Having seen the delights of one of England's most South Westerly Cities in Exeter, it was perhaps an odd one to find ourselves heading to one of the most North Easterly Cities in Durham... but as Bill Bryson once so famously said '‘If you have never been to Durham before, go there at once. Take my car, it’s wonderful."
Since we had no car to take, we headed off in our motorhome to test out the 'Park'n' Ride' scheme near to Duham's botanical gardens. Hoping to discover just why Durham's World Heritage sites are so respected across the world.
The historic city of Durham sits proudly overlooking the windswept pastures of County Durham. From it's high vantage point on top of a 'river island', Durham's imposing Cathedral & Castle gaze down on the River Wear as it winds its way around Durham's city centre. These World Heritage Sites were one of the very first to be recognised by UNESCO alongside other established tourist hotspots as the Taj Mahal & Dubrovnik. But Durham has found even more recent fame as elements of Harry Potter have been filmed here in the Chapter Hall.
So Question #1 - Why did the monks from Lindisfarne decide to relocate to Durham. Clearly it's an impressive settlement now, but what made them choose it in the first place?
Durham was once described in Humphry Clinker's novel as a mass of old jumbled stones, with dark streets and a gloomy Cathedral... but we're pleased to say that although we visited in rain, the welcome in the Cathedral was nothing short of a 'brilliant ray of sunshine...' so many enthusiastic volunteers & staff who simply couldn't do enough to help both us and other visitors..
We've learnt a few tips on our European Roadtrip so far, but perhaps the biggest has been to seek out a decent guide to help make the places you're visiting come alive. With young children it can sometimes be a challenge, but our Cathedral Guide (Bob) was fantastic and soon had both girls hanging on his every word as he took us through a journey dating back to St Cuthbert and St Bede. The opportunity to hear how Durham's history has evolved through the Reformation into the Present Day was a brilliant history lesson, and even allowed us to link to previously visited sites in Cordoba (same arches as the lady chapel at Durham) & Santiago de Compostela (the high altar)
So Question 2 - Why did William the Conqueror want to make Durham such an important strategic stronghold in the North (the Cathedral was built in only 40yrs!)
Our Cathedral Tour (best booked in advance if you can, we chose 11am) lasted just over 75mins and certainly gave us food for thought as we raced across the Cathedral's links to the Benedictine Order, the links with the national M&S Chain & it's proud links to the families of this famous mining region. You'd even noticed if you visit now, that the nativity scene includes both a 'pit pony' and a 'miner' within it... (it certainly also reminded us of our travels to the Somme and the stories of the courageous miners in the WW1 who helped win key battles by under-mining their german counterparts)
So Question 3 - If you can, find the stained glass window below and discover why it was commissioned and what it depicts (including the reason why one of the coloured circles is away from the others!)
Having left the main cathedral, we headed to the fantastic, world-class 'Open Treasures' exhibition... sadly no photography was allowed but the brilliantly interactive displays kept the children fully engaged for at least an hour before the sounds of tummies rumbling meant a trip to the Cathedral's own 'Undercroft' for some lunch
As you can probably tell from the pictures above, we fairly rolled out of the Undercroft and headed towards the fantastic lego model of the cathedral (much like the one Libby had added to last week in Exeter)... before heading off to our Castle Tour in the early afternoon (2.15pm)
The Castle has a fabulous history, yet is still very much in use today as part of the halls of residence for current Durham Undergraduates.... this Motte & Bailey Castle was clearly influenced heavily by the Norman's who fought a bloody campaign when ' Harrying the North' to try and establish control of England. We'd first learnt about this when viewing the Bayeux Tapestry, so it was fantastic to get another brilliant guide (Raffaella) to offer a different perspetive
So Question #4 - How did the Norman's manage to build such an impressive defensive stronghold so quickly and did they manage it on their first attempt?
The tour of the castle lasts around 50mins and includes an opportunity to see the inner courtyard of the old castle, visit the amazing Norman Chapel or Tunstall Chapel (a place where the services were so long they even had special seats made to lean on)... Tread the imposing Black Staircase and experience the Great Hall. All offering another view on what 'Castle Life' might have been....
The thought of what life must have been like under the powerful Prince Bishops (given that name as they could both rule and provide spiritual guidance... even raise an army or mint their own coins if they so wished!) was truly staggering!
So Question #5 - Just why does Durham's World Heritage Sites have so many different coat of arms from the Hatfield Tomb to the Castle Walls.. It's a lovely sight, but does it have a hidden meaning?
Perhaps the biggest highlight was one of the oldest and best preserved Norman Arches that you can find across Europe! The Norman's were noted for their fine masonry skills and this was certainly in evidence here... it was perhaps just as amazing to imagine that this arch (some 30ft of the ground) was actually the main entrance to the castle in medieval times!
The fabulous history surrounds you on every step of your journey through the castle, but the sounds of everyday life can still be heard as students pass you in the corridors whilst the catering staff prepare for tonight's banquets in the Great Hall... It really does have that feeling of a place with a 'heart & soul' something carried over from our tour around the Cathedral... the place seems very much alive and happy to be part of 21st Century life in Durham.
With the light fading quickly and having spent a full day in Durham, we simply couldn't fit everything we wanted in today... but that's given us a great reason to return and find out more about the Beamish Museum or the Locomotion We'll just have to carve out some more time to come back and visit this wonderful part of England... but next we head south towards another Cathedral Town, and the City of York.
Search by Categories
Search our blog articles
Search our Archives
Check out our contributions to
Follow us here