It hadn’t occurred to me just how straightforward it is to get to Durham from York until I took a trip to Newcastle back at the beginning of 2018, and the train sailed straight past it less than an hour after we left York station. I was captured by it then, the astonishing Cathedral presiding over this quaint little city nestled in the northern countryside, and resolved to venture there myself sometime soon. ‘Soon’ ended up being almost eighteen months later, in the middle of summer while I took some spontaneous annual leave from work.
Directly opposite Durham’s station are a set of steps up into Wharton Park, named after its founder William Lloyd Wharton who established the park in 1857 as a companion to the station. It includes a mock castle, complete with a Crimean War-era gun, as well as play areas, an outdoor gym, a small amphitheatre which functions as a performance space, and, naturally, a tearoom. It closed in 2015 to undergo a huge refurbishment, but now in addition to everything else it serves Durham’s locals with community projects and events, as well as functioning as a great outdoor learning space for local nurseries and schools. It’s worth taking the opportunity to wander round on arriving in Durham, as wandering to the top of the mock castle, known as ‘the Battery’, rewards you with wonderful views of the city below.
From the park we wandered down towards the city centre. Like many cities in the north of England, Durham suffered greatly during the early 20th century during the Great Depression, and again during the 1980s while Margaret Thatcher’s government was in power, as thousands of the county’s miners undertook strike action to try to prevent the closure of collieries (mines) across the country. (We actually visited just a couple of days prior to the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, a trade union march where colliery bands ‘would march through their villages starting early in the morning and then [sic] make their way to Durham from all directions’ (source).) More recently, austerity measures are continuing to hit the populations of cities like Durham hard. As a result, although the centre of town is beautifully picturesque, with huge townhouses and the rich University colleges, the outskirts are struggling, and the gap between the rich and the poor is increasingly stark.
We navigated across the River Wharfe and onto the city’s historic cobbled streets, aiming for the Cathedral which, like in York, you can see from pretty much anywhere in the city. The walk was relatively straightforward, though it can be steep at times, and it would be much trickier for somebody in a wheelchair, or with other access issues. There is some limited parking by the Cathedral which may be available to blue-badge holders, but there is also a minibus service and battery-operated scooters provided by Durham City Shopmobility, as well as the Durham Cathedral Bus – a ‘hop-on, hop-off’ service which goes between the bus station, the railway station, the city centre, and the Cathedral every 20 minutes every day except Sundays for £1. Once we made it, we were greeted by the Palace Green, and the stunning, almost-a-century-old cathedral.
The cathedral is technically free to enter but there is a suggested donation of £3 to support the expensive upkeep of the building; if you have the means I really encourage you to donate, but I think it’s brilliant that those who can’t don’t have to. We were greeted by an extremely friendly team of staff and volunteers, who – after checking our fitness levels and our footwear – convinced us in the queue to climb the 325 steps up the Cathedral’s Central Tower. This costs £5 each, which we paid instead of the donation.
There’s so much to see inside the Cathedral, and I really recommend just going to check it out for yourself, but the Cathedral website does a pretty good job of showing off the highlights. I’d also had some concerns following a host of TripAdvisor reviews all complaining that visitors aren’t allowed to take photographs inside, but in fact these rules have recently been relaxed (those reviews may have had something to do with it…) and there was no issue.
We made our way to the spiral staircase up the tower, where we were checked in by a steward before heading on up. The first section of steps was relatively wide, but they do narrow as you climb. About halfway up there’s a lovely exhibition about recent restoration work at the Cathedral, which provides a nice little break before the final push upwards to the top. It’s worth pointing out that going up the tower probably isn’t a good idea if you’re extremely unfit, very scared of heights, get claustrophobic, or have any kind of medical condition which might be exacerbated by climbing 325 steps one after the other. The steps are uneven at times, and the tower has ‘the steepest and most narrow spiral of any Cathedral in England and Wales’ (source), so do check in with yourself before and during the climb to make sure you’re comfortable to keep going – and to come back down again (which is the bit I really dislike!). The Cathedral website discourages pregnant visitors from making the climb, and stipulates that children must be at least 8 years old and accompanied by an adult right up to the age of 18. A staff member or volunteer will check your footwear and let you know if it’s not appropriate for the climb; large bags are also not permitted.
