The North East of England is an often overlooked jewel in the crown of the UK. From the wilds of Northumberland to the North Yorkshire Moors, it is a part of the world which has so much to offer. Nestled in the heart of this region is a city steeped in history. Durham is a cathedral city, intertwined by the River Wear. The streets are mostly narrow and cobbled, and there are plenty of hills to manoeuvre, but it is a city which probably deserves a bit more attention from outside the county.
The history of Durham is immense. The centuries have seen invasion and plague, as well as the final resting place of two saints. Most of this history circulates around the cathedral, which dominates the city both as a cultural focal point and a physical structure. It can be seen for miles around, and for those arriving by train (myself included on many occasions) it is the first point of interest to appear on the horizon.
The remains of Saint Bede and Saint Cuthbert rest in the cathedral, and it is the latter which has a wonderful backstory. In 698 AD the monks of Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland and where Cuthberts’ body was at the time, wanted to give a permanent shrine to him. After gaining permission to access Cuthberts’ grave at Lindisfarne, the monks found that, even 11 years after his death, his body looked in near perfect condition. It was a miracle, and it made Cuthberts’ shrine at Durham Cathedral a place of pilgrimage for thousands over the centuries.
The route to the cathedral from the city centre is steep and winding. Following the path, you come to the end of the road onto the green overshadowed by the cathedral, which was completed back in the 12th century. Most of the buildings dominate over the pedestrians in the street, but none more than the cathedral.
Durham is not your average UK city. It is cosy both in the sense of everything is within walking distance and because it is not the easiest to navigate by car. I lived in Peterlee, a town not too far outside of Durham, for many years. After living in the midlands for some time, my family moved back to this neck of the woods, to Shotton Colliery. This village is even closer to Durham than Peterlee, and since 2017 I have visited the nearest ‘big city’ on many occasions.
Perhaps half of these visits have been on pub trips, because Durham is superb for a good pint. Many of us want to avoid chain pubs and support independent establishments. This is very easy in Durham, with enough pubs and bars which to map out into a fairly respectable crawl.
Of course, I don’t want to just talk about how it’s easy to get drunk on these narrow and cobbled streets. I want to give it the bump which it probably hasn’t had too much and which it definitely deserves. The city is littered with nooks and crannies which many people would miss. It is perhaps most well known for its elite University which welcomes students from around the globe, but the world of students, locals, and visitors will turn in very different directions to each other.
The River Wear in and around Durham would have once swelled with the melee brought about by the industrial revolution. County Durham was once the beating heart of the UK coal industry. For many generations in hundreds of families, coal mining was the primary employment. If I could select one day of the year to visit Durham, it would be the second Saturday of July.
This is the day of the Durham Miners Gala, a day in which miners and their families would gather in the city for a day of celebration and relaxation. Durham’s coal mines may have gone, but the Gala has grown in strength. Banners and brass bands of the hundreds of collieries which once dotted the north east of England and beyond parade through the streets.
It is an experience for myself as a miners grandson and a proud northern lad; I am fascinated at the opinion of someone with no connection to the area or the history who may attend the gala. I should really have mentioned this earlier, but the people are the nicest you could wish to meet. Historically, the locals of County Durham are known as ‘pit yakkers’, and thousands descend on Durham on this day.
When you think of cities in the north of England, there are many places which will spring to mind before Durham. However, despite the popularity of Leeds and Newcastle amongst others, Durham has its charm in the form of being a city where it is so possible to get lost in, but in all the right ways.