The city of Durham is one of those magical places that outdoes itself at every turn, and it’s worth a visit to the county.
After visiting every historic site and visiting Venerable Bede’s tomb and St Cuthbert’s treasure, you’ll learn more about England’s mysterious days before the Normans.
Two long rivers run east through County Durham: the Tee and the Weir forming peaceful valleys surrounded by moor and hills.
Known as the Durham Valley, these areas are home to many of the county’s most charming historic towns, as well as majestic countryside that will make you crave the great outdoors.
For unrestrained wilderness, head west to County Durham, where the environment is protected by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Let’s explore the best of County Durham:
With its winding cobblestone streets and rich history, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the extraordinary city of Durham.
You may find yourself extending your stay just to make sure you spot every discovery, as there is so much to do.
Starting at the Cathedral, home to England’s most valuable monuments, libraries and vaults are filled with important pieces of early British history.
Another pillar of the Durham World Heritage Site is the castle, erected immediately after the Norman Conquest, with informative tours provided by Durham University student volunteers.
Wander along the river, browse the wonderful museums, and head to the wonderful North Sea coast.
In 1825, the world’s first steam-powered passenger train raced along the Stockton and Darlington Railway, so this market town has reason to be proud of its contribution to the world. The Steam Head is George Stephenson’s Locomotion 1, the railway museum at North Road Station, and the first engine on the line looks like new.
Darlington’s Covered Market is housed in an impressive hall with iron frames, completed in 1863, and its stalls have been passed down from generation to generation.
From Monday to Saturday, flowers, fruits and vegetables, meat, cakes and more.
The story of this coastal town echoes many other towns near the North Sea.
Hartlepool was a small place before the arrival of railroads and industrialization in the 1800s.
Within a few decades, it became one of the most productive fishing ports and shipyards in the region, shipping fresh fish and raw wool west to the woollen mill areas of Yorkshire and Lancashire, while exporting coal and textiles.
As such, the Old Waterfront is a great place for a Hartlepool maritime experience.
Moored here is the HMS Tricomalee, Britain’s oldest warship still afloat and celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2017. The quayside Hartlepool Museum has the world’s first gas-powered lighthouse and will explain why the Hartlepudlian people call themselves “monkey hangers”.
4. Bishop of Oakland
The town is named after Auckland Castle, a hunting lodge chosen by the Bishop of Durham more than 800 years ago.
Even now, Auckland Castle is a fully functional bishop’s palace, covering over 320 hectares, where you’ll stumble upon all sorts of interesting little monuments.
Take the Stone Deer House, which was built in the Gothic Revival style in 1760 to provide food and shelter for the park’s deer.
Auckland Bishop’s Victorian town hall is outdated and threatened with demolition, but it has since been revived as a cultural centre with a theatre, art gallery and cinema.
And, not too far outside the city are the remains of Vinovia, the Roman fort, which includes one of the most complete massacres in Roman Britain.
5. Barnard Castle
Located on the north bank of the River Tees in the eastern foothills of the Pennines, Barnard Castle is a small town culture that will leave you in awe.
For that, you can thank the Bowes Museum, which has the greatest collection of art and ornaments in the North of England.
We’re talking about El Greco, Canaletto, van Dyck, Fragonard and Goya, and a veritable treasure trove of tapestries, furniture and ceramics.
The stunning exhibit is the Silver Swan, a clockwork automaton made in the 1700s.
The town has some picturesque ruins, including the castle of the same name built by the Normans in the 1100s on a noble site above the tee, and Egglestone Abbey, built around the same time and dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1500s.
6. North Pennine Mountains Natural Beauty Area
Much of west Durham is a remote natural area at the northern end of the Pennines.
This heather barren, hay meadow, wide valley cut by mighty rivers seems immune to human influence, but there are clues in areas of human intervention, both ancient and modern.
You can hike to Bronze Age cemeteries and see the remains of historic lead mines, and hidden in the open landscape are the old and beautiful villages that would host these mining communities.
7. Chester Street
In the 10th century, something important happened where the Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert is today: the earliest translation of the Gospels into English by a priest named Aldred, and during this period the church was Christianity in North East England and Scotland today.
The current 11th-century church is unmistakably palatial, with markings on the walls that indicate Roman stone was used in parts of its construction.
Next to the River Weir is the Riverside Stadium, where the Durham County cricket team plays, as well as a five-day Test match between England and a touring country each summer.
