A wealth of history
The “Land of the Prince Bishops” was once a semi-independent state, ruled by powerful church leaders, and Durham is probably best known for the towering cathedral that captures the gaze of passengers arriving on the city’s high rail viaduct.
The semi-French names of nearby towns, such as Chester-le-Street, are a reminder that long after the Romans left the area William the Conqueror’s cohorts also managed to push this far north.
The cathedral – often cited the best example of Norman architecture in Europe – was one of Britain’s first World Heritage sites, and was supposedly saved from German bombers in World War II by a minor weather miracle.
Founded in 1093, its Gothic flying buttresses and vaulted ceiling were pioneering at the time, making possible a vast interior that symbolises the power of the Almighty.
A tale of two cities
Durham has a Jekyll and Hyde personality: by day it’s genteel with posh students and American tourists en-route to Edinburgh.
But the North East used to be a major mining area, and in the reconstructed village and pithead of nearby “living museum” Beamish, visitors can get a feel for the tough industrial past that shaped the locals’ no-nonsense character.
This enduring earthiness makes for good pub banter, and at the complex of new bars and restaurants around the Gala Theatre you’ll find plenty of people happy to have “a bit craic-on” with you as they chuck a few down – especially during the office party season.
The theatre’s name is a reference to the annual Miners’ Gala, where villagers proudly marched behind the bands and banners that belonged to their local collieries.
The first parade was in 1871, and despite the controversial pit closures of the 1980s this gathering still takes place every July.
During the world wars many local men were recruited to the Durham Light Infantry.
The DLI Museum (durham.gov.uk/dli) tells their story, and also has a small art gallery.
Afterwards you can shop for presents in the Victorian market before retiring to the various pubs around Elvet bridge, where the meandering River Wear encircles the cathedral and a castle which is now a university residence.
While you may not become a figurehead for Durham, you should catch a glimpse of why Bryson fell in love with this “perfect little city”.