The Best Places to Read in Durham

Vennels Café, the First of Many Perfect Spots in Durham to Escape with a Good Book

In the often volatile transition between the winter and spring months, there’s no more adaptable and enjoyable pastime than reading. Picking up a new novel whose blurb carries such alluring phrases like ‘scathing satire’, ‘hopeless passion’, ‘glamour and illusion’ or ‘journey of discovery’ and finding somewhere, away from the nagging reminders of overdue formatives and the glare of a computer screen, is remarkably rewarding. Getting out and finding your own place to read is definitely a must-do as the cloudy months begin to retreat and you are no longer confined to your room and three layers of knitwear. Of course, in a city like Durham, with alleyways and staircases that appear out of nowhere and lead absolutely anywhere, and high up cafes cosied away on the second story of a historic building overlooking the hubbub, it’s hard to know where to take yourself first. That’s why I’ve decided to take you on a magical journey, book in hand, to steal away to the best hidden (and not so hidden) spots in Durham to lose yourself in the pages of your latest novel.

1. Vennels Café

Let us begin in the heart of Durham, on the Bailey, amidst countless students (and some locals who’ve braved the hordes for an afternoon shop). If you walk down past the renowned Fabios, past Bronx barbering, to the point where Elvet Bridge and Saddler Street meet, you’ll come to the opening of an alleyway, tucked in between the slick black front of Waterstones bookshop and the oddball, steampunk display of the Scorpio shoes store. Follow it down, right to the end and it’ll open up into a small, bricked courtyard with tables and chairs belonging to Vennels café. On a particularly pleasant day you might want to go and order a refreshing drink, maybe one of their juices, with a scone, cream and jam. Their choice of fresh leaf teas are perfect for picking according to your mood and taking outside to sit in a corner of the courtyard in the sun. The tiny pots of heather and wooden window frames give the place a fairytale garden feel, ideal for getting lost in a fantasy novel, like The Hobbit, or a fanciful classic romance, like Jane Eyre. This place is highly recommended for an hour of reading in the afternoon, or a quick stop in the morning to fill the time before lunch.

2. Peoples Bookshop

Our second location is even more discrete. Only a couple of steps away from Vennels Café, in a side door that seems to lead into the jewellery shop from the narrow alleyway, is the People’s bookshop. Up a couple of narrow flights of stairs, a few days a week, is a hidden gem of a reading spot. With books ranging from collectable to historical, to classic and even biographical books this is not only one of the best places to find a chair and have a read, but also provides you with another place to buy your next book! It’s homely, hidden and full of reading material. What more could you want? In this little nook of a shop, where thought and discussion about current affairs are highly encouraged, the best kind of novel to delve into here would be something that’ll lead you to consider greater things than your every-day mini crisis. Maybe try a dystopian novel, exploring the extremes of political and economic systems, like George Orwell’s 1984, or a novel considering the individual’s crisis when enveloped by a materialistic society, such as in another Orwell novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Another brilliant book to delve into would be Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, which explores the thoughts and feelings of a single man in captivity during the Moscow Trials in 1938, but also the mass transition of the Communist party of the time. If you’re looking for some food for thought, somewhere to settle down to invest in some heavy yet engaging book and escape the trivia of student life, this is just the place to do it.

3. Palace Green Library

Next is somewhere a little more traditional and not wholly unexpected. The University Library, with the polished wooden floors leading to a hushed room of workspace and endless, ceiling-high bookcases, makes for an undisturbed and pleasant reading session. Perhaps a little less appropriate if you’re trying to get into the mood for contemplating the financial divide between the classes such as with Orwellian novels, or the eccentricities of Pratchett’s science fiction, it’s still a great place for classic literature in which such places wouldn’t seem quite so out of place. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde relates well to the old-style architecture, but will also allow for the contemplation of the priorities of the upper class, portrayed in the novel. The balmy feel of the rooms (certainly in comparison to the Bill Bryson) also creates a good atmosphere for romance, so perhaps try picking up Proust’s In Search of Lost Time volumes and gliding into the world of Charles Swann and the narrator through words about love and art and a man’s place in society.

4. Along by the River near Prebends Bridge

Another great place to steal away with a book is down by the river. One of the easiest found spots is down by Prebends Bridge off the South Bailey. Either grab a bench and sit by the footpath in the shade of the trees, watching the occasional student or dog walker wander past, or head on down closer to the river where, if you follow the path long enough, you’ll find a grassy area just by the water. The rushing water and the chatter of birds makes this place ideal for a relaxing read and is suitable for any kind of novel. It’s also very convenient, being only a ten minute walk from the centre of town, but seeming like you’ve stepped through the arch of the Bailey and down into some fantastical place, seemingly untouched by the rabble of people swanning through the city centre – a perfect break for the inner escapist in you.

5. Market Square

Stop number 5 is a location less suited to those of you who require peace and quiet when settling into a book, but for those of you who enjoy people watching may also enjoy the stimulation that comes from reading a good book in the middle of a busy place, with everyone getting on about their day. Find a decent seat in market square, perhaps on the steps of the statue of the Marquess of Londonderry, or one of the nearby benches. As the square is so open you’re bound to get a decent amount of sun on a good day, and a front-seat view of Durham at its busiest. Maybe try some industrial poetry, like Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings to give you something to consider when wandering home along the cobbled streets of Durham, surrounded by both old and new buildings and clusters of people, locals and students alike.

6. Esquires in an outside seat, people watching or overlooking the river

Our next stop is a location ideal for those of you who are seeking out a waterfront view, somewhere you can sun yourself lazily but also have access to drinks and snacks. If this is the case, Esquires Coffee should most certainly be your next place to conquer. As it’s alongside the bridge, you can do all the people watching your heart desires, while also having the choice to enjoy the classic river view all Durham students enjoy. The real place to sit isn’t inside the café itself, but in the seats outside and around the back, right on the riverside. Places like that really are best of both worlds. A book of any sort wouldn’t be amiss here, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend something timeless and enjoyable like Of Mice and Men, or The Great Gatsby, both enjoyable reads for the most and least avid of readers.

7. Dark Matter Café

This particular hangout is a great reading location, rain or shine. For those of you who haven’t put on your explorer’s hat and ventured off the main high-street in Durham, beyond Fishtank, you’re missing out. Not only is there two great pubs away from the normal drunken mob where you can grab a pint, but there’s also a pancake house (also a very good place to read, however you might find yourself short of cash after buying yet another plate of banana, honey and cinnamon pancakes). Nearby is the next destination in our journey around Durham’s great reading spots: The Dark Matter Café. A bit niche for some, it’s composed of brightly coloured walls and gaudy comic book characters. They even have cartoons showing on their TV’s for you to watch while you sit there. This may not be the most serene of places, but they do a mean chai latte and the rest of their drinks and food are delicious and reasonably priced. You can grab a seat on their big red sofas, soak in the sci-fi/fantasy vibes and settle into your next futuristic novel. Good books for this sort of place might include The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, or Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.

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