The Family Comes to Durham

Durham: a time-traveller’s bubble of medieval streets and mismatched architecture.

First term is drawing onwards towards its inevitable conclusion, the essay deadlines are piling up in the background, and you just spent another night within the hallowed walls of Klute. As you are sucked further into the time warp that is the Durham bubble, shielded from the everyday world of non-college food and parental worries, the last thing that you could possibly expect would be a sudden jolt back down to planet Earth. And for that jolt to come in the form of a family visit.

Of course you are pleased that you will see them again. Of course you are delighted that they have made the effort to have already booked tickets for the five-hour train journey, and a hotel room right next door to college. And of course you never thought that your month of avoiding skype calls would lead to this last desperate attempt to ascertain whether or not you are still living.

But fear not: now is not the moment when you will have to finally admit that your knowledge of Durham stretches from college to Loveshack, with a vague impression of the library (no, not Varsity…) in between. As first term, and indeed three years, in this World Heritage city seems to leave relatively little time to explore its non-university based charms, a hard day of exploration offers the perfect antidote to the tolls of student life, and just a little prior research can fool your family into believing that you have seen it all before…

Start your day early while the centre is relatively free of the student hordes to feel yourself travelling back in time to the winding cobbled ways of the Prince Bishops. To orientate yourselves the perfect wake-up call must be a walk along the banks of the Wear, beginning at Elvet Bridge to show off (ahem…) your lecture halls and students’ union before rounding the corner for stunning views from below of Durham’s skyline-dominating castle and cathedral. Make sure to step out onto Prebends bridge, finished in 1778, for even more spectacular views and to take in Sir Walter Scott’s engraved praise of the city’s ‘mixed and massive piles’, and then continue to Framwellgate Bridge.

It is from Framwellgate Bridge that you can truly admire Prebends and its silhouetted cathedral backdrop, but its real draw must be the tiny café that lies at its foot. Nine Altars should be your well-deserved breakfast stop, with the riverside terrace offering the perfect spot to relax in the sun and the cosy upstairs dining room available as an escape for chillier days. Try an English breakfast, or if your appetite is not quite up to it then the selection of fresh home-made cakes will surely tempt you into an early morning treat…

Next, drag yourselves out of Nine Altars and up onto the Bailey for a morning of exploring Durham’s main attractions, all conveniently huddled around Palace Green, the city’s bustling market place until the twelfth century. Start in the magnificent cathedral, a Romanesque masterpiece that took a total of forty years to build, beginning in 1093. After taking in the sheer size of the central nave and the stunning stained glass designs, be sure to hunt down the Shrine of St. Cuthbert and the Tomb of the Venerable Bede. Exit and wander around the cloisters to enjoy the peaceful world of an eleventh century monk, before climbing the 325 steps to the top of the tower for sweeping views across Durham and beyond. On a clear day, you can even see as far as the Angel of the North.

Once you are back down to Earth, your attention must be directed towards the castle, a Norman construction begun according to the orders of William the Conqueror in 1072. Entry is only via guided tours which can be arranged in Palace Green Library and are led by University students, including enthusiastic detail about the building’s history and its modern usage.

At this point you will be in search of lunch, a meal best taken in one of Durham’s best-kept secrets – Vennels café. This atmospheric coffee house is tucked away in a sixteenth-century courtyard which can only be accessed via a narrow alleyway (a ‘vennel’ in north-eastern English) found off Saddler Street, next to Waterstones. Be sure to try the range of scones, freshly-baked every day, and if you were not tempted by the cakes in Nine Altars this morning then you certainly will be by the hunks offered here.

Now is the time to head out of Durham’s medieval centre, but not before a stop in the Market Hall. The city’s market was relocated here from Palace Green in the twelfth century to keep the bustle of trade away from the cathedral, and it still retains its traditional spirit today. Pop in to browse over fifty different stalls offering everything that you have ever needed (and a lot that you have never thought of!) from food to household items, and you might just find yourself leaving a little more weighed down than you entered…

Carry your bags back to Framwellgate Bridge, cross, and follow the river past the Radisson Blu hotel. It is just past there that you will come across another of Durham’s hidden gems where you are to while away your afternoon, the small oasis that is Crook Hall and Gardens. You will feel like you are a world away from the city when you enter via the meandering cobbled paths, only being grounded again by views of the cathedral towering over the surrounding houses. Make sure to wander through the series of delightfully informal gardens and to spend some time sitting on one or more of the many benches dotted around in secret corners, and of course beware of the White Woman rumoured to haunt the shadowy corridors… If you are not quite full from lunch then this would also be the moment to pause for a famous sparkling afternoon tea.

As the day comes to an end and your family are singing the praises of your insider’s knowledge of your new home, show off one last titbit and continue just past the viaduct for your evening meal. Finbarr’s is a chic, modern restaurant offering a range of meals forged from local ingredients, alongside a handy student menu at the start of the week. If you are already counting the student loan pennies, then a family visit is the perfect time to splash out at this smart eatery without the hit to your wallet.

Stomachs full, take your parents back to their hotel via the now lit-up cathedral and castle after a day of exploring a side of Durham away from the average student’s beaten path. And with them safely tucked away in bed, you even have time to join the rest of college for that night’s trip to Studio…

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