Durham: castles, cathedrals, and monsters in northern England

Ever hear of Durham? Unless you’re British or a church historian, you probably haven’t. That’s because a disproportionate number of visitors to England never get beyond London and its neighbors Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, and Stratford-upon-Avon. This concentration on southern England means that many visitors miss out on seeing the beauties of the country’s north.

Durham is one of the north’s most important towns. Never an industrial powerhouse like Newcastle or Manchester, its influence was as a cathedral town. Durham is built on a hill dominated by a cathedral and castle, both built by the Normans. Together they’re a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cathedral dates to the 11th century and was built on the foundations of an earlier church. It’s one of the most important pilgrimage sites in England because it houses the remains of two great church leaders. Saint Cuthbert was a seventh century missionary who performed miracles and helped spread the rule of the church over the chaos of Anglo-Saxon England. The Venerable Bede lived a generation later and was also an important religious figure as well as writing one of the earliest histories of England.

The castle has been used for various purposes over the centuries and is now part of the local university. The guided tour will take you past a collection of armor, a giant dining hall, and into a Norman chapel. This chapel is in almost perfect condition and while it’s Norman, it was decorated by Anglo-Saxon artisans. Each pillar carved with animals and warriors. The reason it’s so well preserved is that the learned scholars at the university didn’t recognize its importance and used it for years as a storage room!

The River Wear wraps around three sides of Durham and there’s an attractive river path that offers fine views of the city’s historic center rising above the trees. Don’t swim in the river, though, because you might comes across the Lambton Worm, a sort of Loch Ness Monster. While Nessie may have become extinct, keep a sharp eye out for this local beastie.

According to legend, one Sunday a long, long time ago a local boy named John Lambton went fishing instead of going to church. His only catch was a strange, ugly little thing that looked like an eel. Angry, John cursed it and threw it down a well. When John grew up he left Durham to become a soldier. The worm grew up too and started eating local children and terrorizing the city. When John came back from his military service he heard what was happening and went off to see a witch for advice on how to slay the monster. The witch gave him magical armor that would protect him from the worm’s attacks, but also warned him that after slaying the worm he must slay the first living thing he saw.

%Gallery-100819%John found the worm and after an epic battle managed to kill it. As soon as he was done his father ran up to congratulate him. John Lambton couldn’t kill his own father and ignored the witch’s warning. Since he didn’t fulfill the prophecy, the Lambton family was cursed for nine generations.

Of course you can’t believe everything these silly old folktales say. While most of the story is obviously true, it is very hard to kill the average English river monster, and so the Lambton Worm may still exist.

Durham acts as a gateway to the North of England. Newcastle is only a 15 minute train ride away, and Hadrian’s Wall can be visited on a day trip. Being close to the Scottish border there are plenty of castles and attractive countryside. So if you’re done with London, head north and check out Durham. There are high-speed trains from London’s Kings Cross station that only take three hours but get you a world away from the crowding and pollution of the big city.