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Exploring Durham County, England

My interest in historic events, nature and wildlife is reflected in our choice of destinations when planning our holidays and day trips.

exploring-durham-county-england

Why We Chose Durham for Our Holiday

We previously spent a weekend in Durham years ago, specifically to visit Beamish, the ‘Living Museum of the North.’ This time around, we wanted to return to Durham to see the additions to the site and to watch the DLI (Durham Light Infantry) display again.

This time, rather than just a weekend visit, we decided to make it a week’s holiday so that we could spend the rest of the week exploring parts of Durham.

Holiday Accommodation

We had originally booked a week’s holiday at Brancepeth Castle (a medieval castle) for May 2020, but had to cancel due to the pandemic. Now, two years on, the weekend that the DLI were doing their display at Beamish the castle was booked, but they were available for the rest of the week starting Monday.

However, we did find a nice holiday cottage called River View in Frosterley (a small village on the edge of the North Pennines) that was available for that weekend.

Brancepeth Castle

On Monday, we transferred from our weekend holiday cottage in Frosterley to our holiday flat in Brancepeth Castle.

Brancepeth Castle is medieval first constructed by the Bulmer family in the mid-12th century, then expanded in the 14th century by the Neville family. It was confiscated by Queen Elizabeth I in 1569 following the Neville’s family support for ‘Rising of the North’. The ‘Rising of the North’ was an unsuccessful attempt by the Catholic nobles in Northern England to depose Queen Elizabeth l of England and replace her with Mary, the Queen of Scots.

The castle has had numerous owners over the centuries, including Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset in the early 17th century, whom it was subsequently confiscated from by King James I due to the Earl’s involvement in a poisoning scandal.

The castle gate, towers, and other parts were extensions made in the 1820s by the Russell family. During the first world war, the castle was used as a hospital, and during the second world war up until 1962, it was the headquarters of the Durham Light Infantry; our holiday flat in the castle being their armoury room.

The castle is now privately owned by the Dobson family, who bought the castle in 1978.

Itinerary

We wouldn’t be able to see everything in Durham and the surrounding area in just a week. For example, we didn’t get to see Lindisfarne or Hadrian’s Wall and instead had to prioritise our choices.

In planning our holiday, at the top of the agenda was Beamish over the weekend. For the rest of the week, we drew up a list of 'places of interest' and whittled it down to a ‘short list’ of our top choices to create a schedule. We kept additional places in reserve as a backup.

So the full itinerary for the week was:

  • Beamish—two days visit
  • Binchester Roman Fort
  • North Pennines AONB
  • Durham Cathedral
  • Finchale Priory
  • Seaham
  • Low Force and High Force Waterfalls
  • Hartlepool National Museum of the Royal Navy

Places Visited on Our Durham Holiday

Beamish

The Living Museum of the North

This was the highlight of our holiday in Durham and will be covered in more detail in a separate article.

Beamish is an open-air museum in the county of Durham, established on a 350 acres (140 ha) estate in 1972, with its guiding principle being to “preserve an example of everyday life in urban and rural North East England at the climax of the ‘Industrial Revolution.’" This was largely achieved by translocating buildings from the local area to the site, e.g. rescuing buildings due for demolition and dismantling them brick by brick so that they can be rebuilt in Beamish exactly as they originally were.

A fine example of this is St Helen, a Norman church recently added to the Beamish collection, where the numbers used to rebuild, brick by brick, how it originally stood are still visible on the exterior wall, e.g. the numbers haven’t weathered out yet.

The highlight of the Beamish visit was to see the DLI during their display.

Binchester Roman Fort

These are ruins of a Roman fort and associated buildings, built around AD 80 to guard the crossing of the River Wear by Dere Street. This was the main Roman road between York and Scotland, and eventually Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall was built along the border between England and Scotland in 122 AD as a defensive fortification against the Picts (Scots).

During the forts use, the cavalry units of the ala Vettonum, a cohort of Frisian soldiers recruited from central Spain, and part of the Sixth Legion occupied the fort.

There have been numerous archaeological excavations of the fort since the 16th century, including the famous C4 ‘Time Team’ who did an excavation for television in 2007.

North Pennines AONB

While we stayed at the River View Holiday Cottage in Frosterley, on the edge of the North Pennines for the weekend. We made several visits to the North Pennines and on our last day in Frosterley, drove over the North Pennines again to get to our next holiday accommodation at Brancepeth Castle.

