Durham weekend – review

Isn’t it amazing how you can grab a child’s attention? One minute they’re bored silly with being inside one of the world’s most impressive cathedrals. The next, they are completely fascinated.

Why? It’s because someone working at Durham Cathedral has just told them that part of the Harry Potter movie was filmed right there. ‘Wow,’ they chorus, desperate for any scrap of information.

The cathedral, voted by listeners to Radio 4′s Today programme in 2001 as the best loved building in Britain (and once described by writer Bill Bryson as ‘the finest building on planet earth’), provided the setting for one of the classrooms as well as the scene when the wizard walks through the cloisters with Hedwig, his owl.

But, while that may be exciting to some children, these facts are probably the least impressive thing about this astonishing monument and place of worship.

It is a jewel in this northern city’s crown and would have been a pleasure to visit even if it had not been bucketing down with rain (it usually rains when we go away).

Building work on this World Heritage Site began in the tenth century as a shrine for St Cuthbert, once Bishop of Lindisfarne, whose remains were taken to the city by monks fleeing the Vikings. The Venerable Bede, one of the most learned men of his day who wrote The History of Britain, is also buried in the Galilee Chapel. Nestling in the verdant Palace Green it stands beside the Norman castle, which was for 800 years the main seat of the city’s Prince Bishops but since 1836 has housed the foundation college of the University of Durham. They must some of luckiest students in the country to live in such fabulous and historic halls of residence.

The green also contains some of the university’s oldest buildings; this is the city’s ancient heart and pure English heritage at its best.

It is in stark contrast to the modern shopping which has grown up on the other side of the cascading River Wear, where jarring architecture of the modern takes you firmly into the 21st century.

But if you come to Durham as a tourist, you’re here for the heritage and history. And the city and county as a whole, has it in spades. There’s no way you will even touch the surface on a weekend break to this university city and its environs.

We managed just a tiny bit -the weather, unfortunately put paid to many ideas on my must-do itinerary -but it was enough to whet the appetite and crave a return trip.

On our first full day there, as we breakfasted in our B&B’s cosy dining room which overlooked the city, the torrential rain stopped. And that meant only two things -eat the full English toute suite and get to the Beamish Open Air Museum. Quick.

Just a 12 mile drive from Durham city, this is a truly wonderful first-hand experience of life from 1825 to 1913 -similar to our own Black Country Museum. Trams and old trolleybuses take visitors around the 300 acre site, which is divided into different sections: the colliery village, to see how the miners and their families lived; the town from 1913, with its homes of the more well-to-do, haberdashery shop, Co-op food store, sweet shop and park; Pockerley manor house from 1823, with its higgledypiggledy rooms and beautiful cottage garden. We spent a good three hours there and probably could have stayed for longer to take in the authentic experience. It’s no wonder this place has won awards for years.

But if it’s resplendent style you want, a visit to the magnificent Bowes Museum is a must. Just outside the picturesque town of Barnard Castle, it was built in the style of a French chateau by John Bowes, an ancestor of the late Queen Mother, and his French actress wife Josephine.

It houses the family’s collections of treasures and many have national importance, including the largest collection of French paintings in the country and one of the largest collections of Spanish paintings. There are also ceramics, furniture, textiles and local antiques to feast your eyes upon.

If that isn’t enough there are also wonderful gardens to walk around.

County Durham may once have been associated with pits and coal, but this is only a tiny part of this largely rural and picturesque area. It is brimming with heritage and makes for an enlightening and enjoyable weekend away. Just make sure to book a return trip.

 First printed in The Birmingham Post, December 2003. Must not be reproduced without prior permission from Jayne Howarth