The eyes have it. The dominant features in Durham are its premier-league Norman cathedral and its neighbour, a similarly imposing 11th-century castle. Together, they constitute a Unesco World Heritage Site and, located on a hill, are visible from all parts of the city.
Almost completely surrounding this compact-but-spectacular city centre is the River Wear, which runs in a straight line from the north before making a U-turn and heading back in the opposite direction. The change of direction forms a loop, within which are many imposing town houses, the town hall, and the new Millennium shopping and entertainment complex.
"This area has properties from several periods," says Paul Brown of estate agents Halifax. "It contains grand Tudor, Georgian and, on Western Hill, four- to six-storey Victorian buildings. Durham University occupies many of these town houses, although some are still family homes. They do not change hands often, and we don't have any on the market currently." Illustrious university alumni include MP Mo Mowlam, triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, and England cricket captain Nasser Hussain.
City-centre prices have risen sharply in recent years, but first-timers are not entirely priced out of the market, says Brown. "Within a radius of two or three miles, prices can halve. A four-bedroom house costing more than £400,000 in Ferens Park can drop to £370,000 in the North End, going down to £260,000 in Broompark, and to £130,000 in an outlying village."
Although the twisting river covers relatively large areas of the city, until now Durham has had little riverside housing. "Not much land actually fronts the edge of the river," Brown explains. "A development is currently being built on Elvet waterside, with flats starting at about £160,000 going up to £495,000 for houses." Hilly Durham is at little risk from flooding, Brown says. "The river has flooded, but only to the level of the towpath. The new riverside development will have garages in the basement, and the builders are incorporating flood defences in the design."
With a hospital and England's third-oldest university, Durham can be relied on for a steady supply of tenants. "Investors are doing very well. Demand remains high because the university provides very little student accommodation," Brown adds. "A few years ago, the parents who bought a student property would sell when their son or daughter left. More recently, they have been holding on because it provides income and is a good long-term investment. Prices rise because of ongoing demand from investors and parents."
Durham is 19 miles south of Newcastle, on the London-York-Newcastle-Edinburgh main line. The A690 is two miles from the A1(M).
Durham has an indoor market and the modern but modest Prince Bishops and Millburngate centres. The massive MetroCentre in Gateshead is 17 miles away.
Major museums include the Gulbenkian Museum of Art and Archaeology, the DLI (Durham Light Infantry) Museum and Art Gallery, and the Durham University Oriental Museum.
Music and Dance
A wide range of lunchtime and evening concerts and other events are held at the cathedral and other churches. For dance enthusiasts, the card includes salsa, line, morris, ballroom, salon, Irish set, belly and tea.
Lapping it up
The council operates swimming pools and leisure and fitness centres in the city centre and nearby villages, including the wonderfully named Pity Me (possibly from the French "Petit Mere")
The Millennium City cinema has four screens, and plays and other recitals are staged at the Gala Theatre, City Theatre, Brancepeth Castle and Durham Castle.
Highlights include the Durham Regatta in June, the Miners' Gala in July, and two beer festivals. The 5-9 June England vs Zimbabwe test match will be played at the County Cricket Ground in Chester-le-Street.
According to Halifax, a two-bed flat starts at £70,000 and typical three-bed semis cost about £90,000. A two-bed, first-floor flat near the centre is £75,950. A three-bed semi in Broompark, three miles from Durham, is £97,950. A larger three-bed detached house with single garage in Langley Park, one of several villages within three to five miles of the city centre, is £132,950. Both at Halifax.
Johnston School catchment area
A three-bed semi with a single garage in North End is seeking offers around £230,000, and a four-bed detached house in an estate of 11 detached properties in Whitesmocks is £370,000, at Halifax.
Handsome city centre
A two-bed, ground-floor flat with garden in an imposing grade II-listed, three-storey, former school with views of the castle and cathedral is £275,000 at Halifax.
This five-bed mid-Victorian wing of a mansion in the Castle Eden conservation area is located just outside Durham. The estate includes a garage and a spacious rear garden across from a golf course and is available through Sanderson Young at £395,000.
Bryant's latest release at its Highgate development of three-storey five-bedroom townhouses near the city centre, from £390,000. Not yet released are the 35 flats at Walkergate, in a mixed-use development, and a 29-unit estate of riverside flats, both being handled by Knight Frank.
The Cottage is an extended stone Victorian detached family home with converted loft within a former farm, Sanderson Young, £375,000. Originally buried in Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert's remains were moved to Chester-le-Street before being enshrined in Durham.
Halifax, 0191-384 4722; Knight Frank, 0191-221 2211; Sanderson Young (Gosforth), 0191-213 0033.