It's what Christmas is really all about

During the first weekend of December the maze of medieval streets at the historic centre of Durham comes alive with traders, entertainers and carol singers. The two ancient stone bridges of Framwelgate and Elvet that span the River Wear are closed to all but pedestrians and crammed with stalls, giving a real taste of what the city would have been like centuries ago.

This is the Christmas Festival, a celebration of the rich history of Durham as a place of Christian worship. Wander around the streets, taking in the sights, sounds and smells. You will be following in the footsteps of pilgrims who have journeyed to this spot for more than a 1,000 years.

Many of the stalls offer snacks and "festive fare". If you prefer to eat at a restaurant, try Chadwick's on Saddler Street (0191-384 1999) or Hollathons on Elvet Bridge (0191-386 4618). The Shakespeare pub on Saddler Street (0191-386 9709) serves a good pint of beer and has an extremely cosy snug.

An Advent procession with carols takes place at Durham Cathedral in the early evening. Pause to admire the beauty of the cathedral built above the shrine of St Cuthbert and the tomb of the Venerable Bede.

Durham Cathedral and Castle, an alliance of Christian faith and Norman power, tower above a strategic peninsula formed by a wide loop in the River Wear. It was to this narrow outcrop of land in 995 that the body of St Cuthbert was brought by a religious community searching for a safe resting place for this most famous of English saints.

St Cuthbert was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 685 until his death in 687. Following the Norman Conquest, William I appointed the first "Prince Bishop" to rule Northumbria and protect this far-flung region from invasion by the Scots.

The castle was begun in 1072 and it remained the principal seat of the Prince Bishops for 750 years until it became the University College of Durham during the 1830s. Work began on the cathedral in 1093. It was completed within 40 years, and is one of the finest Norman buildings in the world today, a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture which contains the earliest example of a rib vaulted ceiling and the first use of flying buttresses.

Durham is on the main railway line from London to Edinburgh. Ticket information from GNER (08457 225225). The City of Durham Christmas Festival is next weekend (1-2 December). The Advent procession at Durham Cathedral takes place at 7pm on both days. Farnley Tower (0191-375 0011), a short walk from the centre, offers panoramic views of Durham and double rooms cost £65. Durham tourist centre (0191-384 3720).

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