With a thousand years of history under its belt, and a skyline dominated by its magnificent cathedral, the hilly city of Durham in northeast England is picturesque and prominent on the list of the UK's must-see tourist destinations.
Back in 995, legend has it a group of monks from Lindisfarne (the Holy Island off the coast of northeast England) were wandering around looking for a place to settle down and entomb the body of their revered mentor, Saint Cuthbert. They stopped to help a distressed milkmaid who had lost her cow, and the animal was found resting on a pretty peninsula formed by the River Wear. The spot seemed perfect for their purpose and they stayed, later starting work on the building of a cathedral (1093), which still houses Saint Cuthbert's remains.
As well as becoming one of England's most influential ecclesiastical centres, the residents of Durham also set about making their mark politically, mainly because of the town's strategic position close to the Scottish border. The castle built by William the Conqueror in 1071 saw plenty of military action over the centuries, and stands proudly opposite the cathedral, now home to a college of Durham University.
Many of the sons and daughters of Durham have made their mark in a variety of fields, from poets and artists to novelists and musicians. One of the most notable modern celebrities spawned by the city is Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister.
Celebrated, together with Durham Castle, as one of Britain's first UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Durham Cathedral is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in England. Building began on the church in 1093, and it was largely completed after about 40 years. An icon of northeast England, the cathedral was voted as the nation's best-loved building in a nationwide BBC poll held in 2001. Renowned for its immense architecture, ancient history and deep religious roots, the cathedral is a must-see attraction for any visitor to Durham. Guided tours are conducted daily, and offer an informative and enriching way to explore the magnificent structure.
Durham's colourful local history museum is housed in a medieval church, offering some interactive, fun and interesting exhibits that detail the story of Durham, from ancient times to the present day. Situated close to the UNESCO-listed cathedral and castle, the Durham Heritage Centre contains a varied collection of artefacts. Exhibits include fascinating items like the 'Death Chair', used to carry sick boys from Durham School to the infirmary in days of yore, and a chilling recreation of a cell from the notorious Northgate Gaol. The Heritage Centre also has a brass-rubbing centre and offers an audio-visual show of the history of the town. A highly recommended attraction, budget at least two hours to take it all in.
A row of stables along the River Wear close to the historic heart of Durham has been converted into a set of creative workspaces, where local artists can be seen at work. Visitors can watch crafts like woodcarving, glasswork, painting, micro brewing, embroidery and textile arts in progress. Fowler's Yard is run by the Durham Dramatic Society and is an exciting initiative, bringing international attention to Durham's hard-at-work local artists. There is also a coffee shop, where tourists can relax and soak up the wonderful atmosphere of the area. There is no charge for entrance and even if you don't but anything watching the work in progress is interesting.
Durham's beautiful, Grade 1-listed medieval manor house, Crook Hall, dates from around the 13th century, and is a short distance from the town centre. The house and magnificent gardens are open to the public, and cream teas are served in a pretty courtyard in summer, or in front of a roaring log fire in winter. Most visitors are intrigued by the 17th-century Jacobean room in the house, allegedly haunted by the ghost of the 'White Lady', a niece of a former resident of the house. Crook Hall is one of Durham's most popular attractions and the old family house has charm and character as well as historical appeal. As the gardens are one of the chief attractions there is a discounted ticket price in winter.
Few buildings in the world can claim to have been in constant use for more than 900 years, but the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Durham Castle is one of them. It was originally built in the 11th century (opposite Durham Cathedral), to protect the bishop from 'barbaric northern tribes' in the wake of the Norman Conquest of 1066. Over the centuries the core of the ancient castle remained intact, but there have been numerous renovations and extensions. The castle's aspect today is imposing. The Great Hall is one of the largest in Britain, created by Bishop Antony Bek in the 14th century. Since 1840, when the bishop moved elsewhere, it has housed a college of Durham University. Visitors are welcome to a guided tour, lasting about 45 minutes.
Durham has a temperate climate with lower than average rainfall compared to the rest of England and four distinct seasons. Summer weather (June to August) in Durham is generally warm and sunny, and winters (December to February) are cool with occasional snowfall. July and August are the most popular months to visit Durham, when temperatures range between 52°F (11°C) and 68°F (20°C), but they are also the wettest months of the year. Spring also sees plenty of tourists, with average daytime highs hovering around 57°F (14°C), as does autumn when temperatures are similar, with October usually the driest month. Average winter temperatures range from 37°F (3°C) to 46°F (8°C).
Durham is a relatively compact city, and it is not necessary to drive. Parking can be hard to find, and heavy traffic can overwhelm the narrow streets. Walking is the easiest way to navigate the city centre, and taxis are available, as well as an efficient public bus network.
History has moulded Durham, and its medieval character has been carefully preserved, making today's city a compact living museum with a wide range of modern facilities. Most of the city centre is pedestrianised, with life centred on the cobbled Market Place, where street entertainers provide amusement and modern shops and restaurants trade happily alongside the old Victorian Market. Along the riverbanks, which border the town on three sides, meandering paths and river cruisers provide a peaceful alternative to sightseeing and shopping. The Sarah P. Duke Gardens also offer a lovely setting for picnics and strolls.
The main sightseeing attractions of the city are Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral, jointly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the many beautiful historic old buildings of Durham University. Other worthwhile attractions include the Museum of Life and Science, the medieval manor house of Crook Hall, and the Durham Heritage Centre, which introduces visitors to the fascinating history of the old city. Those wanting to buy crafts or witness local artists in action should head down to the interesting selection of studios along the river which collectively form Fowlers Yard Creative Workspaces.
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