My travels on this occasion take me up to the north of England. I discovered that not only do they make and serve fantastic cakes and Jenga chips but you can also glimpse a few of the locations of the first Harry Potter films and visit a living museum that is packing with real ‘characters’.
The cold and wet weather in London might well be the same as in Durham City, but I was hopeful there would be some heart-warming food up North. I had heard good things about the culinary finesse on offer and I was also looking forward to checking out the glorious architecture and outstanding countryside.
My train journey was a pleasure of green fields whizzing by as I glanced up from my book. As the afternoon drew on I noticed a giant hunter’s moon rise on the east coast side, it was late in the year and the harvest long gone.
The Marriot Durham Royal County Hotel was very comfortable and in parts 200 years old, a mere drop in the ocean of local history but charming nonetheless. Dinner was welcome after my journey; an accomplished risotto followed by an autumnal favourite lamb shank with garlic jus was just the thing for a cold evening. I couldn’t resist ordering ‘Jenga’ chips but these came in a wire basket not as a ‘building’ as their namesake might suggest.
The morning sun was bright and almost blinding. It was hot in the sun and chilly in the shadows as I walked up to the cathedral. Founded in 995 and the current building started in 1093 it is magnificently large and impressive. The first thing I had to get used to was that this part of the country is very hilly, I mean really hilly.
The cathedral has been central to life here since it was consecrated. Running many programmes with local schools it is a busy space that breathes life. They are developing a world-class museum space, which will house Open Treasure at Durham Cathedral: 2000 Years in the Making. With five exhibition spaces it will have much to offer from 6th century manuscripts to the final resting place the venerable Bede with interactive displays encompassing music, embroidery and Viking history.
The first two Harry Potter films used the cloisters of the cathedral as a location and those ‘in the know’ will spot where other scenes were shot instantly but if you’re not sure then just ask one of the volunteer guides who are all very well acquainted with the ancient and modern history of the building.
They have a restoration fund with a novel means of raising money. You can buy a Lego brick and add it to the vast scale model of the cathedral designed by modeling professionals Bright Bricks and help complete the building. They need 350,000 bricks and on my visit had collected 192,000. It’s in the shop and worth a look.
Next to the cathedral is the castle build in 1072 to confirm Durham’s status as the main city of the north of England. The keep of the castle (built much later in 1840) is now used for student accommodation for the university. Tours are available during term time in the afternoons with quizzes for children. I discovered that the castle was never taken by force – maybe with students as residents it might prove the ultimate ‘sit in’ location!
Lunch was at the Undercroft Restaurant in the bowels of the cathedral. Good chicken wrapped in Parma ham with creamy mushroom sauce and excellent rosemary potatoes followed by an old school lemon meringue pie set me up for the afternoon. It might only have been a self-service eatery but the food was good and setting spectacular.
The city has a natural parameter in the form of the river Wear. Snaking around the granite that the castle and cathedral are built on it was a pleasant walk. I saw rowers practicing and lots of wildlife on the calm river. I walked up into the city (very steep in parts) and wandered around the old market square. Much of the road surfaces are cobbled with plenty of old buildings to admire, amazingly cars are allowed in the small central are so I had to keep an eye out as the lanes and roads are very narrow.
I caught up with a young cousin of mine Taylor who is studying psychology at the university. She’s in her first year and seems to be having a great time at work and play. The collegiate system puts it on a par with the Oxbridge so central responsibility is diminished giving the individual colleges greater autonomy. It is just the right environment for a bright spark like Taylor.
I took her out to dinner at the lively but very good Oldfields Restaurant where we enjoyed haddock fishcakes with a poached egg and steak. Brussels sprouts and greens were also the order of the day. Hearty puds and a fine selection of cheese finished dinner perfectly. We ended the meal early in the evening, for me it was close to the end but I wasn’t so sure about my cousin, I think I was just the stepping-stone to a longer night out. Taylor was delightful company for the evening, I was minded of Aristotle who said ‘Young people are in a condition like permanent intoxication, because youth is sweet and they are growing’.
I was intrigued to discover more about the surrounding area that was once a thriving mining community that has had to diversify after the closure of the mining industry. Incidentally County Durham is the only county in England to be prefixed with ‘county’ a practice more commonly found in Ireland.
Beamish, The Living Museum of the North is one such form of enterprise that is really worth visiting. A complete village and colliery with working shops such as a bakery and sweet shop all run by people acting out their lives as they would have been in 1913. Those with a sharp eye will notice that the last episode of Downton Abbey had scenes filmed here. The garage that was to be the future business of the ex chauffeur is here just as you see it in the programme. It really is a magical museum. All the buildings are genuinely old and have been sourced around the country and then rebuilt at Beamish.
Back to Durham City in time for a cup of tea and a slice of cake. I had had my eye on the Cafe on the Green outside the cathedral. Set in an old almshouse I was served an excellent chicken sandwich and one of the best slices of Victoria sponge I have ever eaten. Brilliant in every way, moist, generous filling of butter icing and jam and extremely spongy! Everything was local and made on site by the friendly staff. It’s the perfect afternoon-pick-me-up and definitely a place to go after a visit to the castle and cathedral.
My tea and cake were a lasting memory of a short visit to a splendid city that is not only very manageable to see in a couple of days (hills aside) but also offering great hospitality and some cracking food and drink. The history is what brings most people this far north but I’d urge visitors to try out all Durham city has to offer.