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The International Writers Magazine: UK Destinations

• Eleanor Ross
Durham’s crooked grey streets, stone castle and slow paced river attract coachloads of tourists every year. Lonely Planet’s ‘Thousand Things to do Before You Die’ book cites Durham as a top destination for visitors to Britain. Apparently the Cathedral is one of the finest examples of a building with a vaulted stone ceiling, and I’ve heard that the view from the top is extra-ordinary, even on a cloudy day.

But there the attractions seem to end. The city feels perpetually cold and windswept. The quaint cobbled streets collect water and still-pools of sludge remain for weeks after the light rainfall, waiting for evaporation to occur. Having been a student here for nearly three whole years, I challenged myself to make Durham into a tourist destination that didn’t involve following the American grannies to the castle, and back down again.

One thing Durham has in spades are traditional cafés. Starbucks opened here for the first time only 6 months ago, now crammed with students wielding Macbooks filching all of the free wi-fi. Whatever Starbucks offers in terms of internet access, one thing it can’t do very well is a good cream-tea. Durham was built for cream teas. Tea-shops tumble down the high street, tucked into the rafters of old houses, and into the basements of others. Doilies, lace curtains and stiff wooden chairs invite the customer to remember a less complicated time, when afternoon tea was de-rigeur and Victoria Sponge was made with fresh eggs in the back-kitchen.

Amongst the plethora of mediocre 1970’s cafés, sits Leonards. Close to the river, Leonards is a place that offers wonderful, fresh breakfasts (stacks of pancakes and bacon anyone?), good coffee and beautiful squishy sofas that are particularly welcome after hiking up and down Durham’s hills.

Digging deeper, Durham’s student population has ensured that creative venues such as Fishtank and Empty Shop continue to showcase local artistic and musical talent. Empty Shop, an independent arts organisation takes over shops that have fallen into disuse, regenerates them, and uses them as venues for exhibitions, plays and poetry readings. Empty Shop certainly provides a welcome diversion from the gambling and kebab shops of adjacent North Road, whilst Fisktank’s celebration of new music draws in visits from both the local and student population.

The heart of Durham City centre, the marketplace, has recently undergone a huge regeneration project, which involved moving a statue of a horseman from one end of the square to the other. Bordering the square sits the indoor market, a haven for budget shoppers and those seeking obscure items, such as traditional pipes, fishing reel and quality local cheeses. Although Durham’s shopping centre is poor to say the least, the fact that such a market can continue to thrive with a Tesco metro opposite it is a real sign of Durham’s community spirit.

Durham’s beating heart certainly lies in its university. During vacation the streets empty. Locals barely fill the city on a Friday night and salesmen in the local Phones 4 U tap their biros on the edge of their desks, gazing out of the windows at the slow falling drizzle. Term time brings chants, shouts, sporting socials and vomit to the ancient streets. It’s not a better place, but it feels far livelier. Coffee shops stretch their opening times and students yawningly drag themselves out of bed in time for an 11am meeting with their tutor.

The Wear, specked with students rowing and visitors in heavy wooden day boats was once a stagnant, malarial river. Now, dogs plunge into it from the sides of the banks chasing sticks and teenage couples kiss sickly sweet summer holding ice-creams, dangling their long, brown legs into the murky water. Joggers, cyclists and old people hand in hand pace the banks of this river every day. The smell of wild garlic pollutes the air and earthy fungus dulls the smell of freshly cut grass alongside the water.

Durham is more of an attitude than a tourist destination. In my opinion, it is a city to live in rather than to visit on an afternoon. Bored trippers tick off the castle and cathedral before queuing to get back on the bus, waiting, early, before it’s arrived. Stay here for three days or more, and the inertia sets in. A city that matched the pace of its river one hundred years ago and hasn’t changed.

Three years of saying there’s nothing to do, and I’m sad to leave. Stepping off the train at Kings Cross after a year in Durham is like somebody shining a bright light in your eyes after a long sleep. You have to shake off the memory of calm, hazy summer mornings, howling winter gales and snowed in Sundays, pick up your case, and try to navigate a tube station bigger than the city centre. Wear

© Eleanor Ross  April 2012  

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