A love letter to Durham


‘Grey towers of Durham
Yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles
Half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scot
And long to roam these venerable aisles
With records stored of deeds long since forgot’
-Sir Walter Scott

I vividly remember my first impressions of Durham. Driving down to the city from Newcastle Airport one and a half years ago, I remember eagerly looking out of the window, desperate to catch a glimpse of the place I would be calling home for some time. As the car veered off the highway, I saw it. Durham Cathedral, rising pristinely above a canopy of green trees and boldly printed against the azure sky, its façade catching the sparkling light of the afternoon sun. Much like what Sir Walter Scott must have felt when he penned the above words in 1827 as a dinner guest to the Bishop of Durham, I too gazed in quiet awe and reverence.

What is it about this quaint city that never ceases to allure the fleeting traveller or long-term inhabitant? According to legend, Durham was founded by a group of monks from Lindisfarne. Carrying the body of Saint Cuthbert, they were led to the ‘wooded hill-island formed by a tight gorge-like meander of the River Wear’ by a milkmaid looking for her lost Dun Cow. The Cathedral that grew up in the years that followed became revered as the last resting places of Saint Cuthbert and the Venerable Saint Bede, and became the subject of many pilgrimages during medieval times. The shrine of Saint Cuthbert, in particular, was considered to be the most religious site in England before the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket, with many stories of people being cured of various maladies after a visit.

What is it about this quaint little city that never ceases to allure the fleeting traveler?

Perhaps it is this deep-rooted and religious past that lends the city its air of majesty and history today. But Durham possesses other charms, as writers like Sir Walter Scott can attest. None capture it so well as Joseph Mallord William Turner in his various paintings of the city. ‘Durham Cathedral’ depicts Framwellgate Bridge, the Cathedral and a thick cluster of houses on the riverside, capturing a shot of a burgeoning Durham in 1798. In ‘Durham Cathedral: The Interior, Looking East along the South Aisle’, shafts of golden light gently filter in through the glass windows, illuminating the aisles and arches with a warm buttery glow. Durham is not just majestic and historical, but also bustling, lively, and mesmerising.

It has been many months since I first caught a glimpse of the Cathedral from the car, and yet my first impression lives on. The likes of Prebends Bridge, Palace Green Library and Durham Castle feel like places drawn out of an 18th century novel, delicately frozen in time. Walking along the Bailey’s winding cobblestone streets and past the old buildings lining Saddler Street, I still sometimes imagine how people from a century ago may have strolled down the very same lanes, or even frequented the very same places. Wandering out of the city and towards the Old Durham Gardens, a view of wind turbines in the far distance comes into sight, as well as a rolling, rich countryside spreading as far as the eye can see. With the sky reflected in the glassy blue waters of the River Wear, one almost feels more tranquil and calm.

This, then, is the place that Bill Bryson lavishes praise on in his book Notes From a Small Island. A city that is gloriously majestic and profusely historical, yet peacefully quiet and romantically beautiful.
A perfect little city’

Illustration by:

One thought on “A love letter to Durham

  • A perfect little city?
    It once was, as Bryson comments. Even he now admits that it is now spoiled beyond belief due to the over doubling of student numbers from when he first penned the book. Of course, as Chancellor for several years he watched the process take place!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.