My husband can’t understand how or why I haven’t written more about the city of Durham. It’s one of our favourite places for strolling (what’s more alluring than a river bank?), and beautiful in all seasons. One of the many reasons we fell in love with Tavira in the Eastern Algarve was that it reminded us in some unspoken way of Durham: the churches, the river, the many places to eat, and to drink in lovely views.
Of course Durham is bigger and more cosmopolitan, and can’t compete when it comes to weather and beaches. It doesn’t need to. The 11th century Castle and Norman Cathedral, linked by Palace Green, have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. It was very fitting that at the recently staged Lumiere Festival, the Lindisfarne Gospels were projected onto the south face of the Cathedral. The origins of today’s city can be traced back to AD995, when a group of monks from Lindisfarne chose this highly defensible “island on a hill” as the final resting place of St Cuthbert.
The River Wear surrounds Durham on three sides. The place name derives from Old English “dun”, a hill, and Norse “holme”, an island. The Legend of the Dun Cow is depicted in a carving on the Cathedral’s south face, adjoining Dun Cow Lane, known to be one of the earliest streets in the city. The story goes that the homeless monks carrying the coffin were mysteriously brought to a halt, unable to move, close by the present site of the city. After 3 days of prayer and fasting, St Cuthbert appeared to one of the monks with the instruction that he be “carried to Dun Holm”. The whereabouts of this place was unknown to the monks, but a milkmaid arrived later that day, and claimed to be searching for her “dun cow”, last seen at Dun Holm. Recognising this as a sign of divine intervention, the monks suddenly were able to move the coffin, and follow her.
Today’s cathedral is an awesome space, usually busy with tourists, unlike the modest one erected by the monks. St Cuthberts relics are still enshrined here, as are the bones of St Bede the Venerable.
Durham Castle is a fine example of the motte and bailey style favoured by the Normans. In continuous use for over 900 years, it remains the only castle in the UK never to have been breached. Now home to Durham University, guided castle tours lasting 45 minutes can be arranged, afternoons in term-time and mornings during vacations.
Durham Traditional Christmas Festival, the first weekend in December, sees Durham get in party mode. (free on Friday, admission charge to the marquees and craft fair on Palace Green, Saturday and Sunday) Children’s events take place at the World Heritage Visitor Centre on Owengate over the weekend, with falconry and balloon making as well as the more traditional reindeer. The children’s lantern procession takes place on Saturday afternoon, and Christmas Carols in the cathedral are always a bit special. www.durhamchristmasfestival.com
Despite its heritage and historical buildings, Durham is not a stuffy place. The student population keeps it young and lively, and also keeps the prices down in the rich variety of cafes and restaurants. There’s an indoor market off Market Place, for “cheap as chips”, and an Oxfam bookstore over 3 storeys, where I love to curl up in a corner and browse.
My food of choice tends to be Italian and over the years I’ve thoroughly enjoyed La Spaghettata, upstairs at 66 Saddler St. The décor is quite individual and the menu extensive. Quite different but also a favourite, especially if you can get the window seat to spy on shoppers down below, is De Medici on Elvet Bridge. When it comes to cafes you really are spoilt but I especially like The Almshouses on Palace Green, surrounded by lovely university buildings. There’s always a choice of homemade soups and oh those cakes and puddings! The artwork on the walls is good for conversation too.
If you’ve walked through the cathedral and cloisters, don’t neglect the Dean and Chapter area at the reverse. It’s one of the loveliest and most peaceful spots in Durham.
The river can be pretty peaceful too. Coxless fours glide effortlessly past, while less coordinated efforts come from the families in rowing boats. The river truly comes to life in June when Durham Regatta provides enormous enjoyment for everyone. Best riverside moment this year just has to be the vapour “waterfall” streaming from Kingsgate Bridge during “Lumiere”. Splash! by Peter Lewis of Canada provided all the magic you could want. I loved that lone canoeists roamed the water at sunset, waiting for the moment when they could paddle “through the waterfall”.
Durham is a compact, easily walkable city, with excellent bus and rail transport links. For drivers there are 3 Park and Ride facilities, making life easy. My husband says not to tell you, but we always park for free, by the playground at the top of Wharton Park, and walk down past the viaduct. It’s a steep climb back up though.
So there you have it- the Durham I know and love. As good a place to do your Christmas shopping as anywhere you could find.
“Lumiere 2011″ was special. You can read more about it in http://restlessjo.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/celebrating-light-with-durham/