An Autumnal Afternoon in Durham
Durham City is the crowning jewel of County Durham, a historic town nestled by the River Wear since roughly 200 BC, if the archaeological evidence is anything to go by. The present city can accurately be traced back to 995AD, when a group of monks from Lindisfarne chose the strategic hill as a place to found a church in which to bury the body of Saint Cuthbert.
Because of its historic beginnings, Durham has that old English town feeling to it like Cambridge, Oxford or York. Although technically a city because of its cathedral, Durham is little bigger than a medium sized town. It is made up of winding streets and cobbled alleyways that retain a market town feel despite the streets now being lined with high-street stores. It’s not a place of cocktail bars and nightclubs. You’re more likely to be able to do a cafe crawl than a bar crawl there.
Because of this, Durham can quickly be covered within an afternoon. Wandering is the main entertainment of the day, and it certainly is a city worth exploring. I began my own sunny, autumn afternoon in Durham by walking from the train station to the main part of the city across Framwellgate Bridge, from which you can get a great view of the spectacular Norman cathedral, the city’s pride and joy.
From Framwellgate Bridge, I wandered up Silver Street into Durham Market Place, hopping in and out of the different shops for a bit of early Christmas shopping. The heart of this commercial square is the Victorian Durham Market Hall, an inside market home to over fifty independent traders selling everything from food to outdoor pursuits, from carpet fittings to tattoos and piercings. I spent a good while wandering about the market, avoiding the cold November wind outside while shopping for stocking fillers.
From the Market Place, I made my way up Sadler Street to the Palace Green, home to the one and only Durham Cathedral. The Cathedral has been a place of worship and pilgrimage for almost a millennium, being built in 1093 to house the Shrine of St Cuthbert. It is an antiquarian, retrophile or general historophile’s heaven. The Cathedral itself is renowned for its magnificent architecture, including the twelfth-century Galilee Chapel with its original medieval wall paintings and the stunning Rose Window in the Chapel of the Nine Altars.
It is an eyeful, both from the outside and the inside, to say the least. I particularly love the great doors of the Cathedral, as the diagonal carvings on the stone arches of the entrance makes it feel like you’re being drawn in further and further into the Cathedral as you walk in.
Walking into the Cathedral, you will be amazed by the sheer vastness of the nave, which is architecturally stunning. With the ribbed vaulted roof high above you, held up by the towering sandstone pillars, it is an amazing example of ancient craftsmanship. The main part of the Cathedral is my favourite part, as standing in the middle of the nave on the central aisle, below the towering roof, it’s hard not to catch your breath by the magnitude of the columns and walls around you. There I was, gazing up at a ceiling that has stood for nearly 1000 years, seeing through William the Conqueror’s rule, the Black Death, the Reformation and the Harry Potter films. It is simply beautiful and awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos inside the Cathedral, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Or consult Google images.
Aside from the main part of the Cathedral, for the history buffs amongst us, it is worthwhile going along to Open Treasure, the world-class exhibition which begins in the fourteenth-century Monks’ Dormitory, going onto the Collections Gallery and the monastic Great Kitchen. If you like your old relics, Open Treasure will also be right up your street as you will get to see the treasures of Durham Cathedral, including the relics of St Cuthbert. Talk about making the most of your money!
Leaving the weight of nearly 1000 years of history behind me, I turned from the Palace Green onto the cobbles of The Bailey, one of Durham’s oldest and loveliest streets. I joined the clusters of students milling around the pretty, bite-size colleges along its length, feeling like I could be walking down this street decades ago and it wouldn’t have felt much different. You would still have been able to spot students juggling books, coffee and a swinging satchel. There is a timelessness to this college part of Durham, it feels as if no matter what happens on the outside, The Bailey will always look the same. This is hardly surprising, as some of the five Bailey university colleges that span this area date from the early nineteenth century, and the university itself has as a part of its estate 63 listed buildings. The preservation of history is practically woven into the cobbles.
After I had amused myself watching struggling students, I came to Prebends Bridge, one of the best spots in the city for a great view of the cathedral perched grandly above. I then followed the riverside path round once I had crossed the river, enjoying walking under the falling autumn leaves while admiring the views of the Cathedral and the old city huddled below.
Getting a tad peckish by this point, I then looped back on myself by walking back into the main part of the city across Framwellgate Bridge again, but this time I headed down towards Elvet Bridge, turning down the side street next to Market Cross Jewellers to the cosy Flat White Cafe, a gorgeous little cafe tucked down the backstreet. I stayed here warming up on a generous bowl of cheesy cauliflower soup and a latte while reading a book and writing a few letters in the rosy glow from the lights.
Once refreshed and warmed, I finished my autumnal afternoon in Durham by heading back to the train station, stopping for a moment to admire the cathedral in its majesty in the enclosing dark. The only thing that would have added to the scene would have been snow. It’s not too early for a white Christmas, is it?