Durham: A Quick Introduction

  • “What could possibly please anyone who is tired of Durham?” (Lawrence of Durham, Dialogues, ca. 1144) 

  • “I got off at Durham and fell in love with it instantly in a serious way. Why, it’s wonderful – a perfect little city… If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It’s wonderful.” (Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island, 1995) 

Durham is a small city in the north of England with a particularly long and interesting history. In the year 793 the island monastery of Lindisfarne was sacked by the Vikings, forcing the community of St Cuthbert to flee. Taking their relics with them, they headed inland, and after various wanderings, eventually settled in Durham in 995. Durham was chosen because of its spectacular, and highly defensible, position inside a tight bend of the River Wear.

In the Middle Ages, Durham was the capital of a palatinate, an area ruled directly by the Bishops of Durham (without reference to a royal sheriff). In the early 1140s (during the Anarchy) there was a bitter struggle for control of the city (which is described in detail by Lawrence in his Dialogues). In 1346 the Battle of Neville’s Cross was fought just outside the city, where the part of Cross itself still stands. 

Attempts to establish a university in Durham begin in the seventeenth century, but the current university was officially founded in 1832 (making it the third-oldest in England). Bishop Cosin's Library (Palace Green Library) was established in 1669: it provided the core of the university's collection of manuscripts and early printed books (which includes a copy of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, and also Hoccleve's autograph of his Series).

Durham today is a small, compact city (with an official population of just over 48,000). The medieval streetscape of the city remains almost completely intact. The city-centre is entirely pedestrianised and most of its sights and amenities are within easy walking distance. Beyond the market-place (with its Victorian Indoor Market) and the shopping streets around it (Silver Street, Saddler Street and the High Street), there are leafy riverside footpaths along the banks of the River Wear. Easily reached on foot are the University’s Botanic Gardens and the gardens of medieval Crook Hall. 

The Castle and Cathedral still dominate the skyline for miles around. The Cathedral was famously voted “Britain's favourite building” in a BBC poll. Its library is now the most substantially complete of all medieval English libraries. The area around Palace Green has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986. It attracts over 600,000 visitors a year. 

The University of Durham is generally regarded as one of the UK's top universities (ranked fifth in the Guardian University Guide 2020, sixth in The Complete University Guide 2020 and seventh in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020). According to all three of these guides, Durham's Department of English Studies was the top-ranked English department in the country. 

The city is still a regional administrative centre: County Durham is very much part of England's North-East, but a distinctive part (so be careful who you call a Geordie! – or indeed a Mackem or a Smoggie – as explained here.) 

While the city has always been dominated by the university, and by tourism, the County was, until relatively recently, highly industrialised. Indeed, it was here that the history of the railways begins (specifically in Shildon, Co. Durham, and with the activities of George Stephenson – see Shildon's Locomotion Museum). 

Over the centuries the local landscape has been scarred by mining (mainly of coal, but also of lead and iron): more recently is has also been scarred (both economically and politically) by the end of the mining industry (and of related heavy industries like steel and ship-building), all of which attracted large numbers of immigrants to the region, especially from Ireland and Cornwall.

Durham played a central part in the Miners' Strike in the 1980s and the bitterness created at that time is still widely remembered. Some measure of the importance of mining (and of traditions of unionism) can be found in the Durham Miners' Association headquarters, the listed building known as Redhills – not to mention the annual Durham Miners' Gala (see Timetable).

Largely as a result of these social and economic changes, levels of unemployment and ill-health remain relatively high in the North-East and average incomes, conversely, remain relatively low. Despite this, communities in the area tend to be quite close-knit and mutually supportive.

Below: Old Elvet bridge at dawn, in January…