Blog of Justin Cheuk, home to writing on London, Hong Kong, Studying Abroad, Trains and Travels.

My Favourite Towns of Britain (City Edition) – DURHAM

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Justin Cheuk: When HK Meets UK

DURHAM, County Durham

Travel Notes

  • Last visit – May 2018
  • Time spent – three years, on and off, plus almost annual pilgrimage since
  • Method of arrival – usually by rail (from all corners of the UK). I tried the night coach once. You arrive in Newcastle Central station at 4 a.m. Not recommended.
  • Distance from London – 234 miles, 2 hours 39 minutes from King’s Cross
  • Did I stay in town – Yes, at various addresses that I will not divulge now

Four random facts about Lerwick

  • Population: 40,785 (2011 Census); 207th Largest in the U.K.
  • Parliament Constituency: Durham City, Labour
  • Google autocomplete: Durham is “for Oxbridge reject.” An “innocent” search engine is capable of much destruction.
  • A famous local: Steph Houghton, England captain at the 2019 World Cup.

Three Reasons to Go

  • City in Nature – Durham is a city in name (thanks to its magnificent cathedral; more on that later), though it is a million miles from London or Newcastle in reality. Located in a strategic peninsula where the river Wear makes a dramatic meander, its defensive potential was long recognised and realised by its Norman castle. However, surrounding the two medieval structure is a wall of green: natural woods, well-manicured lawns and a botanical garden at the helm. Whenever you’re in Durham, make sure you take a walk around the river.
  • Idyllic atmosphere – Durham is a magical place, with its mixture of ancient history, northern charms and collegiate comfort. It’s an ancient, historic city, to the extent that Harry Potter had in its earlier films projected it as Hogwarts. The towering cathedral and the castle keep, along with a well-preserved medieval city centre certainly gave credence to all my Hogwarts and Hogsmeade dreams. The rolling hills by the river provided idyllic walks (despite also being a logistic nightmare)
  • The University – well, that was why I ended up there. Durham is a city synonymous with its University, which I understand to be quite good. One of the colleges is literally housed in the 12th century castle. (full disclosure, I did not attend said college; I attended a college that was all-girls until 2005. Make of that information what you will)

Two places I ate/drank

  • Vennels – among the many cafes and restaurants of Durham, Vennel is quite a hidden gem. Quite literally, as it is tucked in a secret alleyway off the main thoroughfare and behind a jewellery shop. It serves a variety of breakfast, lunch and teatime items, and has some of the best banoffie pie known to man.
  • Victoria Inn – as a student whom frequented college bars and for whom (then at least) alcohol unit per £ spent was the absolute barometer of my grading system, it’s difficult to recommend a worthwhile drinking establishment. Actually, no, the Victoria Inn emerges as the obvious choice. Step inside this neighbourhood Inn and you will be immediately transferred back to 1880, with an old school drinking room, a fire warmly lid and a mountain full of Victorian paraphernalia.

One place I missed

  • Top of the cathedral tower – according to ancient tradition/superstition, any undergraduates who braved the hike to the top of the cathedral tower prior to graduation will find themselves unable to do so. Of course, you know some madlads who had gone ahead and done it by November in first year. You could say I was superstitious, I would prefer traditionalist, but I had never considered ascending the tower until my graduation, at which point it promptly closed for restoration works.

One unmissable place

  • Durham cathedral – literally unmissible. Occupying a dominant position on the peninsula, it is the reason why the city existed in the first place; and commonly the first thing that most student see as they arrived at Durham. In my obviously biased view, the best Cathedral in the country. Where I first saw Durham, where I graduated.

One excursion opportunity (that I did do)

  • Beamish Museum – billed as the North’s living museum, which is mostly achieved by taking apart historic building across Northern England and reconstructing them in a disused colliery in Country Durham. I went along with a University society and the museum did not disappoint. Step into various villages frozen in time; have fish and chips old-school style, cooked with the greasiest beef fat that is; and, of course, revel in the various trams that was saved to run around the museum grounds.

One pointless memory

  • Prison cafe – another of Durham’s myths dispersed among the student population was at it has the most restaurant and cafes per capita, a figure (if at all verifiable) surely inflated by the exclusion of students in the census. Using the omnipotent eye test, the claim did seem to hold water. I spent a year walking back and forth in front of the town’s third most imposing building – HMP Durham – and I couldn’t help to notice that that the prison has a sign outside, advertising that it’s cafe is now serving illy coffee. I never dared to try it.

One point of concern

  • Supreme Bias – allow me to be honest here: my time at University at Durham will fondly be remembered as among the most wonderful and unforgettable. It is, rather literally, altered and my life: my outlook, my personality, my hopes and dreams. It may be a town with a prison in the centre, it may be a town with some of the most uninspiring 197os university architecture, it may be a town stuffed with tosser like me with a southern accent, but I will not tolerate any ill thoughts on it. I loved it, and I hope you shall too.

One line verdict

(Some of) my best time

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