County Durham, England: The best places to visit

I recently had the pleasure of visiting County Durham to join in the festivities for UK Peace and Tranquility Week. After four days of making new friends, seeing some of the best local attractions, and enjoying what I must say was one of the finest events I have seen in a long time, I’m happy to report the week a smashing success!

Many folk are familiar with Durham in name only as it’s a main stop on the east coast railway. But here’s some of the Durham charms that make it one of the UK’s loveliest cities and a must-see for any one travelling Europe a la Carte.

Aurora Strings Peace and Tranquillity Week

Peace and Tranquility Week kicks off with a classical concert in front of the cathedral.

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral

Inside Durham Cathedral – by Graeme Peacock

At 900 years old, Durham Cathedral doesn’t show its age at all. Spared in WWII by a cloudy day (which is a blessing, as this is a massive building), the cathedral is one of the finest examples of Norman Architecture in the world. The interior is as impressive as the exterior, as well as the views from atop the tower – a steep, narrow climb that I highly recommend although be prepared for an athletic challenge.

Be sure to see the adjacent cloisters behind the cathedral, but watch out for the baby bats whizzing around the courtyard! And don’t miss the library – one of the nicest I’ve seen here in the UK.

Durham Castle

Durham castle

Durham Castle is just across the green from Durham Cathedral and while it pales in size to the massive church, it’s a charmer in its own right. It is a living, working castle, serving as a student dormitory for Durham University and off-reason accomodation when school is not in session. With a mix of Norman and other influential architectures, the winding corridors of the castle interior is a must see – without a doubt a peaceful, tranquil place to spend some time.

The Vennels

a Durham Vennel

Similar to an Edinburgh “close” the vennels are a series of winding back alleys found all across the historic centre of Durham. They twist and turn and wind and some of them have hidden cafes and boutique shops. They usually aren’t really marked – they’re just these empty doorways that seem to drift off. A wonderful way to explore Durham!

Botanic Gardens

Harp Recital at Botanic Gardens

The Botanic Gardens, hidden away in amongst the campus of Durham University, is huge and you’ll feel like you’re lost in a rural forest once inside. As part of Peace and Tranquility Week, we were treated to a most excellent harp recital out on the conservatory lawn. Songs from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland were all featured – a real treat for the gathered audience. Even without the harp, though, the gardens are a must-see.

Durham Marketplace

Durham City Marketplace

Outside the Marketplace – by she_who_must

During Peace and Tranquility Week, there was a mobile massage station to ensure busy shoppers had their share of the week’s festivities. But massage or not, the marketplace is like those crazy, bustling markets you’ll find in continental Europe. Fuel up with the all-day breakfast from Cafe Cenno (opened by Tony Blair!) then shop to your heart’s content.

Crook Hall & Gardens

Crook Hall

Crook Hall & Gardens was one of my most favourite memories of Durham. It’s an old (haunted) mansion where Maggie Bell and her family reside. Their expansive, well-tended gardens are ripe for exploration after a good cup of tea in their cafe – don’t miss the absolutely brilliant cathedral gardens. For UK Peace and Tranquility Week, the gardens were opened up in the evening, just before dusk; the mansion was filled with candlelight and burning fireplaces. The gardens were lit by hundreds of tealights, tealights floating in the ponds, and after dark a succession of wish lanters were lit into the sky. Talk about amazing.

Getting Out of Town: South Causey

South Causey Countryside

County Durham is an quiet, expansive outdoor wonderland, with natural features similar to the ever-popular Lakes District but without the crowds. A great place to base yourself is in South Causey, just to the northwest of Durham City. I can’t recommend enough the South Causey Inn, a little piece of paradise. You can spend the day on-site fishing or riding horses. You can go walking, such as the gorge walk at Causey Arch, the world’s oldest surviving railway bridge. How about stepping back into the past at the open-air Beamish Museum or see the baby owls at Beamish Wild. It’s all right here and getting around is quite straightforward. Return from your adventures to replenish with food and drink back at the South Causey Inn: with some tasty real ales and food, such as the trout pate made from fresh catches at the lake, you’ll be sure to go to bed satiated!

If You Go

Other insider tips for your Durham City visit:

  • For in-town accommodation, consider staying at the Farnley Tower Hotel, just a few minutes walk from Durham city centre. It’s a gorgeous old Victorian mansion that’s been refurbished into superb accommodation. The period features like stained glass are still there but with modern amenitites that fit in just perfectly. The Farnley has a superb view over the city, and what I must say are the most comfortable beds in all of County Durham!
  • For fantastic tea, cakes, or scones you have two excellent choices: The Almshouse, beside the cathedral, or Vennel’s Cafe, a popular student hangout hidden in… yup, you guessed it, a vennel! This one is marked, though, just off Saddler Street.
  • For dinner, consider La Spaghettata; it is cheap and cheerful with a selection of tasty pizzas, a fresh salad bar, and a tasty house red wine.
  • If you’re feeling decadent, then why not perk up your spirits with a glass of bubbly at the Ebony Champagne Bar?

Durham seems to have it all. For more information, check out the the Visit County Durham website where you’ll find suggestions for your own version of Peace and Tranquility Week, as well as a listing of the other events going on in County Durham throughout the year.

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