As the train pulled into Durham’s neat, stone station, I felt a jolt of excitement. We were finally back in my favourite corner of the country – the wildly beautiful North East – with a weekend in Durham waiting just around the corner.
Just a few months before we had visited the city’s neighbouring county, Northumberland – a place of starry skies, powdery sand dunes and tree-lined wildernesses. It was a trip that left me drunk on its beauty, ready to seize any opportunity to return. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long – an invite from Visit England giving me the excuse that I needed. To help celebrate English Tourism Week, we were asked if we would take another journey north, spending a weekend in Durham to meet an English Tourism Superstar, Richard Darlington. Alongside meeting Richard, his lambs and his prized visitor toilets (read more here), we’d also be exploring the county’s rugged North Pennines, its tawny-coloured Teesdale Hills and its recently revitalised coastline. Given that it was now January and I was still droning on about Northumberland like a heart-broken drunk (“have you seen Northumberland recently, how is it? Does it miss me?”) we immediately said yes.
A few weeks later and as we travelled northwards towards the historic city, I tried to remember the first photograph I’d ever seen of Durham. I was most probably seventeen and stood in the school library, a pile of university prospectuses under my arm. With university applications looming, I had no real idea of where I wanted to study. Naturally, my decision therefore came down to how pretty the brochures were – Durham’s in particular catching my eye.
Printed on silk-like paper, it showed winding cobbled streets, glowing street lamps and a towering cathedral. In the foreground, a group of good-looking students were walking past, their hair long and glossy. ‘Welcome to Durham University’, it declared. I was mesmerised, spending the next week imagining myself as one of those luxuriously haired students. “Hi I’m Laura – I go to Durham”, I’d practice, imagining myself in a merino wool jumper and possibly a gilet.
Yet, my Durham dream wasn’t to be. Just a few weeks later and my Dad had taken me to visit his former university, promising me an ‘insider’s guide’. An hour later and with the rain pouring, we were slipping up a muddy hill somewhere behind the back of the law faculty. “I’m sure my halls were around here” he’d said – staring off towards a car park. Slipping on the wet mud, I grabbed the back of his anorak as he yelled that I was pulling his trousers down. In the end, in a desperate attempt to abort our off-piste mission, I told him I’d apply to the University. I loved it, it was great – now please can we go home?
After that, I didn’t think too much about Durham – its winding cobbled streets eventually replaced by the twisting lanes of Oxford. It became a place ‘up north’; a faraway city coupled with beautiful York or vibrant Newcastle. It was a place I always wanted to visit, but somehow never got to. Until last week, that is.
Arriving in the wintery city, I immediately recognised its soaring skyline. In fact, it was hard to miss. Standing front and centre, Durham’s UNESCO protected cathedral towered over the city’s many hills, with the similarly impressive Durham Castle sat adjacent to it. Below ran the wide River Wear, the city’s famous bridges arching gracefully over it. From this, a web of medieval streets ran, filled with almshouses, handsome university buildings and independent stores. I could even see the wilds of the North Pennines in the distance, with the dark recesses of Northumberland’s national parks lying even further north.
Whilst we’d previously driven to Northumberland, this time we’d opted to take the train. Taking just under four hours, the train leaves London Euston station via Virgin Trains, with just one change at Manchester Piccadilly. It’s a very easy and uncomplicated journey, taking you directly into the heart of the city.
After stepping off the train, we headed straight to the station’s newly opened pub: The Waiting Room. Here we were to have our first taste of Durham [quite literally] courtesy of the super talented Jessica Tomlinson, Head Distiller of Durham Distillery. “I wanted to make the gin a little different” she explained as we sat down, ice cold gin and tonics already waiting for us. “I didn’t want it to be a run-of-the-mill flavour, but one that would divide opinion”. With hints of pink peppercorn, celery seed, elderflower and juniper, the gin was both sharp and warming. I probably drank mine a little bit too quickly. Without the bitterness of many other gins, it was the perfect antidote to the warm train journey up – cutting through the hours spent in an overheated carriage thanks to the taste of juniper and fresh celery seeds.
