from Dun, meaning hill, and Holm, meaning island).
 
It was ‘founded’, if that’s the right word, in AD 995 by a group of monks searching for the final resting place for the body of Saint Cuthbert. The monks had to keep moving the body to stay one step ahead of the marauding Vikings, and when they reached the wooded peninsula high above the Wear River, they found that the coffin had become literally unmovable. It was believed that the spirit of St Cuthbert simply refused to budge; as if the place was fated to be a place of rest. The Saxon nobles subsequently helped the monks clear the area and built a suitable shrine. In turn they were followed by the Normans, who realised what a perfect strategic location this was – easily defensible – against the Scots, and with a vaguely Machiavellian twist, the king established a bishop, not a baron, as overlord of the area (little did he realise the power that would ultimately be bestowed on the Bishop of Durham including his own justice system, mint and the like).
 
Work started pretty soon after on the castle as the previous home to the remains of St Cuthbert’s – the little ‘White Church’ was demolished to start work on what is now deemed one of the finest Norman-architecture cathedrals in the country. This work actually took place over the next 200 years, as first the nave and the choir bays were built, and then various towers and the famed Chapel of Nine Altars were added.
 
Rolling forward to the 12th century, a new market place was built (the ancient routes into it via Fisher gate and Silver Street remain); and  at the site of the previous market a vast expanse of open lawn linking the cathedral and castle was laid out – still open and beautiful today. Building work continued in the 15th and 16th centuries, but by this time the castle had effectively ceased to be a fortress and was now a comfortable lodgings and in use for entertaining.
 
The bishops enjoyed great wealth, primarily because of the rich coal mining resources in the area, and this in turn led to them deciding to use some of this wealth for good causes and established the now famous Durham University in the 1830s.
 
By this time Durham had become a genteel and well-off town, rather like a Bath of the North East, and over the next few centuries areas like The Baileys, around the cathedral, ceased being areas of refuge and became fashionable addresses in their own right.
 
Accordingly, in 1987 UNESCO gave World Heritage Status to the cathedral and castle and lawns area.

How  it can make you feel

Durham can awaken the senses, both visually and aurally. But it can also help you chill. Not in a hippy way, like some places, but in a serene way. And as such, it’s perfect for artists, writers and people who may want some space to think, or, at the other end of the scale, people who simply want a break and want to do everything except think!
 

How to experience what's different/get under the skin of

It’s pretty easy to get to. Good train links (on the fast trains between London, Scotland and the North) and a pretty Victorian train station to greet you, or accessible off the A1/A1M by car/coach.
 
Incidentally, the other attractive thing about Durham is its size. It’s easy to get to and very easy to navigate (the well-known attractions and shopping are all atop a large hill, pretty much surrounded by the horseshoe-shaped River Wear that almost encircles it, before running out into the surrounding woodlands) – this means you need invest less time in getting your bearings, or getting lost, and more time relaxing!
 
It’s probably best to start at Silver Street and cross the river at Framwelgate Bridge; look up and you’ll see the castle and cathedral in its beauty. TThis winding, cobbled and charismatic street takes you into the re-paved Market Place, where you can check out the nearly perfect statue of the third Marquess of Londonderry (originally felt to be perfect by the sculptor until someone pointed out the horse had no tongue!).
 
You may next want to get into relaxation mode and hop aboard the Prince Bishop river cruise, an hour-long cruise that takes in many of the best views of the cathedral, castle and bridges (it sails from the Elvet Bridge).
 
Next, before heading up to the cathedral, go straight over the Elvet Bridge and you’ll come across the Royal County Hotel. This has been visited by Cromwell and King Charles I; but the balcony itself has a brilliant history. This is where the greats of the Labour Party would watch the parade of the annual Durham Miners’ Gala Day; Attlee, Bevan, Cripps, Wilson and Benn came in recognition of what at one time was the largest demonstration of the power of the working man in the country.
 
Pop to the right and up Saddlergate, home to Durham’s finest food invention, mustard (yes, it was invented here, not in Norwich) and, yes, another beautiful little cobbled street and you’ll come to the castle, the Palace greens and the cathedral.
 
At the castle make sure you look at the magnificent Great Hall and the famous black staircase. Outside, on the orderly greens, see if you can find the preserved Victorian pillar box.
 
Once in the cathedral (pause to check out the door knocker first – don’t try it out though, it’s now fixed) there’s a number of things to look for; the Neville Screen, the Chapel of Nine Altars, with its beautiful rose window, the Daily Bread window depicting the Last Supper – also known as the Marks and Spencer window – the tomb and altar of St Cuthbert’s including the Pectoral Cross, reputed one of the greatest treasures of the Christian faith.In the far corner of the cathedral, for a more modern interpretation, look for the 1981 long wooden carving of St Cuthbert by Fenwick Lawson, originally carved from a huge elm tree.
 
After the cathedral turn right and head down The Baileys, stopping at Number 12 South Baileys – home of the St Cuthbert’s Society – to check out the incredible Victorian moulding over the entrance, before getting down to Prebends Bridge: look back up for probably the most famous, and beautiful, view of the Cathedral and rock.
 
Finally, head out of the city and visit the Botanic Gardens (there are numerous opportunities to simply sit and muse here) and Houghall Gardens with its World of Trees Arboretum and national collection of meconopsis (poppies and the like) and the Oriental Museum to the south and Crook Hall and the inspiring Durham Light Infantry museum to the north of the city.
 
Durham’s also famous for its University buildings. Is it any surprise that the best-selling travel writer Bill Bryson was chancellor of the university (and, yes, he sang the praises of the city in his best-selling Notes from a Small Island). Check out the Durham University Special Collections, housed in a cluster of buildings containing over 100 mediaeval manuscripts, over 750,000 books printed before 1850, tens of thousands of maps and hundreds of thousands of photographs.

When to visit

City pics

Preston
Sheffield
Peterborough
Liverpool
Chester
Nottingham
Leicester
Wakefield