Travel review: County Durham

Durham is a compact city and easy to explore.
Durham is a compact city and easy to explore.
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A Unesco World Heritage Site, history in spades and a sweet shop to die for. Lindsay Pantry explores County Durham.

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I have vivid memories of stepping back in time at Beamish Museum as a child, my nan at my side, stroking shire horses, heading down the drift mine, writing on chalk boards in the school and buying seemingly bottomless bags of sherbert in the Edwardian sweet shop. Summer holidays at their best.

And as I sat on top of the tram about to discover it again 25 years later – it was just as exciting. We started our short break around Durham at the open air museum, which opened in 1970 with the aim of preserving the buildings, objects and machinery of industrial life in the North in the 1800s and 1900s.

It’s fair to say the highlights of the day – lunch at the coal-fired fish and chip shop and a wallet-busting trip back to the sweet shop – set the precedent for my few days in Durham. Food. And lots of it.

The bar had already been set high in the restaurant of Beamish Hall Hotel. Our hotel for the evening was just moments from the museum in Stanley, in the Vale of Durham. Set amid rolling parkland, the country house hotel has its own micro-brewery and Stables restaurant, offering local produce with exotic twists. An evening stroll around the beautifully-kept grounds was very much in order after tucking into a huge plate of lamb tagine.

After a hearty Northumbrian breakfast in the elegant Eden Room the next morning, we made our way to the city centre to explore. It may be relatively compact, but Durham has a lot to discover. We started by making our way up to Palace Green, which is overlooked by the cathedral, Durham Castle, Palace Green Library, and various university buildings, each with hundreds of years of history and now comprising a Unesco World Heritage Site.

A cathedral has stood at the site since 1093, and the Romanesque architecture is quite something to behold. Something, in fact, that is currently being replicated using 350,000 pieces of Lego in support of its latest development project. It’s well worth taking one of the cathedral’s organised tours to discover more about the treasures that lie within – and as part of – its walls.

From the cathedral we headed across to the Palace Green Library, which until August 31, is marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Across several galleries, an exhibition charts the history of revolt, stretching from the War of the Roses to the Occupy Movement. The only surviving 1216 issue of the charter – on loan from Durham Cathedral – is the centrepiece of the exhibition.

After a lofty morning of religion and politics, it was time for more food. This time though, it could be easily excused under the vestige of more history. The lovely Cafe on the Green is housed in the building where the Bishop of Durham, Thomas Langley, founded schools of music and grammar in 1414. It also makes a mean chicken caesar salad.

There was more history to be discovered at Durham Castle, which is now home to students of University College. More than 100 students live there during term time, and it was one of them who led our short tour around the castle, which was commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1072. It made me shudder to think of the dingy flat that housed me during my student days.

After a spot of shopping, we headed out into the Durham Dales and Romaldkirk, where our bed for the night was at the beautiful Rose and Crown.

An unassuming country pub from the front, upstairs and to the rear are charming rooms with plush furnishings and the most relaxing atmosphere that will take you a world away from the city.

Our room was as stunning as the Teesdale countryside, and we were blown away further when we headed downstairs for dinner. The Rose and Crown’s restaurant has been awarded two AA rosettes and was both imaginative and comforting, with high quality local produce, served with a friendliness that made you feel at home. The amuse bouche alone was worth the trip.

Over breakfast the next morning, we were already plotting a return trip.

It was just a short drive from the hotel to that day’s spot of culture. The Bowes Museum is situated in Barnard Castle, technically in the Durham Dales but only 13 miles or so from Scotch Corner, so easily accessible from Yorkshire for a day trip. And the magnificent chateau is worth the visit for the first glimpse of the building alone.

It’s currently hosting the UK’s first comprehensive exhibition of work by French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. His magnificent gowns and suits are placed alongside items from the museum’s textile collection, creating a story of the history of fashion that even my typical non-fashionista Yorkshire partner could appreciate. There was much more to explore over the sprawling museum, and it was easy to spend the full day investigating the collection, much of it gathered by the museum’s founders, John and Joséphine Bowe, in the 19th century. Be sure to gather in the second-floor picture gallery shortly before 2pm to catch a performance by the 18th century Silver Swan automaton. For our visit, the crowd was so big that we had to crane our necks to see it, but it was quite charming.

Of course, we couldn’t leave without ending our trip the way it began, with more great food in the museum’s lovely restaurant. Someone pass the Rennies.

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