8. West Ham
The landscape of this coastal town is as rugged and windy as you’d expect in a North Sea setting.
On cold winter days, the sea and limestone cliffs exude raw majesty, and you can feel the power of nature on the coastal path before warming up at the bar.
When the weather warms up, North Beach becomes very inviting; this is separated from the sea by a breakwater and has small rock pools for paddling.
The Church of the Virgin Mary is fascinating because its Anglo-Saxon nave dates back to the late 600s, making it one of the 20 oldest churches in the UK.
9. Be beaming
The village is located in the beautiful Highland countryside west of Newcastle, not far from one of the North East’s most cherished tourist attractions.
The Beamish Museum is a sprawling outdoor heritage museum.
It’s so big that you’re encouraged to get around on vintage trams and buses.
There’s an Edwardian town with machinery, signage, buildings and amenities from circa 1913, and a farm that was frozen in the 1940s with tools and machinery from that era.
An 1825 farm has been recreated in northern Georgia, where you can encounter local domestic breeds and check out carriage transport on wagon tracks that have been replaced by steam trains.
Both locations are set in a beautiful steep valley and feature a whole host of reenacters
Stanhope is a peaceful spot on the River Vail in the heart of the North Pennines Natural Beauty Area and a handy place if you want to chart your course through the wonderful landscape of hills and valleys.
The Durham Valley Visitor Centre, located next to St Thomas’ Church, will provide you with itinerary and trail guides.
You can also learn about some of the small sights in town.
For example, you don’t need to be a paleobotanist to be blown away by Stanhope’s fossilized trees.
What you see in the town cemetery is a 320-million-year-old tree stump found in a sandstone quarry outside the town in 1915.
The market town was the eastern terminus of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, and during its boom was another large shipyard in the Northeast.
But its most famous contribution to the world is the friction match, invented in 1827 by a local chemist. Preston Park, a large green space in the southwest of the town, has recently undergone a makeover to the attraction.
The museum in stately Preston Park Hall displays a variety of old carriages, armour and art, and also provides a window into the everyday life and industry of Stockton 200 years ago.
Butterfly World in the park is a heated greenhouse where exotic butterfly species fly freely among tropical vegetation.
12. Middleton at Teasdale
Tisdale is known for its heartbreaking Highland scenery and natural landmarks.
Middleton is also in the North Pennines, within walking distance of one of the wildest landscapes on the River Tees.
High Force Waterfall is a challenging but unforgettable hike on a rugged river course.
High Force may not be the tallest waterfall in the country, but when the river is full, it does have the largest volume of water falling from uninterrupted drops.
You’ll be spoilt for choice when walking through Middleton: the epic 267-mile Pennine Way trail runs through, and looming south of the village is Kirkcarrion, a hill topped with Bronze Age carts, where a chief is said to have been be buried.
Hilden is a former East Durham mining town that grew rapidly in the late 1700s and transported coal via the wagons you can see at the Beamish Museum.
But as the industry expanded and steam power took over, it would be no exaggeration to say that Hilden was “the cradle of the railroad.” The Stockton and Darlington Railroad was basically built and maintained by the Hilden Works.
Although they no longer exist, the Hilden Movement Museum opened in 2004, where the works were once there.
The attraction combines modern architecture with old workshops and sheds, and even the home of engineer and innovator Timothy Hackworth, who worked at Shildon Works in his early years.
Hackworth’s 1829 Sans Pareil locomotive was one of the stars, and he took part in the Rainhill trials to find out the engine running the Liverpool and Manchester railway.
14. Durham Heritage Coast
With coal mining and other heavy industries long gone, nature has reclaimed parts of Durham that holidaymakers forgot.
The same goes for the coastline from Sunderland to Hartlepool, which has now been granted Heritage Coast status.
There is no other resort to speak of but Seaham, so you’ll find yourself in a pristine, rugged seascape perfect for a stroll.
Coastal walks circle the North Sea coastline, climbing majestic limestone cliffs and leading you to spectacular headlands such as Noses Point, or the remote and haunting beaches at Shippersea Bay.
Earlier we mentioned the Roman fort in Vinovia near the Bishop of Auckland.
Well, one of the interesting things about this monument is that in the 7th century most of its stones were transported to what is now the village of Escomb on the River Vail.
Here, it became the material for what may be the oldest intact church in the country, and one of only three Anglo-Saxon churches still standing in England.
Amateur historians will excitedly examine the stonework, which features Roman inscriptions and a sundial on the southern wall.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in County Durham, England
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