Sharing the landscape and borders of North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Northumberland, County Durham seems a little overshadowed by its neighbours. But it shouldn’t be – this area with its breathtaking scenery, dramatic coastline and vibrant city has so much to offer.
The obvious starting point for our holiday was Durham itself, where the commanding castle and cathedral dominate the skyline. Entry is free to view the stunning architecture and stained glass in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle, occupied continuously since the 11th century, is now home to university students, although members of the public can book student-led tours to learn about the Prince Bishops, rulers of the castle for hundreds of years.
Boat trips on the River Wear, as it meanders gently through the city, are a relaxing way to spend an hour or two, not so relaxing if you opt for hiring a traditional wooden rowing boat instead of a cruiser. Independent shops, a Victorian market hall, modern shopping centres and an excellent theatre complete the city, and don’t forget its sporting connections with its cricket ground at Chester-le-Street.
Those who prefer the countryside will not be disappointed – you can walk in Weardale, cycle through Hamsterley Forest, or simply enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the Durham Dales and North Pennines, stopping off at one the many picturesque villages or market towns to sample the local produce. One of England’s most impressive waterfalls, High Force, in Forest in Teesdale is easily accessed by a short woodland walk amid beautiful countryside. Marked walking routes for all abilities make it a great base for exploring one of this country’s natural wonders.
Over to the east lies Durham’s Heritage Coast. Unspoilt beaches, stunning limestone cliffs and headlands and an 11-mile coastal path from Sunderland to Hartlepool make for bracing walks spotting kittiwakes, cormorants and rare wild flowers.
The National Trust has a large presence in the North and we visited the small, but perfectly formed Souter Lighthouse, standing proud on the coastline near Sunderland. Opened in 1871 it was the first lighthouse in the world designed and built to be powered by electricity. It protected sailors around this once-thriving mining village from the treacherous seas and the infamous fog on the Tyne, until it was decommissioned in 1988. Further up the coast at Whitley Bay is St Mary’s lighthouse, built on a small rocky island linked to the mainland by a small causeway which becomes submerged at high tide.
Development away from its industrial past has continued down the coast in Hartlepool. Only 18 miles from Durham, the marina is a busy little port and home to The Maritime Experience – recreating an 18th century seaport and the restored HMS Trincomalee. Climb aboard to explore Britain’s oldest floating warship, built in Bombay in 1817, which despite travelling thousands of miles still has over 60 per cent of its original timber in the hull. You will learn about the stories of boys, some as young as 12, who made up the crew.
Beamish is probably the area’s most well-known attraction. This open air working museum, set in over 300 acres, tells the story of life in north-east England during the 1820s, 1900s and 1940s. We travelled around the site on trams and open top buses, part of a large fleet of vehicles owned by the museum. Many of the daily duties are carried out by staff in period vehicles too – even delivering posters produced on a 19th century printing press above the local newspaper shop.
The latest addition is Eston Church, which like many of the buildings at Beamish, has been ‘rescued’ from demolition in Middlesbrough. It has now been lovingly rebuilt and restored.
Knowledgeable staff and volunteers, dressed in authentic costume, bring each era to life. We were amazed at how quickly the hours passed – a visit to this living museum appeals to all ages and is well worth the entrance fee.
Our trip to the north-east was completed with a day in Newcastle. The Angel of the North designed by Antony Gormley became a catalyst in the regeneration of Newcastle Gateshead with exciting developments including the Millennium Bridge, Baltic Centre and the Sage.
Whether it’s shopping, nightlife or culture this city has it all. Younger members of the family are catered for with a number of museums including The Centre for Life combining fun with learning – a planetarium, a 4D motion ride, hands-on exhibits and the recently opened Brain Zone.
With our week racing to a close our only regret was not having longer to explore the North-East and we vowed to return soon to continue our discovery of this impressive part of the country.
Beamish Museum, County Durham DH9 0RG (0191 370 4000) - beamish.org.uk
Centre for Life, Newcastle NE1 4EP (0191 243 8210) - life.org.uk
Maritime Experience, Hartlepool TS24 0XZ (01429 860077) - hartlepoolsmaritimeexperience.com