What to Do in Durham

By Rick Steves

Without its cathedral, Durham would hardly be noticed. But with its magnificently situated cathedral, it's hard not to notice (even zooming by on the train). Durham sits, seemingly happy to go nowhere along its river, under its castle and famous cathedral.

It has a workaday, medieval, cobbled atmosphere and a scraggly peasant's market just off the main square. While it has England's third oldest university, it feels rough and working class, surrounded by newly closed coal mines and filled with tattooed and stapled people in search of job security.

Durham Cathedral

Built to house the much-venerated bones of St. Cuthbert from Lindisfarne, Durham's cathedral offers the best look at Norman architecture in England. ("Norman" is British for "Romanesque.") For various fees, you can also climb the tower, ogle the treasury, and tour the Monk's Dormitory. Try to fit in an evensong service (see below). No photos or videos are allowed. A bookshop, cafeteria, and WC are tucked away in the cloisters.

An inspirational leader of the early Christian Church in north England, St. Cuthbert lived in the Lindisfarne monastery on Holy Island (100 miles north of Durham). He died in 687. Eleven years later, his body was exhumed and found to be miraculously preserved. This stoked the popularity of his shrine, and pilgrims came in growing numbers. When Vikings raided Lindisfarne in 875, the monks fled with his body (and the famous illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, now in the British Library in London). In 995, after 120 years of roaming, the monks settled in Durham on an easy-to-defend tight bend in the River Wear. This cathedral was built over Cuthbert's tomb.

Throughout the Middle Ages, a shrine stood here and was visited by countless pilgrims. In 1539, during the Reformation — whose proponents advocated focusing on God rather than saints — the shrine was destroyed. But pilgrims still come — especially on St. Cuthbert's feast day — March 20.

From the cathedral green, notice how this fortress of God stands boldly across from the Norman keep of Durham's fortress of man. (The castle, now part of the university, is not worth touring.) At the cathedral door the big bronze lion-faced knocker (a replica of the 12th century original, which is in the treasury) was used by criminals seeking sanctuary (read the explanation).

Immediately inside, at the information desk, church attendants are standing by to happily answer questions. The pamphlet, A Short Guide to Durham Cathedral, is informative but dull. The cathedral offers regular tours in summer. If one's already in session, you're welcome to join.

The entry to the tower is in the south transept; it's 325 steps up. The following sights are within the cloisters: The treasury, filled with medieval bits and holy pieces (including Cuthbert's coffin, vestments, and cross), fleshes out this otherwise stark building. The actual relics from St. Cuthbert's tomb are at the far end. The Monks' Dormitory is now a library with an original 14th-century timber roof filled with Anglo-Saxon stones. The unexceptional AV show in the unexceptional undercroft tells about St. Cuthbert but isn't worth the entry fee.

Evensong

For a thousand years, this cradle of English Christianity has been praising God. To really experience the cathedral, go for an evensong service. Arrive early and ask to be seated in the choir. It's a spiritual Oz, as 40 boys sing psalms — a red-and-white-robed pillow of praise, raised up by the powerful pipe organ. If you're lucky and the service went well, the organist runs a spiritual musical victory lap as the congregation breaks up.

Near Durham: Beamish Open-Air Museum

This huge 300-acre museum, which re-creates the year 1825 and 1913 in northeast England, takes at least three hours to explore. Vintage trams and cool circa-1910 double-decker buses shuttle visitors to the four stations: Colliery Village, Pockerley Manor/Waggonway, and Home Farm. This isn't wax. If you touch the exhibits, they may smack you. Attendants at each stop happily explain everything. In fact, the place is only really interesting if you talk to the attendants.

Start with the Colliery Village (company village around a coal mine), with a school, church, miners' homes, and a fascinating — if claustrophobic — 20-minute tour into the Mahogany drift mine.

The town is a bustling street featuring a 1913 candy shop (the chocolate room in back is worth a stop for chocolate fans), a dentist's office, a Masonic hall, a garage, a working pub.

Pockerley Manor and the Waggonway has an 1820s manor house whose attendants have plenty to explain. Adjacent is the re-created first-ever passenger train from 1825, which takes modern-day visitors for a spin on 1825 tracks — a hit with railway buffs.

The Home Farm is the least interesting section.