Durham City Guide

Durham city guide

Durham City History

The city can trace its history back a thousand years, to the arrival of a religious community seeking a permanent resting place for the body of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. As a shrine for their saint, they built first a wooden, then a stone church, on top of a rocky hill, protected on three sides by the River Wear.

Cathedral & Castle

Durham Castle KeepFollowing the Norman conquest of 1066, King William also found this site appealing and realised it offered an ideal strategic location from which to rule Northumbria and defend the region against the Scots. The community of Cuthbert gave way to Benedictine Monks and a Bishop appointed by the king. They began the building of the Cathedral, to provide a monumental shrine for St Cuthbert, and the Castle, to act as protection for the Cathedral and to provide a palace for the Bishop.

The result was one of the most impressive construction projects ever undertaken. The panoramic view of the Cathedral and Castle has been described as ‘one of the finest architectural experiences of Europe’ and together they are now designated a World Heritage Site.

Land of the Prince Bishops

Bishops of Durham at that time were given the power to govern the North on the king’s behalf and subsequently assumed the title of ‘Prince Bishop’. They were entitled to raise taxes, mint coins, had supreme jurisdiction both civil and military, and for centuries occupied the most powerful position in the region.

prince bishops

The prosperity of the city naturally developed around the Cathedral; St Cuthbert’s shrine attracting pilgrims from all parts, until it was one of the richest in England. A series of charters, granted by the Bishops, conceded trading rights and local government to the local citizens, creating a thriving market town.

Durham University

In the 19th century, the University was founded, thanks to the benevolence of Bishop Van Mildert and the Cathedral Chapter. Durham Castle became the first university college, and nearby Auckland Castle was retained as the sole residence of the Bishop.

Victorian Durham

The Industrial Age gave prominence to County Durham at the heart of the vital coal fields, and saw the creation of the world’s first passenger railway in 1825. Practically every village around the city boasted a coal mine and, although these have since disappeared as part of the regional decline in heavy industry, the proud traditions, heritage and community spirit are still evident.

A thousand years of welcoming pilgrims has given Durham a reputation for hospitality. Visitors are encouraged to explore the city and discover for themselves what makes it so special.

Today’s City

Durham is a compact city yet offers a wide range of facilities. A wide range of shops and restaurants co-exist happily with the Victorian Market. Much of Durham’s shopping area is closed to traffic, making for a more relaxed atmosphere. Take time to sit in the cobbled Market Place and enjoy some of the street entertainment, particularly during July and August. The monthly Farmers’ Market is a welcome new addition to the events calendar. Here you will find fresh local specialities to take back home. In the Spring and Summer, stunning floral displays adorn the City for which Durham regularly wins prizes.

Yet within minutes, it is possible to escape the bustle of this thriving market town by taking one of the many paths that lead down to the riverbanks. Watch the river for rowers from one of the university teams, or take the ‘Prince Bishop’ river cruiser for a gentle trip along the river with stunning views.

Durham Racecourse

The Racecourse backs on to the River Wear and is a favourite area for walks. Horse races have not been held here since the 19th century, however the country’s top athletics cross-country event is now a regular fixture here and attracts the best runners in the world.

Durham University Racecourse

The stretch of river by the Racecourse is well known for the annual Durham Regatta which is held in June. The regatta was founded in its present form in 1834, making it the second oldest in the country, even older than Henley. The Regatta has grown enormously in recent years, attracting over 600 crews from all over the world.

Miners Gala

For over a century the Miners’ Gala has taken place here on the second Saturday in July. Despite the closure of all pits in County Durham, ex-miners, their families and friends still gather to hear speeches, socialise and attend a special service in the Cathedral. Colliery bands lead processions and banners are proudly paraded through the streets.

Gala Theatre and Cinema

Gala Theatre in DurhamSituated happily in the hear of the city is the modern Millennium Place development, opened by HM the Queen in 2002. The focal point is the 500-seat Gala Theatre and Cinema which offers a varied programme of music, drama and comedy, plus extensive conference facilities.

The adjacent Walkergate development provides a range of cafes, bars and restaurants, and forms a pedestrian route to further car parks and the coach park.

Hotels and Accommodation

Across the River Wear, a new Radisson SAS Hotel. The hotel boast 209 rooms, on-site parking and a range of conference and banqueting suites, with great links to the city centre via the Penny Ferry footbridge – all within perfect walking distance of the city’s attractions.

Further Afield

The Bowes Museum gardens and groundsDozens of regional attractions are easily reached from Durham, making it an ideal touring base. The largest open-air museum in England is to be found at Beamish where you can see life as it was at the beginning of the last century. Fine art treasures can be seen at the John and Josephine Bowes Museum, a French-style chateau in Barnard Castle. Combine funfairs and shopping, all undercover, at Metroland, the biggest indoor theme park in Europe and the MetroCentre, a huge shopping centre. Both are in Gateshead, half an hour by car from Durham. Look out for the Angel of the North above the motorway – a huge welded structure which has become a symbol of the region.