The North Pennines is the northernmost section of the Pennine range of hills which runs north to south through northern England. AONB or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is portions of countryside in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, that have been designated for conservation due to their significant landscape value.

One thing we found striking when driving across the North Pennines is that there are more sheep on the roads than cars.

Durham Cathedral

Cathedrals are always awe-inspiring for their architecture and Durham Cathedral is no exception.

We visited the cathedral in the city and county of Durham one evening when the main tower was open for visitors to climb the 325 steps to the top. It was ‘no mean feat’ and even the fit and young found it hard going. I did manage to get to the top, and the panoramic views of Durham city made it all worthwhile.

On the site in 995 AD was a wooden Saxon White Church, which was built to house the relics of Saint Cuthbert. This was the birth of a settlement now known as Durham city, now with a population of 48,000. Three years later, it was replaced by a stone-built church, also called White Church. Then in 1093, the Saxon church was demolished and construction of the Norman Cathedral started.

Durham Cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Durham, the fourth-highest ranking bishop in the Church of England hierarchy, and a member of the House of Lords.

The towers date from the 13th century, but the central tower was damaged by lightning and subsequently replaced in the 15th century. The central tower (which I climbed) is the steepest and most narrow spiral of any cathedral in England and Wales. It’s 218ft (66m) high, with 325 spiral steps which are uneven and very narrow near the top.

Finchale Priory

Finchale Priory, located by the River Wear, had been a dependency of Durham Cathedral since 1196 and now the ruins are kept preserved by English Heritage.

In the early 12th century, Godric of Finchale (St Goderic) built a stone chapel ‘St John the Baptist’ on the site. Then after Godric’s death in the 13th century, two monks started construction of the priory, built around the existing church and Godric’s burial site.

The priory was dissolved in 1536 and fell into ruins following King Henry VIII dissolution of the Roman Catholic Church in England. King Henry VIII made himself the head of the church (now the Church of England) rather than the Pope in Rome, specifically so he could legalise divorce and marriage annulment for himself.

Finchale Priory, County of Durham, England

Finchale Priory, County of Durham, England

Seaham

We visited Finchale Priory in the morning, so in the afternoon we headed for Seaham for a break and a bite to eat to finish off the day.

Seaham is a seaside town in Durham County. It grew from the 19th century due to investments in its harbour and coal mines; the original village of Seaham was a small rural agricultural community. The only real fame to its name is that Lord Byron married Anne Isabella Milbanke, a local landowner’s daughter, at Seaham Hall in 1815.

While at Seaham we found a quaint little arts and crafts café (Eden Art Café) which had an ‘all day full English breakfast’ on their menu, including a vegetarian option, which I enjoyed. After enjoying breakfast but before leaving the café, we bought a steam-punk cat and metal dragonfly—all locally made.

After our meal but before driving back to our flat at Brancepeth Castle, we drove a short distance up the coast to ‘Nose’s Point’ on the outskirts of Seaham. It's a designated SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) for its geology and ecology.

Low Force and High Force Waterfalls

The following day we made a day trip to Low Force waterfall in the North Pennines AONB and part of the UNESCO Global Geopark. Low Force is an 18ft (5.5m) high set of falls on the River Tees, England.

To get to Low Force we had to cross the River Tees over Wynch Bridge one person at a time. The bridge was built in 1830 and is considered too unstable to take more than one body at a time.

We didn’t quite make it to the High Force Waterfall, a mile and a half up river, as it was a step too far. High Force is a spectacular near-vertical drop of 70ft (21m) but it was still an enjoyable walk. Along the river path route, the walls are peppered with spectacular artwork of insects set in stone.

After our trek to Low Force and before returning to our holiday flat at Brancepeth Castle, we stopped at Middleton-in-Teesdale (a quaint market town just a few miles up the road) where we had a cream-tea at the Tees Pot café for lunch. Middleton-in-Teesdale is a quaint little market town in the county of Durham.

Hartlepool National Museum of the Royal Navy

The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), which opened in 1994, is a maritime exposition and visitor attraction in Hartlepool, County Durham. There's a thematic re-creation of an 18th-century seaport from the time of Lord Nelson, Napoleon and the Battle of Trafalgar.

The main attraction is the HMS Trincomalee, a Royal Navy Leda-class sailing frigate, built in 1817, shortly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Also moored in the docks is the PS Wingfield Castle, a former Humber Estuary ferry, launched in 1934, and now preserved as a museum ship in Hartlepool.

© 2022 Arthur Russ