National Treasure City

Costa Rica

Durham is a top contender for finest city in England. Its ancient heart sits high and mighty above a loop in the River Wear. The cathedral has been voted the nation’s best loved building, Together with the castle, it forms part of our first World Heritage Site. I sampled a short stay in a national treasure. This is my six selection of things to see and do. Photo - Durham City, with Cathedral, by the writer. Dec 2009. NOVEMBER 2012: Bishop Justin Welby, enthroned in the Cathedral in November 2011, is the new Archbishop of Canterbury. enthroned in the Cathedral in November 2011. He has played an important part in its life since then, including leading and preaching at major services and events. In the short time he has been Bishop, he and the Cathedral have formed a close working relationship, not least in supporting the first phase of its current large-scale project called Open Treasure, as the Chapter looks to transform the way visitors can enjoy the Cathedral and gain inspiration from it. The Bishop will preside and preach at this year's principal Christmas services, and there will be a service of farewell towards the end of January or early February.

World class view

You don’t even have to stop in Durham to share the sensation of the cathedral by night, bathed in silvery light. Bill Bryson called it the finest cathedral on the planet. A BBC poll in 2001 voted it our favourite old building. The very best view is from the train, on the railway viaduct just south of the station. They should make announcements telling passengers to stop what they are doing, look out of the window and marvel. (I do hope overseas tourists are given a reservation on that side, just as the Japanese put visitors on the Mt Fuji side of the train.) There’s a shuttle bus from the station to the cathedral (part funded by the Britain’s first congestion charge, which keeps traffic from the old centre). Or walk in over the traffic free Framwelgate bridge, which soars over the deep, wooded river gorge.

Ancient awe

It all started with St Cuthbert. Monks carried his apparently miraculously preserved remains around the region, one step ahead of the marauding Vikings, They found the perfect site for his last resting place on this hill in a loop of the river Wear. This Norman masterpiece is overwhelming however you see it - looking up at the west end from the river path in the gorge, or taking in its 496 feet long golden beauty side on from Palace Green. It contains audacious 900 year architectural details - massive “drum” columns and stone vaulting in the nave. Find the simple shrines of St Cuthbert, and the multi-talented Venerable Bede – “the sort of guest you would love to have at a dinner party” said my guide. Unlike in many cathedrals, entry is free.

Case the Castle

Students find nifty ways to boost their loans, but there can''t be many part-time jobs to beat showing visitors around your college, which just happens to be Durham Castle. Built in 1072 by William the Conqueror, this citadel became the power base of the mighty Durham prince-bishops before it was given a useful retirement function as a college in Durham University in 1832. Students act as guides during term time, leading you though a labyrinth of enough halls and galleries for an entire remake of Harry Potter. I liked the “drunken” oak staircase, with its disorientatingly sloping steps. There is some exquisite stonework in the Norman Chapel, built around 1080. Outside term-time visitors may hire students’ rooms in the castle, and take breakfast in the Great Hall.

Hidden gems.

The vennels, tight alleyways leading off into the city’s past, are one of the city’s ''hidden gems''. Less easy to miss is the old Town Hall, off Market Square. It holds many original trappings of this ancient county (County Durham), with frequent splashes of the city’s noble old theme colour, palatinate purple. In the covered market look for the freemen, including Bishop Desmond Tutu and Bobby Robson, listed above the fish counter.. It’s worth the walk to the university’s Oriental Museum, and the Botanic Gardens (to see rare Manx Loghtan and Hebridean sheep grazing the wild flower meadow). The Archaeological Museum is directly below the cathedral, by the river. Also at river level look for Leonard''s Coffee House, among a complex of Wear-side specialist shops in Fowlers Yard. The river is spanned by no fewer than eight bridges, defining aspects of the city, with distinguished and intriguing names such as New Elvet, Framwellgate, Kingsgate, Prebends’, Milburngate and Pennyfeather.

Superior B & B

Bed and breakfast has come far since the days when you tiptoed down a creaky corridor in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and the landlady would count out the cornflakes next morning. The Victorian Town House, opened in 2008, with just three rooms, is another fine example of the boutique hotel standard we find more and more in this end of the market. Former teachers Jill and Andy gave a faithful makeover to an old terraced house, five minutes from the station and the city centre. My room’s traditional details - ceiling “rose”, sash windows, Victorian fireplace and big brass bed, were complemented by a bang up-to-date shower, flat screen TV and wireless Internet. Smart hotel pampering touches included “turn down” chocolates, and magazines. Breakfast 'TasteDurham' variations include porridge with whisky, and black pudding 'stack', with goats cheese and chilli jam.

Choice cheese

Julia Cammis took a stroll by the city’s riverside in 2007 looking for inspiration for her new business venture. She found it in the statue of the famous Durham cow: the original bovine is said to have led monks to the site of the future cathedral. Julia launched the prize-winning Durham Cow Blue Cheese, using milk from her local village dairy. I found it on the menu at city centre Oldfields Restaurant, which bases many dishes on local produce. Bistro 21 is another good restaurant promoting the TasteDurham brand. It serves bistro classics with a contemporary twist”, such as roasted pumpkin with sweet potato, yoghurt and nut brown butter. However, for wine they look to France. The house wine was a velvet-smooth Beaujolais by Georges Duboeuf.

The writer travelled by train with East Coast, London to Durham.

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