Durham: Step into the county with tales to tell

Landscape and heritage meet in three Durham walks, finds Simon Calder

For most of its length, the Wear takes a north-easterly course through Durham. But towards the end of its wend, the river swerves west and south to loop around an outcrop – like a finger clawing at the Ordnance Survey map.

The fingertip is the heart of Durham City, an ideal place to begin a trio of walks that show how heritage and landscape fuse seamlessly in these parts. It's a city that's at its most atmospheric draped in the half-light of dawn or dusk, when the architecture stands in sharp silhouette to the soft haze rising from the Wear.

On Palace Green you can see why the city was a shoo-in for Unesco's World Heritage List. To the south, the grand cathedral, which has helped spirits soar since the 12th century, while the body of St Cuthbert, patron saint of northern England, has attracted pilgrims for even longer, as a Saxon cathedral devoted to him originally occupied this site. On the opposite side of Palace Green stands Durham Castle, which boasts Norman foundations and scholarly occupants: it is now the most sought-after hall of residence in the nation, filled with students from for the city's University.

The first walk is a stirring warm-up: head down the cobbles of Saddler Street, make a sharp right, and below Elvet Bridge you'll find a footpath that winds clockwise, leading for a mile along a wooded riverbank barely scarred by modernity.

By the time you reach Framwellgate Bridge, just 300 yards away from where you began, you're squarely back in the 21st century. Across the bridge is the bus station, where you can embark for Barnard Castle in the Durham Dales – of which only a skeleton remains. Just half-a-mile from this market town's centre stands northern England's most remarkable museum.

John and Joséphine Bowes made an odd couple: he, an aristocratic Londoner-turned-Durham coal baron, she a Parisian actress. They turned to France for architectural inspiration to create The Bowes Museum, a formidable hillside chateau. The collections of antique furniture, tapestries and Spanish masterpieces are always worth seeing, but on this visit I focused on the new exhibition: Rokeby: Poetry and Landscape; Walter Scott and Turner in Teesdale (to 28 April), celebrating the bicentenary of Scott's Rokeby.

Scott's tale of Civil War England set against the landscapes of the Durham Dales coincided with JMW Turner's increasingly profound love affair with the county. Invited back by Scott, the artist sketched and painted several of the locations in the poem. "Distant and high, the tower of Bowes/Like steel upon the anvil glows"; after you have viewed the inspiring landscapes, you can see how scenery became poetry by wandering through it.

You can wander for a morning through countryside carved neatly by dry-stone walls. Rushing water is the constant aural backdrop. At the Dairy Bridge, just above the "meeting of the waters" between the Greta and the Tees, you can gaze down through a tunnel of trees to limestone slabs etched by time. Peek into Rokeby Park, where the mansion of the poem's title still stands proud. End at Egglestone Abbey, where "the church's ample bound" provided the backdrop for the poem's finale. Today only haunting fragments remain.

Get back on the road through the Durham Dales and North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to the village of Newbiggin. Stone cottages huddle around the oldest Methodist chapel in continuous use. Along the road is Bowlees, and another rather grand Methodist chapel. This one, however, is about to open as the Bowlees Visitor Centre, and also marks the start and finish of a new walk dedicated to the "Teesdale Bard", Richard Watson.

"This land is like a sponge," said Neil Diment, who devised the Richard Watson Trail. "To think that all of this was dug up by hand, by the lead and silver miners," he mused, pointing to a heap of spoil the size of The Bowes Museum. Today, this valley provides fine views up to the Pennines, and down to the "Verdant banks of Tees" that Watson described. Lead mining was a brutal, filthy occupation, and while his poetry might be no match for the Stratford Bard ("After a meal and a short rest, I find/Myself refreshed, and more for work inclined"), this seven-mile commute across these austere hills helps you to understand the human stories buried in the Durham Dales.

Over the fells and far away, the bells of Durham Cathedral toll six o'clock, which by coincidence is the ideal moment to step into The Shakespeare at 63 Saddler Street. Some say it is the most haunted pub in Durham, but whatever the spirit level, it is the ideal place to contemplate on a city, and county, where landscape and heritage converge.

Getting there and around

The best approach is by rail, with East Coast, CrossCountry and Northern Rail serving Durham and Darlington. Trains from London take just under three hours; from York the journey is less than an hour. A line runs along the coast between Sunderland and Hartlepool, calling at Seaham. Grand Central Trains from London and York serve this line.

Call 0845 748 4950 or visit nationalrail.co.uk for times and fares. Discounted Advance tickets on East Coast Trains are available through eastcoast.co.uk.

The A1(M) is the main road corridor, and roads into the Durham Dales lead west from here, while the coast is served by links from the A19.

There are bus services from Durham and Darlington to Barnard Castle, and deeper into Teesdale and Weardale. Traveline (0871 200 2233; jplanner.travelinenortheast.info) has full schedules and fares.

More information

thisisdurham.com/outdoors has details on everything from accommodation to adventure, and you can speak to the Durham Visitor Contact Centre on 03000 26 26 26, or Skype ThisisDurham. Email visitor@this isdurham.com, or text 80011, starting your message with "Visit".

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
music
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
people
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam