The loop of the River Wear around the rocky outcrop on which Durham City sits made this a natural defensive settlement here from probably thousands of years ago. The steep sides all around from the riverside made it simple to fortify from all sides and establish ‘Dunholm’ as it was called, into what was an almost impregnable fortress throughout the Saxon and Danelaw era.
Taking a walk towards the City from downriver (we started near Gilesgate) gives an idea of how many would have approached Durham fortress in the times before roads, by river. We parked on the roadside just off Gilesgate itself and took the path from St Giles Close past St Giles’ churchyard, through the woods towards the river.
This joins up with the W2W Cycleway so you could also fit this as part of a longer bike ride.
Walking along the river you often see the University rowing teams in training for the regatta season, both here and nationwide. Passing Hild & Bede College on your right on the way, you’ll see several sets of wide stairs leading down to the river for launching the long 4 and 8-man rowing boats. There are more closer to the city as well, as you pass some of the City Centre Colleges.
The footpath leads pretty much into the city centre itself, and you’ll see the Prince Bishops car park on your right, after the New Elvet Bridge, next to the rowing boat hire yard. This is reasonably priced if you’d prefer to park closer to the centre. Its worth noting that are toilets available on the upper floors too.
Rowing boats are available to hire from the Boat Club; you can also take a River Cruise on the ‘Prince Bishop’ from here if you fancy a more leisurely boat trip.
Heading past the stairs leading up to Elvet Bridge, you pass under the bridge itself and start on the footpath looping around the City Centre itself as this map shows.
A great opportunity to feed the ducks if you fancy it!
You may even get the chance to pick seasonal fruits and herbs. At this May time, the Wild Garlic was in full flush and we’d come prepared with some sellf-seal plastic bags (totally necessary to contain the pungent scent!) to gather some. There are also Blackberry stands and other fruits in evidence along the way.
You’ll also pass the boathouses and stairs for St Chad’s, St John’s and the St Cuthbert’s Colleges as you walk along. There are a few handy places to sit for a while and have a picnic and just take in the tranquility.
One notable feature on the walk is the amazing Classical Portico on such a small building, known as the house of the Polish ‘Count’ Joseph Boruwlaski; a diminutive entertainer, who spent the last 46 of his 97 years in Durham!
There’s a real standout feature if you’re looking for a seat on the way round, with amazing carved wooden seating all around.
Moving on, the path has rounded the South of the promontory and is now heading back toward the city, always with the river slowly coursing to your left.
The elegant Prebend’s Bridge leads from the Cathedral Close awaay from the city, now just for those on foot.
Beyond Prebends Bridge you come across the Old Fulling Mill, on the waters’ edge with the path rising around it. As the West towers of the cathedral come into view you get an impression of the intentions of the Norman conquerors by building on such a massive scale; in an age of thatched wattle huts, the combined Castle and Cathedral will have been truly intimidating.
The Fulling Mill (which would have manufactured cloth) was until recently the site of the University Archaelogy Museum, though the proximity of the water meant that the collection was vulnerable to both damp and flooding. The museum has been resited in the Palace Green Library.
The path continues towards the bridge, and up the steps beside a collection of coffee shops and restaurants on to the lower end of Silver Street, one of the main shopping streets with many of the major High Street retail names.
Off the Market Square is the modern shopping precinct, which also leads to the upper floors of the Prince Bishops car park.
There are more quirky shops and coffee shops along Saddler Street, as well as little alleyways such as the one leading to Vennels Café.
Part way up the hill towards the Cathedral, the path off to the left takes you down and across the Old Elvet Bridge; continuing up the hill leads past the St Chads and St John’s colleges and some of the charming student accommodation.
There is also a rear entrance to the Cathedral via the Cloisters.
The cloisters are some of the most complete monastic buildings left in England. You’ll find a superb cafe and the ongoing building of the Cathedral in Lego; you can even buy a brick for £1 to add to it and help their fundraising.
The cathedral itself is rightly denoted as a World Heritage Centre, and you can see a lot more on the Cathedral website.
LEaving the Cathedral via the North door you come onto Palace Green itself with the old Hospital buildings on the right, now a cafe as well as museum and visitor centre buildings. On the left is University College with a magnificent Great Hall and some of the most spectacular student accomodation anywhere – in the C11 castle itself!
This is just part of what can be found in Durham but hopefully add a little to the usual guidebook things. Of course Durham city is in easy reach of Terrace Cottage and makes a really great day out – you can book your County Durham break online via Tripadvisor; you can also read what other visitors thought of the accommodation and their experience of the region.