Durham may be one of the smallest cities in England, but it retains a big place in my heart due to the fact that I spent three years of my life here as a student.
So, in the summer, I decided to stop off in the city for an overnight stay on my way back to London from Edinburgh on the East Coast Main Line. It was my first return visit to Durham since 2016.
A trip to Durham really starts the moment your train passes over the viaduct located outside the city. It’s from here that passengers are afforded sweeping views of Durham and the skyline dominated by Durham Cathedral.
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Both a rudimentary cathedral and the city were founded in 995 when monks carrying the relics of St Cuthbert decided to keep them on a site on the peninsula formed by the River Wear after seeing a saintly “vision”.
The site attracted pilgrims from around the area, which resulted in the decision to build a proper cathedral in 1093. While the main part alone took four decades to build, with additions being added over the centuries, the wait to see the cathedral completed was worth it.
This magnificent structure is justly regarded as one of the finest cathedrals in Britain. It, along with the city as a whole, gained Unesco World Heritage Site status in 1986.
Durham Cathedral runs regular paid tours for visitors. You can, of course, also peruse it for yourself between services. Either way, it is well worth paying the small additional fee to climb the 325 steps of the central tower.
They are steep and narrow in places, but you are rewarded with panoramic views of the city and countryside when you get to the top.
The rest of Durham is equally charming. Particular highlights include the castle, which houses University College, Durham.
The overall Bailey area, which is the location of many of the colleges, (including my alma mater St Cuthbert’s Society), is known for its Georgian architecture. And there are the historical bridges, particularly Prebends Bridge, just a minute’s walk past St Cuthbert’s, which was painted by JMW Turner.
A trip down memory lane
The Hotel Indigo is housed in Old Shire Hall, which was the administrative centre of Durham University for nearly half a century until 2012. Before that, it was the headquarters of Durham County Council.
Staying in a former council headquarters may conjure up particular images, but this late Victorian building dates from the time when municipal buildings were seen as places to showcase local pride, rather than simply serving as bland boxes.
Built in the Baroque Revival style, the Grade II-listed building has been given a complete makeover to bring it up to the standards expected by discerning travellers. It has retained many original features, such as its stained-glass windows and tiled staircase.
My room was spacious and comfortable, with plenty of space to stretch out and recover from a week at the Edinburgh Fringe. It had been elegantly designed with a “college” theme running through the decor and furnishings. There were, for example, mounted oars above my bed – a nod to the university’s prowess on the river – while the framed photos of student frolics from 70 years ago were a reminder that, although the years may have passed, certain behaviours haven’t changed.
The trip down memory lane continued into the luxurious bathroom, with the poster that hung there of Durham in the age of steam.
Famished after the journey from Edinburgh, I was grateful for the hotel’s Marco Pierre White’s Steakhouse Bar & Grill, located in the dome of what used to be the main council chamber.
The restaurant offers a wide range of classic English and French dishes, including their famous steaks. I had French onion soup for my starter, followed with an excellent rib-eye steak, and ice cream to round off the meal. The Hotel Indigo Durham also has a separate bar and a coffee house.
Overall, it was a great stay, made all the better thanks to the hotel’s friendly staff.
Matthew was a guest of Hotel Indigo Durham. From £95 a night.
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Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.
He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.
Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.
As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri
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