County Durham is on the shortlist to be UK City of Culture 2025. When Durham 2025 invited me to spend the weekend exploring, I leapt at the chance to introduce Teen One to some of my favourite places in the UK on a Cultural Weekend in County Durham.
Guide to a Cultural Weekend in County Durham
I first fell in love with County Durham back in the 1980s when I went to University in Newcastle upon Tyne. You get the lot in County Durham: seaside, saints, industrial heritage, eye-popping art and two UNESCO sites.
Let’s start with the city of Durham. If you are arriving by train from the south, make sure you book a seat on the right hand side because the view of the Cathedral is one of best views from a train to be had anywhere. Durham City is a small city packed with great shops, cafes and restaurants. I always make sure that I head to the Market Hall where there are 40 traders selling everything from food to jewellery.
Durham World Heritage Site
Head upwards in Durham City and you will eventually get to the Cathedral Close. As you walk in, take a good look around you. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so officially amazing. Durham Cathedral and Castle are among the most culturally significant places on the planet. On the day of our most recent visit the bells were ringing out just to make it even more special. The Palace Green Library is free to visit and has a wealth of information about the site, it is also the place to book tours of the Castle.
Durham Cathedral is one of the finest Cathedral’s anywhere, built by the Normans on the site of the Anglo Saxon shrine of St Cuthbert. Inside is a mass of rounded Norman arches supported by massive pillars decorated with zig zags. Many windows are aglow with stained glass, I especially like that the stained glass dates from the medieval to now with new windows glowing proudly and beautifully next to ancient ones. Durham Cathedral has long been famous for its embroidery and still has a team of Broderers that work both to conserve and create new work. Take a look at the altar dedicated to St Aidan for stunning modern embroidery.
Shrine of St Cuthbert
Pilgrims have been coming to Durham Cathedral for the shrine of St Cuthbert since the 10th century. Cuthbert was one of the people who helped establish Christianity in the British Isles. He was a monk, bishop and finally hermit on Holy Island in the 7th century. First all he was venerated on Holy Island being created a saint in 798. When the Vikings attacked Holy Island in 793 the monks fled taking Cuthbert’s body with them eventually ending up in Durham. In 1104 when the Norman Cathedral was new the shrine was studded with many precious stones, but this was destroyed in 1542 as part of Henry VIII’s reformation and the current plain inscribed stone put in place.
Durham Cathedral Museum
The most precious treasures of Durham Cathedral are kept in the museum. Here you will find the treasures of St Cuthbert; his Anglo Saxon coffin, gold and garnet cross and ivory comb. For the Platinum Jubilee there is a special display Crown and Cathedral, including the cope worn at the Queen’s coronation. It is a very special cope as the Bishop of Durham stands to the right of the monarch during the coronation service.
Harry Potter and Durham Cathedral
The cloisters at Durham Cathedral have stood in for Hogwarts on a couple of occasions making appearances in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets. Cloister Garth (that’s the grass in the middle of the Cloister) was used to film Hedwig’s flight in the snow in the Philosopher’s Stone. The Chapter House, which you can only see on a museum highlights tour on Saturday’s, was Professor Minerva McGonagall’s classroom where Transfiguration lessons took place.
Durham Cathedral Undercroft Café
This was my first ever Cathedral Café (believe it or not back in the 1980s such things were not common) and remains one of my favourites. Excellent lunches, cakes and snacks, I confess that I have been known to visit Durham City purely to visit this café.
- Durham Cathedral
- Opening times: Monday-Saturday 10am-4pm Sunday Noon-4pm
- Admission: free but a donation of £5 is recommended
- Durham Cathedral Museum: Adults £7.50
- Climb the Tower: £5.50
Believe it or not Durham Castle is a student hall of residence, well sort of, it is one of Durham University’s colleges and has student accommodation. You can visit Durham Castle but the timings depend on term times and always on a guided tour. A highlight for me was the ancient Norman chapel in the basement of the castle. During the summer you can even stay in the castle.
- Durham Castle
- Opening times vary check website
- Admission: £5
Eating in Durham City
Durham has many cute coffee shops and restaurants. My favourites for daytime repast are the Undercroft Café at the Cathedral and Vennels Café. Vennels can be found up a narrow alleyway just off Saddler Street on the way up to the Cathedral.
Northern Saints and Pilgrimage
Avid readers of my weekly newsletter and social media will know that Mr CW and I are currently on a pilgrimage to visit every English Cathedral. All previous visits don’t count and only visits made together count. There is something about being in an ancient place of worship of any religion that exudes calm and continuity, culture of the highest order. Christianity in England has its roots firmly in the North East, Saints Cuthbert, Aidan and Bede (more popularly known as the Venerable Bede) all lived in the area. There are six pilgrimage routes to follow that criss cross Northumbria and County Durham. If you aspire to complete the Camino de Santiago then you can get some miles under your belt by walking the Camino Inglés from Finchdale Abbey to Escomb Church. Get your pilgrim card stamped as miles walked here will count toward the 100km needed to officially complete the Spanish Camino.