With a masters in Chemistry, and another in Distilling and Brewing, Jess definitely knew her stuff, explaining that she wanted to leave her mark on England’s North East and put the region on the map as a leading gin distiller. “I want Durham to be proud of this gin, and for drinkers elsewhere to recognise the creative and independent industries taking place up here”.
The time slipped quickly away in that little, green-tiled pub, with Jess offering an incredibly warm and friendly introduction to the city. Before we left, I asked her what her plans were next. “To open a new distillery in the city – a really creative and interesting space to get people engaged with the distilling process. Oh, and to begin plans for a new Durham whiskey”, she said smiling. We promised to spend another weekend in Durham later in the year, visiting the new distillery first hand.
The light fading, we headed down Durham’s steep streets towards its famed cathedral, hoping for a glimpse of it before darkness arrived. Its bells ringing – their sound echoing across the small valley below – it was obvious that this giant Anglo-Norman monument was the boss of this town.
Nine hundred years old, the cathedral was built during the Norman period and is now the poster boy for the wider World Heritage Site that blankets the city. Built to commemorate the spot where the bones of the North of England’s most famous Saint – Saint Cuthbert – were buried, the cathedral later became the resting place for the head of Saint Oswald (sans the rest of his body) and the remains of Saint Bede. Due to this motley crowd of residents, the cathedral fast became a pilgrimage site, attracting visitors from around the world.
Entering the soaring cathedral, the choristers were mid-way through their hypnotic Even Song. Their voices climbed higher and higher, almost reaching the height of the vaulted ceiling. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Neither filled with light nor spectacularly bright, the cathedral was instead darkly comforting, filled with the glow of candlelight and the warm colours of its stained glass windows. I immediately understood why so many people travelled to this corner of the world – Saint Cuthbert fans or not. It’s truly beautiful.
As we stepped out the cathedral, Claire looked out across the steep valley below us – pointing to a house that was sat on the other side of the river. “Our hotel!” she declared, triumphantly. It was the Forty Winks Guest House and Residence.
Just a short walk across the river and resident on the well-heeled South Street, Forty Winks Guest House and Residence is not your usual hotel. Ringing the bell, we peered in through its beautiful glass doorway – a giant giraffe, complete with top hat, staring steadily back at us. To our right, a full-sized Penny Farthing bike was resting against the wall, while a full suit of armour stood guard. An Aladdin’s Cave of treasures was waiting for us.
Our host – the impossibly glamorous Debbie – suddenly appeared, opening the door with a big smile: “you must be the twins!” she said, ushering us inside. Softly lit, with candles flickering all around us, I felt as though I had stepped into the house of an eighteenth-century antiquarian. To my right, a study piled high with weathered books, ticking grandfather clocks and – unexpectedly – a taxidermy tarantula, welcomed us.
“We’ve not long opened as a Guest House”, Debbie explained as she looked for our room key, “before this it was just my family home”. She gestured casually to the huge ornate chandelier above us, and to the full-size replica of what looked like one of Jesus’ disciples standing close by. I asked Debbie if the house had always looked like this – expecting that it was the product of some fancy London designer. Her answer surprised me. “Oh yeah, it’s always been like this!”, Debbie explained, “my husband and I love going to all the antique auctions. The kids grew up surrounded by this stuff.” I looked again at the taxidermy giraffe and tried to imagine what growing up in such a house might be like. Amazing, probably.
It turns out that Debbie was not just a successful hotelier, but ran several businesses throughout Durham, including the beautifully appointed Zen restaurant. After an incredible dinner here, we spent the night sleeping under the glow of the city’s spectacular cathedral; the sight of it filling our window. It was an exceptional stay at a beautiful, hidden gem of a hotel, and highly recommended to anyone who is spending a short break in Durham.
After a breakfast inside Forty Winks’ sumptuous living room, we reluctantly left glamorous Debbie and Durham behind, heading inland towards the small town of Barnard Castle.
Bordering the North Pennines, Barnard Castle has an unexpected resident: a lavish, Parisian-inspired Chateau. Built for the 19th century industrialist John Bowes, the museum was the vision of his Parisian wife, Josephine. A keen artist, Josephine not only graced the stages of Paris, but was a lover of paintings, ceramics, furniture and textiles. Naturally, she therefore asked her husband to open a museum for her, allowing her to bring her ‘treasures’ to the local people.
