Considering its vibrancy, beauty and historical treasures, it’s amazing that Durham is not a major fixture on the tourist trail. One can only assume it’s because this little jewel of a city and county are squashed between the majesty of Yorkshire, which trumpets its offerings much louder, and the glorious Northumberland coast.
But this tiny place — which has been dubbed the best to visit in the UK — won’t be hiding its light under a bushel much longer.
In December, Durham launches its bid to be the first UK City of Culture in 2013, a move it kicked off a couple of weeks ago with a fabulous light festival.
Drawn to see the spectacular 1,000-year-old cathedral transformed with phenomenal projections and the river banks lit up, I found a compact collection of steep, cobbled streets surrounded by a U-shaped sweep of river which endows the city’s handsome stone buildings with a beating green heart.
Durham is, I discovered, an intimate place which inspires lingering, whether to stroll ancient greens or browse quirky shops selling hand-made jewellery, offbeat designer clothing, gifts and books.
Many craft workshops and boutiques are tucked away up narrow alleys — known locally as vennels and currently being revamped — or in hidden lanes beneath the main city streets.
One of the best is Fowler’s Yard, which lies on the riverbank beneath the old covered market. I could have whiled away hours in Leonard’s Coffee Shop, a modern café serving wonderful home-baked goods and lunches facing a row of ateliers and next to a small theatre.
Artisan cheesemakers and other producers of local fare are represented in the market hall itself, and punctuating the visit with a properly-made cappuccino and yummy date scone made for a pretty perfect morning. But the great glory of the city (at least according to the guidebooks) is the grander part —- the World Heritage Site comprising the cathedral and adjacent castle of England’s only prince bishops.
These wealthy clerics were permitted to own vast swathes of land and raise their own armies to protect it — but the last of them did bequeath the castle to the university where, amazingly for such a magnificent building with the best location in town, it now serves as a hall of residence.
Visitors can join group tours of the castle, but to get the most out of the cathedral and the city’s many hidden gems, it is worth investing in half a day with Jan Williams, a Blue Badge guide who really brings the old stones and the stories they harbour to life. She showed us not only the magnificent carved pillars and vaulted stone ceilings for which the cathedral is famous, but the striking works of modern and ancient art which dot the nave. She also revealed the secret place where we could enjoy the dancing of sunlight reflected from one of the few surviving coloured stained glass windows — many older ones were removed during the Reformatiion.
From cathedral and castle we proceeded to a wonderful four-sided cloister where a community of Benedictine monks once lived, ate, studied, washed and worked.
The College, as the cathedral close is known, a serene green space surrounded by handsome Georgian-style buildings, is home not to the university but the choir school where Tony Blair once learnt to sing.
The university — England’s third oldest after Oxford and Cambridge — is omnipresent; students are everywhere, scurrying in and out of the castle, strolling the riverbanks, filling the pubs and cafés. They bring a youth and vibrancy which prevents the city feeling staid, and as in all student towns, make for some interesting shopping.
What Durham deserves is a hip boutique hotel in the city centre, and as its profile is raised, no doubt it will get one. For the moment the new Radisson or the centrally-located Marriott will have to do.
The latter comprises a jumble of buildings, old and new, and you could as easily finish up with a view of a car park as of the river, so do specify a request for the latter.
At least Durham does have Terry Laybourne, the restaurateur who has brought excellent local food to the north-east; his Bistro 21 is the best place to eat and offers plenty of fish and vegetarian dishes.
The city of Durham easily sustains a weekend — and is on the east coast main line, so is easily reached by train — but there are so many must-sees in the surrounding countryside, it would be worth driving up or hiring a car if the 233-mile drive from London feels too much of a slog.
Nostalgia buffs will enjoy the award-winning Beamish open air museum, where a tram takes visitors back in time to visit the Victorian village streets and collieries which were once a mainstay of north-east heritage. The Weardale Museum, in which an authentic miner’s cottage kitchen has been preserved, tells the tale of how most people lived.
It seems astonishing, visiting the handsome little town of Seaham with its stock of grand Georgian buildings, that this, too, was once a colliery town. These days it is home to a top-notch spa hotel with Michelin-starred restaurant and is shortly getting a shiny new marina. But all up and down the Durham coast, beaches that were once black have been reclaimed, and in their place is a clean, wild and beautiful stretch of seascape.
When the Bishop of Durham finally moved out of the castle which had been home to the Prince Bishops for 800 years, he moved the seat of the bishopric to the old hunting lodge at Bishop Auckland. Auckland Castle now houses a priceless collection of Zurburan paintings depicting Jacob and his 12 sons, which can be seen during the summer season.
Another unmissable place for art lovers is Barnard Castle, where the Bowes Museum has one of the finest international art collections outside London. They are displayed in the unlikely setting of a French chateau rising on the skyline of this charming market town.
For sheer rural splendour, there are the Durham Dales and the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, making this great walking country. Castle Eden Dene National Nature Reserve is the largest area of natural woodland in the north-east — and a rare example of the wildwood which once covered most of England. Prime times to visit Durham are during one of its many festivals — and this city really knows how to throw a party. In summer, there is a two-week brass bandfest — underpinned by the Miners’ Gala, which has survived decades after the closure of the pits — which draws a huge crowd.
There is a June regatta known as “the Henley of the North”, which attracts top crews to the River Wear, but in spite of the weather I would always opt for the utterly enchanting biennial November light festival, which will next get an airing in 2011.
Don’t wait for two years to get to Durham, though — the time to go is now, before the battle for the title of City of Culture shines the spotlight on it and potentially overwhelms its, as yet, little-known charms.
As a cradle of Christianity, Durham only ever had a small community and one synagogue. That closed in 1955 and is now a Presbyterian chapel. A small 19th-century community in this city of guilds included Jewish glaziers. Today, the nearest congregation is in nearby Darlington, although Durham University does have a Jewish Society which has seen a dramatic increase in its membership numbers and activities in the past year or two.
Durham Station is on the East Coast Main Line; check out the best fares at www.eastcoast.co.uk or call 08457 225225. The Durham Marriott Royal County (0191 3866821; www.marriott.co.uk) has double rooms from about £110. Jan Williams (0191 383 0988, email@example.com). More information on the city and country at www.visitcountydurham.com