Durham can trace its history back a thousand years, to the arrival of a religious community seeking a permanent resting place for the body of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. As a shrine for their saint, they built first a wooden, then a stone church, on top of a rocky hill, protected on three sides by the River Wear.
Following the Norman conquest of 1066, King William also found this site appealing and realised it offered an ideal strategic location from which to rule Northumbria and defend the region against the Scots. The community of Cuthbert gave way to Benedictine Monks and a Bishop appointed by the king. They began the building of the Cathedral, to provide a monumental shrine for St Cuthbert, and the Castle, to act as protection for the Cathedral and to provide a palace for the Bishop.
The result was one of the most impressive construction projects ever undertaken. The panoramic view of the Cathedral and Castle has been described as 'one of the finest architectural experiences of Europe' and together they are now designated a World Heritage Site.
Bishops of Durham at that time were given the power to govern the North on the king's behalf and subsequently assumed the title of 'Prince Bishop'. They were entitled to raise taxes, mint coins, had supreme jurisdiction both civil and military, and for centuries occupied the most powerful position in the region.
The prosperity of the city naturally developed around the Cathedral; St Cuthbert's shrine attracting pilgrims from all parts, until it was one of the richest in England. A series of charters, granted by the Bishops, conceded trading rights and local government to the local citizens, creating a thriving market town.
Today Durham is a compact city yet offers a wide range of facilities. A wide range of shops and restaurants co-exist happily with the Victorian Market. Much of Durham's shopping area is closed to traffic, making for a more relaxed atmosphere. Take time to sit in the cobbled Market Place and enjoy some of the street entertainment, particularly during July and August. The monthly Farmers' Market is a welcome new addition to the events calendar. Here you will find fresh local specialities to take back home. In the Spring and Summer, stunning floral displays adorn the City for which Durham regularly wins prizes.
Yet within minutes, it is possible to escape the bustle of this thriving market town by taking one of the many paths that lead down to the riverbanks. Watch the river for rowers from one of the university teams, or take the 'Prince Bishop' river cruiser for a gentle trip along the river with stunning views.
Durham Cathedral is the greatest Norman building in England, perhaps even in Europe. It is cherished not only for its architecture but also for its incomparable setting. For this reason it was inscribed together with the Castle as one of Britain's first World Heritage Sites. In a nationwide BBC poll held in 2001 it was voted the nation's best-loved building. Like Hadrian's Wall and the Angel of the North, it is an icon of north-east England, its image is instantly recognisable to people who love this part of Britain.
And for anyone planning on visiting Durham in September you might find this city map helpful in planning your stay. Visit Durham City Map.
Author Bill Bryson has long been a fan of Durham. In his hugely entertaining book "Notes From A Small Island" he commented "If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It's wonderful", and later upon taking up his post as Chancellor of Durham University he said "Durham, I think as anybody who has ever stepped out of the railway station and looked across the valley will appreciate, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The view of the cathedral is just absolutely stunning. I will never forget my first moment 30 years ago seeing it and it has been almost as exciting every time since. So there is all of that, a huge amount of history, a huge amount of beauty and a great deal of friendliness."
You might also like to check out this video commissioned by Durham University:
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