We made it through the climb up and were greeted with absolutely wonderful views from the top. On a day like ours it was really worth it to just enjoy being in such a different space. There’s no proper seating at the top of the tower, but you can just sit on the platform (you’ll probably need to!) to rest before you take the requisite selfies.
As I mentioned above, I’m really not a fan of climbing down these kinds of staircases. There are ‘passing points’ as you go, but we bumped into a number of groups on the way down which made for some less-than-comfortable interactions as we squeezed past at the narrow end of the steps. I was pretty shaky by the time we reached the bottom, and not just because of the workout (though my legs ached for about five days afterwards), but it was good to have done it. The steward at the bottom checked us off; it was reassuring to know they had a system in place to make sure nobody was left at the top at the end of the day…
There was still so much to explore in the Cathedral, so we headed through to the cloisters. Nowadays these are best known as a shooting location for the Harry Potter films by which those of us who are my age mark the passing of our childhoods, so it was pretty neat to wander round and recognise a place I’d never been.
From there, we meandered through into the Undercroft to check out the amazing Durham Cathedral in LEGO, which is exactly what it sounds like – a down-scaled model of the Cathedral made entirely out of LEGO bricks, complete with stained glass windows. The model was built as a way to fundraise for the Cathedral’s Open Treasure exhibition; visitors would pay £1 to lay one brick on the model, which, once completed (after three years), contains 300,000 bricks, making it the largest LEGO model ever built by the general public. It’s quite special to look at, especially for someone who grew up building LEGO like Greg. It’s also really tricky to photograph, so I recommend just checking out the page on the website to see more!
We perused the shop, and then popped into the Chapel of the Holy Cross which featured a light projection in the shape of a crucifix instead of a traditional wooden once, which I felt was a really beautiful and contemporary way of displaying the symbol in this simple and quiet little space, before deciding it was time to check out more of the city. The Undercroft also features a cafe as well as accessible toilets.
For more information on visiting Durham Cathedral, including opening times, guided tours, and additional information regarding accessibility, visit their website.
Across Palace Green from the Cathedral is the city’s Castle which, believe or not, also doubles as student accommodation for the University. You can visit the Castle, but only for a guided tour and tickets must be purchased before you enter from the Palace Green Library or the World Heritage Site Visitor Centre, both situated on or close to the Green. The Castle website suggests that the Library is the best place to go for tickets if you have mobility problems, as it was recently made fully accessible during a renovation. We decided not to go ahead on this occasion as we were trying to keep our trip low-cost, but it’s something to check out another time!
It had hit lunchtime, and we stumbled across The Library, a contemporary part-bar, part-pub with a real student-y vibe to it, which was apparently exactly what we were after. We sat outside, which gave us some pretty views over the river, and just chilled for about an hour pretending we were on holiday rather than just a daytrip.
We decided to go and check out the University campus, having passed one or two colleges as we’d walked through. Much of the University sprawls across the city in the Oxbridge style, but the campus is quite modern and houses a number of departments. It being the middle of summer, the campus and surrounding colleges were pretty quiet, bar a few postgraduates and maybe one or two undergrads preparing for resits later on in the summer. We meandered through St Mary’s College, and then curved round and headed back towards the Cathedral along the river. I really liked how you could be going along one of the city’s busier roads, only to take one turn and end up in quiet woodland and countryside; that’s pretty rare in a city.
Having crossed the lovely Prebends Bridge, we found ourselves wandering through the historic Bailey area, which houses five of the University’s sixteen colleges. It was incredibly picturesque; one of those places you just can’t quite believe that people actually live, just a few steps away from one of the country’s most historic cathedrals.
We’d been wandering for nearly two hours, so we decided it was definitely time for a coffee. We headed to Flat White, which Greg had sought out prior to our visit as a place to try, and was just a little way down from Palace Green. It was very Instagram, in the way so many coffee shops are nowadays, and we had no complaints about our iced lattes which, we decided, would fuel us for our walk back to the train station.
I really enjoyed our little day out, but I have to admit that I really felt I’d struggle to live or be a student in Durham. It’s beautiful, and historic, but it also felt isolated. For me, it might be the ideal place to, say, spend a year completely dedicated to studying for a Master’s, but the day was just the right amount of time to spend meandering around this sweet and compact little city.