Escomb Saxon Church
No walking pilgrimage for us this time but Teen One and I did seek out Escomb Church. One of only four complete Anglo Saxon churches in England. It is tiny and set in a circular church yard. Take a close look at the walls, the canny Anglo Saxons used the stone from the Roman camp at nearby Binchester. Also notice a curious sundial with only three times, Terse, Sext and None the times for prayer. The sundial is thought to be the oldest in the country sill in same position it was made for.
- Escomb Saxon church, DL14 7SY
- Open: Summer 9.00am-8.00pm. Winter 9.00am-4.00pm
- Admission: Free
County Durham Castles
County Durham has many fine castles reflecting its closeness to the English/Scottish border. Some are just picturesque ruins, some still aristocratic homes and others hotels.
Raby Castle looks like a castle should look. Crenellations, towers, a moat, a deer park even a resident Lord and Lady. I first heard about Raby Castle when I was studying Henry IV part I, Ralph Nevill was a staunch supporter of Henry Bolingbroke. When the latter became King, Ralph became the Earl of Westmoreland. The Nevills built Raby and lived there until one of them led the Rising of the North and forfeited the estate.
After the restoration the Vane family took over Raby Castle and set about creating the fine rooms that you see today. Most exciting for those of us bought up to believe that Richard III was a good man and rightful King, Cecily Nevill mother to both Richard III and Edward IV was born here. All of today’s Royal family are descended from Cecily via her grand-daughter Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII.
- Raby Castle, Staindrop, County Durham DL2 3AH
- Open: Wednesday – Sunday 11am – 4pm, Deer park daily 10am – 4pm
- Admission: Adults £10.50
As a student of politics Teen One was hugely excited to visit Barnard Castle, to test his eyes. Barnard Castle is both a town and a castle. The town is handsome and home to many excellent cafes and shops selling desirable things often made locally.
OK, two headings the same but Barnard Castle Castle seemed too long. Anyway, the castle at Barnard Castle is on the outskirts of the town overlooking the River Tees, a fine defensive position. Nowadays the castle is in ruins but what ruins. You can roam across the whole site, climbing up inside turrets. A castle in which to run around in pretending that you are a knight.
- Barnard Castle, DL12 8PR
- Open: Daily 10am – 5pm
- Admission: Adults £7
- English Heritage members free
The Bowes Museum
The first time I saw the Bowes Museum I couldn’t believe my eyes. I drove past heading to the factory that I was scheduled to do some filming at for the BBC, glanced to my right and there was French chateau in the middle of North Pennines. Later, when filming was finished, I visited the museum and fell in love. It is still one of my favourite museums.
Bowes Museum: a brief history
The Bowes Museum was built by John and Joséphine Bowes to house their extensive collection of art. Joséphine was French, hence the building style. John Bowes was the son of the Earl of Strathmore and Mary Milner, the couple were devoted but didn’t marry until a few hours before the Earl died in a belated attempt to secure the inheritance of John. John’s uncle contested the will and won the title but County Durham estate remained with John. Even without the title and Scottish estates John was still on the wealthiest men in the country. He met and married Joséphine and the pair set about amassing a great art collection. They had no children and so created the museum to house the collection and left it for public enjoyment.
Bowes Museum collection
What I love most about the Bowes is that everything is here because John and Joséphine liked it. There are rooms full of porcelain, that I would not have bought but Joséphine loved. The picture gallery has Canaletto, El Greco and Goya. Most special of all is a life size silver mechanical swan. When we visited the swan was having a service but ordinarily the swan performs. The Bowes is worth a visit just for the Swan even if it isn’t swimming that day.
The Café Bowes somehow manages to feel like a garden room in a French chateau and is the perfect place for a cup of coffee and a spot of lunch.
- The Bowes Museum
- Barnard Castle, County Durham DL12 8NT
- Open: Daily 10am – 5pm
- Admission: Adult £15.50 ticket is an annual pass
- Artfund members free
Way back in the 80s I visited Bishop Auckland when it was a mining community. I knew that it was the seat of the Prince Bishops of Durham but trying to peer through the gates was as close as you could get to their Palace, now all that has changed. The mines have gone, the Bishops are still here but now their Palace is open to all and Bishop Auckland has become a place to come and see top notch art.
Auckland Castle was the Palace of the Prince Bishops of Durham. Recently restored it is one of the best preserved Bishop’s Palaces in Europe and open to visit.
What is a Prince Bishop?
It all began with William the Conqueror, he needed to impose order on his new kingdom. The North proved especially troublesome, so after some skirmishes it was decided that a Prince Bishop would effectively rule the north. They could hold their own parliament, raise armies, levy taxes, issue charters, collect revenue from mines and mint their own coins. Unsurprisingly they became stupendously wealthy. The first Prince Bishop was appointed in 1071 and the last one stepped down in 1836 when the post became a mere Bishop.
St Peter’s Chapel
I’ve been into many decent sized parish churches that are smaller than St Peter’s Chapel, the private chapel of the Prince Bishop’s of Durham. Indeed it is one of the largest private chapels to be found anywhere. Large and beautiful.