Inside The Bowes Museum, we were met by Joanna Hashagen – the museum’s Curator of Fashion and Textiles. Having worked at the museum since she was in her twenties, Joanna has watched as the museum has transformed from a relatively small institution, into perhaps one of the most important museums outside of London.
“In 2015, the Foundation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, invited me over to France to pitch as to why The Bowes Museum should host the designer’s first retrospective in the UK”, she says casually, dipping some bread into a bowl of fish chowder. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I arrived at the Foundation with just a few pieces of crumpled paper and photographs of the museum!” After explaining to the Foundation’s staff the museum’s textile heritage and its links with Josephine and Paris, it was decided that the exhibition – Yves Saint Laurent: Style is Eternal – should be held at the Bowes, in this small town in County Durham. “I certainly hope it gave some of the London museums something to think about”, she says – smiling cheekily. The exhibition, of course, proved an enormous success – the most popular in the museum’s one hundred year history, in fact. This is something Joanna is perhaps too modest to say.
After dalliances with Yves Saint Laurent, Joanna is now preparing for an exhibition dedicated to catwalk photographer, Chris Moore. Due to open in July 2018, the exhibition, titled ‘catwalking’, will take place in collaboration with hundreds of global fashion houses – most of whom Joanna is now spending her days frantically contacting. I ask her if she’s surprised by how her role at the museum has played out, as she mingles with French fashion houses and world-leading designers. “I am a bit”, she laughs. “I met Kate Middleton last week and stood next to Naomi Campbell. She made me feel very short”.
Before leaving, we have just enough time to see The Bowes Museum latest exhibition, showcasing the work of the artist Jonathan Yeo. Titled ‘Skin Deep’, the exhibition presents the artist’s ‘surgery series’: a collection of paintings depicting real-life cosmetic surgery. Documenting face-lifts, breast implants and ‘nose jobs’, the exhibition is a fascinating look at society’s current preoccupation with perfection. It’s an unmissable exhibition, and a highly recommended visit for anyone spending a weekend in Durham.
From breast implants to anoraks, we piled back into our car (hired courtesy of Enterprise Car Rental) and headed towards Forest-in-Teesdale. Here the High and Low Force waterfalls were waiting. Dubbed some of the most spectacular falls in the country, they begin as a small trickle high on the fells of the North Pennines, before eventually crashing earthwards, from up to 21 metres.
“In the summer, these fields are filled with wild flowers and bird and insect life”, our guide for the afternoon, Shane explained. “But perhaps that’s hard to imagine on a day like today”. I peered out from beneath the hood of my anorak, my eyes stinging as my mascara ran into them – rain streaming down my face.
Given the typically torrential British weather conditions, after arriving at the newly established Bowlees Visitor Centre, it was decided that we’d take the shorter hike to Low Force falls instead, just a ten minute walk away. As we approached the falls, I spotted a flash of bright green – kayakers navigating the top of Low Force, despite the rain. “This area is really popular with kayakers – these falls in particular are a lot of fun”, Shane says, as we watch as one of the green-jacketed men steer his kayak over the edge of the Whin Sill rock. I shiver just watching him.
After explaining to us the geology of the falls (this area of the North East of England used to once lay below a shallow tropical sea), we next walk to Summerhill Force (also known as Gibson’s Cave). Here, behind the falls is a small alcove – the place where a 16th century outlaw named William Gibson apparently once hid from the Constables of Barnard Castle. However, the ever-friendly locals took pity on Gibson, bringing him food and clothes as he hid behind the falls. Good old North East hospitality, eh.
I felt a little self-conscious arriving at the five-star Seaham Hall Hotel. My jeans splattered with mud from our trek and my hair plastered to my face, I walked through the hotel’s grand entrance deeply regretting my appearance. I felt like Shrek.
