Durham: a jewel in the north's crown

by Glynis

With fascinating sights and friendly people, wild landscapes and a warm welcome, the compact city of Durham has more than enough to keep you entertained on a weekend away

If you have never arrived at Durham by train, you must. As the  train swings round a bend and crosses the viaduct high above the city, look to your right: Durham Castle is perched high above the River Wear; next to it, the huge Norman cathedral dominates.  

No matter how often I have experienced this sight, it still brings a lump to my throat. Perhaps it is because I have a sense of having arrived 'home' after years in the south; perhaps it is because I am still in awe of the longevity and craftsmanship of these buildings, constructed almost a thousand years ago. No wonder the cathedral was the UK's first World Heritage site, and voted Britain's favourite building a few years ago.

Durham is compact and cobbled. It will keep you entertained easily for a weekend; longer if you use it as a base for exploring the surrounding countryside. 

What to do

First on your list must be the castle and the cathedral. Both are reached via Saddler Street, steep and cobbled. Traffic is restricted in this area, so leave your car behind, and take a bus to the top if you cannot manage the climb to Palace Green. 

In the cathedral, make sure you look at the tombs of St Cuthbert and St Bede, and the monks' dormitory. As you enter the cathedral, stop for a moment by the enormous sanctuary knocker and pause to wonder at the relief it must have afforded so many, centuries ago. You can easily spend an hour or two admiring the architecture and the various exhibits housed in the cathedral, and if you are feeling hungry there is a good cafe in the undercroft serving drinks, cakes, soups and snacks. The castle is part of the university; you can take a tour of parts of it at various times of the year, but the rooms still serve as bedrooms for the undergraduates.

From the cathedral, slip into North Bailey, and drop down to the river banks, prettiest in spring and autumn. Seven bridges span the Wear, and one of the prettiest is Prebends Bridge - keep walking and you will find it, as the river loops around the city centre.

If the weather isn't kind, you could visit both the Durham Light Infantry Museum and the Gulbenkian Oriental Museum, both a very short car ride out of the city. There is also The Gala, a theatre and cinema, just off the Market Place. On Saturday you will find an open market in the Market Place, and a permanent indoor market alongside. Here, you can buy fruit and vegetables, jewellery, plants, home-made fudge and clothing.

Durham's mining hertitage is celebrated still at the Miners' Gala, on the second Saturday of July. The 100 pits of the Durham coalfield may have closed long ago, but the celebrations continue,with a parade of banners representing the lodges of the NUM, brass bands, political speeches and, finally, a service in the cathedral. Some older residents will harbour memories of Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, addressing them from the veranda of the Royal County Hotel.

Where to stay

The Royal County is a Marriott hotel situated on the banks of the river in Old Elvet. Even if you don't stay here, you can pop in for a drink or coffee and sit in the foyer or the bar. For £8.95 you can indulge in afternoon tea, including sandwiches, scones with cream and jam, cakes and pastries and, of course, any tea of your choice. The County Restaurant offers plenty of fresh fish from the  coast (including sea trout or roast monkfish with pearl barley risotto), as well as hearty braised belly pork, steaks and vegetarian options. Main courses cost in the region of £14-£20. If you want something less formal, you can make for the Brasserie, or have salads and sandwiches in the lounge and bar. Some rooms overlook the river; rates vary but look out for special offers, especially at weekends. If you want to work off some of the gastronomic excesses, visit the hotel's pool and fitness centre.

Five minutes' drive out of Durham is the Ramside Hall Hotel, another four-star hotel, complete with golf course. It's situated just off the A690 in enormous grounds, and parking is plentiful. If you'd rather leave your car behind when you visit the city, a park and ride scheme operates a minute's walk from the hotel. Rooms are spacious, and the entire hotel was reburbished not long ago. Eat in either the Pemberton Carvery, at any time of day, or in the Rib Room, where local beef, fish and pasta are available from around £10-£20 for a main course. If you are looking for something different, try the Fallen Angel in Old Elvet. This boutique hotel has 10 themed bedrooms, including Cruella and Edwardian Express.

Further afield

Looking for more culture? Go to Barnard Castle to The Bowes Museum, built in the style of a French chateau and home to a fine collection of art, textiles and ceramics. Here, you will find the largest collection of Spanish paintings in Europe, including 'The Tears of St Peter' by El Greco, alongside works by Gainsborough, Turner, Goya and more old masters.

The pièce de résistance is the Silver Swan, a musical automaton acquired in 1773. A silver mechanical swan that appears to dip its neck into water and swallow silver fish, it never fails to captivate. Picnic in the museum's grounds, or eat inside at Cafe Bowes, where fresh farm produce, including localWensleydale cheese, features on the extensive menu.

If you want to explore the northern countryside, head for Hamsterley Forest, a 2,000-acre area of mixed woodland. Here, you can follow waymarked paths, to walk, ride or cycle. You might also like to join in a Food from the Forest day or a Fungal Foray  or similar themed activity days. Afterwards, enjoy tea in the visitors' centre.

You mustn't miss High Force, one of England's highest waterfalls, near Middleton-in-Teesdale, which was once visited and sketched by Turner. Follow the marked footpath to the water's edge, wear sensible shoes or boots if the weather's wet, and keep back from the edge!

If the weather isn't kind, and shopping floats your boat, the Metro Centre is an enormous indoor shopping centre on the Durham side of Newcastle, and Newcastle itself is a thriving city with shops galore that easily compete with London. Shop till you drop, or just savour the hustle and bustle.

And finally...

You will be struck by the northern warmth and friendliness. Durham is too far south for the affectionate  'hinnie' (meaning 'love') of the Tyne - but I doubt you will get through the weekend without being called 'pet'.

How to get there

From London, the East Coast mainline runs a fast and frequent service from King's Cross, which takes just over three hours.

Take the A1 all the way, or M1 then A1. The journey time from London is around four and a half hours.

Fly to Newcastle and then travel by road or rail.