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Durham Castle (© Michael Dodd |
Durham Castle


Durham (pop. 45,000) is the principal tourist city of North-East England. It is famous for its Norman Cathedral and 11th-century castle, both listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Durham University, established in 1832, claims to be England's third oldest after Oxford and Cambridge. The Chancellor of the University is writer Bill Bryson, appointed by the University's Convocation on 4 April 2005. Tony Blair and Rowan Atkinson ("Mr Bean") both attended Chorister School in Durham (adjacent to the cathedral).


Durham was founded in 995, when a group of monks from Lindisfarne chose the strategic high peninsula as a place to lay the body of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (634-687), an Anglo-Saxon monk and bishop in the Kingdom of Northumbria. The city's name comes from the Old English "dun" (hill) and the Old Norse "holme"(island).

The city has played an important part in the defence of the north and Durham Castle is the only Norman castle keep never to have suffered a breach. The Battle of Neville's Cross which took place just west of the city on 17 October 1346 between the English and Scots is the most famous battle of the age.

From 1071 until the Great Reform Act of 1832, the bishopric held the powers of a Bishop Palatine (known in continental Europe as "Prince-Bishop"), which is to say that the bishop had both military leadership and religious authority - a privilege unique to Durham in England.The bishops of Durham enjoyed extraordinary powers such as the ability to hold their own parliament, raise their own armies, appoint their own sheriffs and Justices, administer their own laws, levy taxes and customs duties, create fairs and markets, issue charters, salvage shipwrecks, collect revenue from mines, administer the forests and mint their own coins.

Durham Cathedral (© Darren Turner |

The Lord Bishop of Durham was considered the second most powerful person in England after the King himself. Henry VIII curtailed some of the Prince-Bishop's powers and, in 1538, ordered the destruction of the shrine of Saint Cuthbert.

The traditional trade in Durham included carpet making and weaving, as well as mustard manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution placed the city at the heart of the coal fields. Practically every village around the city boasted a coal mine and, although these have since disappeared with the decline in heavy industry.

The first Durham Miners' Gala ("The Big Meeting") was held in 1871 and remains the largest socialist trades union event in the world.


Durham has a compact historic centre best explored on foot. The pretty market square has a Guildhall dating from 1356. There are numerous interesting churches and old bridges, but two attractions really just stand out of the lot, the castle and the cathedral. The third most important sight is the Penshaw Monument, on Penshaw Hill.

If you have time to spare, you could enjoy a boat ride on the River Wear, visit the small medieval hall pompously known as Crook Hall & Gardens, or stroll around Durham University's Botanic Garden.

Durham Castle

The magnificent castle was built shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066 as one of the strongholds protecting England's northern border against the Scots. It is a good example of motte-and-bailey castle - that is, built on raised earthwork and surrounded by a protective wall. This is the type of castle favoured by the Normans in the 11th and 12th centuries.

The Bishop of Durham was appointed by the King to exercise royal authority on his behalf, explaining why the castle and the cathedral were built next to each others, only separated by Palace Green. Because of this close association between temporal and religious power, locals have witfully dubbed County Durham "Land of the Prince Bishops" (a double title normally found in Germany).

The Great Hall, created by Bishop Antony Bek in the early 14th century, used to be Britain' largest, until it was shortened at the end of the 15th century.

Nowadays the castle is occupied by the University College of Durham University. In 1832, Bishop Edward Maltby donated the castle to the newly-formed university as accommodation for students, and still houses over 100 students at present (mostly in the keep). The bishop subsequently moved to the sumptuous Auckland Castle, about 10 miles south of Durham.

The castle can be visited all afternoons during term time, and on mornings during academic holdidays. Visits are by guided tours only.

Durham Cathedral

Regarded as one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe, Durham Cathedral has managed to preserve the unity and integrity of its original design. Construction began in 1093 and was completed for the most part within 40 years. The UNESCO reported it to be "the largest and most perfect monument of 'Norman' style architecture in England".

The treasures of Durham Cathedral include relics of St Cuthbert, the head of St Oswald of Northumbria and the remains of the Venerable Bede.

Durham Cathedral has been featured in the Harry Potter films as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where it had a spire digitally added onto the top of the famous towers.


There are a few minor museums that will prove useful if the fickle English weather does not permit you to enjoy the city from the outside.


How to get there

Durham is located on the A1 motorway that runs between London and Edinburgh. The city is about 30km south of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 145 km north of Leeds and 435 km north of London.

Trains run from/to London Kings Cross (2h40 to 3h15min), Leeds (1h20m), Newcastle-upon-Tyne (15min) and Edinburgh (2 hours).

National Express operates several daily coaches from Newcastle (30min, 3.10), Leeds (2 hours to 2h30min, from 16.60) and London (6h30min to 7h30min, 31.20).

The nearest international airport is Newcastle Airport.


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