The grand location for the wedding of Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke in 1815, Seaham Hall has long been dubbed one of the most romantic and luxurious hotels in the North East of England. An imposing, white Georgian mansion with carefully curated gardens, it is a beautiful place to stay.
After a warm welcome, we were led up the sweeping staircase to our Executive Suite. Now, it’s not often that I can say we stayed in a suite (the reality normally being a slightly undersized double bed in a room with no bathroom door) – and so this was therefore a wildly exciting moment. Complete with an enormous lounge, a sunken marble bath and king-size bed, I felt even more aware of my dirty walking boots as I tip-toed around, inspecting the bowls of fresh fruit and luxury spa products. Saying goodbye to our lovely host, I only hoped that I no longer had wind-swept snot plastering my face.
Immediately changing into our robes – and in bid to escape from the mud – we headed down to the hotel’s celebrated Serenity Spa. Complete with a 20 ft pool, massage stations, Asian herbal sanarium, salt sauna, Indian steam room, out door hot tubs and ice foundation, the spa also comes complete with gentle mood-lighting and glowing lamps. It is an unbelievably relaxing place, and one that led to us eating our beautiful dinner barely conscious.
Thanks to a peaceful night at Seaham Hall Hotel, we woke up transformed from mud-covered Neanderthals to mostly-presentable bloggers. After a breakfast of pastries and coffee, we left behind the lap of luxury for Seaham’s recently revitalised coastline.
A Victorian port, Seaham was – until the 1990s – at the heart of a community of coal-mining villages. When the collieries eventually closed, Seaham bore perhaps the brunt of the environmental damage; its beaches becoming black and polluted. However, and like the North East’s phoenix from the flames, a £10 million project to clean up the coastline transformed this small seaside town – a newly acquired Heritage Status hanging proudly around its neck.
Climbing out the car, a crowd of small, excited dogs galloped past – heading towards Seaham’s dramatic coastline and its famous Nose’s Point. Backed by fields of wildflowers and climbing hills, the coastline is a well-worn cliché: ruggedly beautiful. With only a few hours left in the North East, we walked the length of the coastal path that leads from Nose’s Point back into Seaham; dramatic grey clouds rolling above us and foaming waves crashing against the limestone cliffs below.
Arriving back in town, we had just one final stop on our tour of County Durham – and it was one we refused to miss. Nominated for more than 50 awards, and two times winners of the National Ice Cream Awards, Seaham’s Lickety Split is perhaps the ice-cream parlour of my dreams.
Welcomed in by the incredibly friendly Leanne, owner of Lickety Split, we were shown to our red, American diner style booth. In the corner, a jukebox flashed bright neon colours, whilst Route 66 signs littered the walls. I could barely concentrate as I looked at the menu – the staff in front of me filling dishes with rainbow-coloured balls of ice cream. Gummy bears and jelly beans tumbled down them like small candy avalanches. It was hard not to dribble.
After ordering our ice creams (mint chocolate chip and a ‘Fairy Fizz’), we had time to speak to Leanne, who runs Lickety Split with her husband. “We’re always this busy”, she says, laughing slightly bewilderedly at the crowds of ice-cream goers surrounding us. “Carl’s a perfectionist and wanted to keep getting better and better at making the ice-cream. He’s always trying new things and adding new flavours here and there”. Eating a spoonful of my own ice cream, I wondered what it was Carl was putting in here – magic dust? Liquid gold? It was delicious.
Before leaving, Natalie asked if we’d enjoyed our time in County Durham – did we ever go anywhere more far-flung, more exotic? The question made me laugh, knowing she’d doubt my answer. Although we do sometimes head abroad – Florida’s sunshine state or the beaches of the Caribbean beckoning – it’s been here, in England’s wildly beautiful, fiercely independent North East, that we’ve had some of our most memorable adventures. “We’ve had a brilliant time”, I replied honestly.
Natalie nodded approvingly as I stood up to leave: “that’s what we want to hear”. Waving at her as we walked outside – our train soon to be arriving into Durham – she shouted one last thing: “make sure you come back soon!”
Smiling, I had no doubt that we would.
Our trip to Durham was part of our wider Visit England Ambassadorship. However, all views, stories and lovely encounters are/were our own.