Auckland Castle Throne Room
Every self respecting Palace has a throne room and Auckland Castle is no exception. It is the first of the magnificent Gothic rooms designed by James Wyatt that you see after the chapel Teen One declared the throne room to be his favourite room in the Palace.
Long Dining Room
My favourite room was the long dining room. Mainly because the walls are hung with paintings Francisco de Zurbarán depicting the sons of Abraham. Bishop Trevor bought the paintings in 1756 to show that the Christian faith has Jewish origins and hung them in his dining room so that all his visitors would see them. They have hung here ever since.
Bishops at home
After the long dining room you process through a series of rooms depicting how Bishop’s lived at various times. All are fascinating but my highlight was the room of Dr David Jenkins, Bishop from 1984 – 94. For no other reason than there is a Sony Walkman on display with Wham! Make it Big ready to play. Wham! Make it Big is my favourite ever and I like to think of Bishop David listening to Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go as he composed his sermons.
Bishops Kitchen Café
On cold days you can consume your hot drinks under the arches the medieval kitchen and on sunny days eat cooling cakes outside in the sunshine.
Every room in the Spanish Gallery is jaw dropping. I don’t think that I have ever seen so many El Greco paintings together outside of the Prado in Milan. Velazquez and Murillo are here too. Simply one of the best galleries that I have visited anywhere, you need to visit. But why Spanish Art in Bishop Auckland? The collection was gathered together by local born Jonathan Ruffer was born nearby who oversaw the conversion of a bank in Bishop Auckland to house his magnificent collection of Golden Age Spanish Art.
Spanish Gallery tapas bar
Why would you have a gallery cafe when you could have a gallery tapas bar? Open from 11am – 11pm perfect for a Spanish style dinner after a day of sumptuous Spanish Art.
Information about what to see in Bishop Auckland can be found at the base of the Auckland Tower. Even better you can clamber up to top of the tower for magnificent views out across Bishop Auckland. You get a real sense of how town and the Palace would have coexisted for centuries and a fine view over the river Wear and castle gardens.
- Bishop Auckland
- Open: Wednesday – Sunday 11am – 4pm (Spanish Gallery Thursday – Sunday)
- Admission: Auckland Castle Adult £14, Spanish Gallery Adult £14, Auckland Tower free
- Art Fund members free
County Durham North Pennines
I toyed with idea of calling this heading NOT ALL CULTURE IS IN GALLERIES. It would seem that UNESCO agree with me as the North Pennines have created a UNESCO Global Geopark. At night you can see the stars properly, there are no big towns nearby to pollute the skies with light letting the stars twinkle undimmed. Star gazing in the dark skies of North Pennines is a truly special thing to do.
High Force and Low Force waterfalls
High Force is England’s largest waterfall and Low Force is her little brother a few miles down stream. Who doesn’t love a waterfall, especially one with a biggest tag attached? You can see High Force in two ways, either on a five mile circular walk from the Bowlees car park taking in part of the Pennine Way or short ramble down from the High Force car park. If you choose the High Force car park you will need to pay both for the car park and to access the path down to the waterfall but you do get to sit and admire the falls from the rocks at the base of the falls. The circular route is free to follow, but you view the falls from the cliffs above. Do not stray close to the edge and keep all dogs and children under control.
A little bit of Geology … Whin Sill is a vast slab of igneous rock that underlies most of Northumbria, Cumbria and County Durham. Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island and Bamburgh Castle stand on outcrops of the Whin Sill. High Force is another outcrop, the hard igneous rock creating the shelf for the water to fall from.
- High Force Waterfall
- Entry £2.50
B6278, My Favourite Road
We finished our tour of County Durham at High Force and home was south. Did we head south? No. My favourite road is the B6278 from Middleton in Teesdale to Blanchland so I had to take Teen One to see it. You climb up to what seems to be the roof of the Pennines and cross from Teesdale to Weardale and into Derwentdale. In the old days there was a ford at Stanhope but that is now closed to traffic. Just as well, I once stalled in the middle of the river and had to push the car out. Teen One’s verdict? A proper Top Gear kind of a road, he’s not wrong.
Where to Stay in County Durham
Stay in a castle, why would you not want to stay in a castle.
Walworth Castle Hotel
Teen One and I stayed in Walworth Castle which was perfectly situated to explore Durham, Raby, Bishop Auckland, Barnard Castle and High Force. Raby Castle is practically on the doorstep. You get a great castle vibe without breaking the bank.
In the past I have stayed in Lumley Castle which has the added dimension of having to drive across the edge of the Riverside home of Durham County Cricket club.
During the long summer vacation it is possible to book rooms actually in Durham Castle. Bear in mind that these are usually student accommodation and so will not be luxurious. More luxurious State Rooms are available throughout the year.
High Force Hotel
Not a castle but a spectacular location, the High Force Hotel is in the heart of the North Pennines, perfect to take in the Dark Skies. We didn’t stay but popped in for a cup of tea and hot chocolate and drooled over the Sunday lunches as they were being taken to other people’s tables.
I loved introducing Teen One to Cultural County Durham, take a look at the Durham 2025 website to see other cultural gems that the county has to offer.
Teen One and I were guests of Durham 2025