top of page


For this audio tape on the history of Durham, I shall discuss and relate the following aspects of the city; firstly, the general history, secondly a tour of the central city area, and finally a recent update with personal hopes for the future.

General History.

There is little mention of Durham before the Saxon period. The Romans seem to have missed this natural defensive position, but there are Roman traces that have been found at Maiden Castle (on the way to Shincliffe) and further north at Chester-Le-Street.

The story of Durham could be said to start with the Monks travelling from Ripon. They were the followers and protectors of St Cuthbert’s body. St Cuthbert was a much-revered saint, whose body was said to be incorruptible. The Monks resided at Chester-Le-Street for a number of years before being forced to flee by Viking raiders. They travelled south ending up in Ripon, and about a year later they chose to return back home as the threat of attack had lessened. A legend relates the tale of one stage of the journey the body of St Cuthbert became immovable. After a few days fasting and prayers, one of the Monks had a vision that they were to proceed to Durham. Not knowing where this was, they were directed by a woman looking for her cow [3].

This story has been a legend for many years, but like other legends about the city its truthful origin is doubtful. In this case it is unlikely that the Monks who resided at Chester-Le-Street for a number of years did not know the whereabouts of an easily defensive position such as Durham, especially as it was only 5 miles away. A carving about the cow story appears on the north-eastern side of the Cathedral and this recent carving was done in 1775 [9]. An original was carved on the Cathedral when it was relatively new, but scholars say it was carved to typify the rich endowments of the Cathedral, and that the sculpture gave rise to the legend and not the legend to the sculpture [21].

The travelling Monks built a White Church which took 3 years to build. This housed St Cuthbert’s body; thus, he was again buried 309 years after his death on 4th September 998.

The Normans now arrived, unopposed, at Durham. William the Conqueror granted the inhabitants many valuable privileges but as usual the new rulers were disliked. In trying to force obedience an uprising followed in which the White Church and city was nearly burnt down. King William came to enforce order, but the inhabitants had fled taking St Cuthbert's body with them.

A few years later William returned from a visit to Scotland. The visit was remembered because he ordered a Castle to be built to protect the city and the Cathedral [6]. However, the story also tells of William wanting to check on the incorruptibility claim of St Cuthbert’s body. But on opening the tomb, he is said to have been smitten all of a sudden with a burning fever which so distracted him that he fled from the Cathedral. Such was his rush to flee that he did not draw rein until he had crossed the Tees - powerful stuff these old legends.

Throughout this period revolts still took place and at one stage even the Noman Bishop William De Calais fled [10]. When the Bishop was restored in 1093 the present Cathedral was begun. The first stage of the Cathedral was finished 10 years later, and St Cuthbert's body again found another resting place in 1104.

The splendour of St Cuthbert's tomb was such that no other in Britain could match it for the number of jewels or pilgrims until Thomas Beckett's shrine was built at Canterbury, in the 14th century. 

It could be said that the tomb and Its majestic setting provided much of the power and wealth of that early Durham city. Pilgrims would descend upon Durham and catch their first glimpse of the city from afar, and upon entering the Cathedral itself were struck by the rich decorations of gold, silver and gems which decorated the tomb [6]. Truly a sight to be remembered and retold when they returned home.

With this wealth and the constant treat from the invading Scots, the Bishop of Durham had many special powers bestowed upon him.

This was partly to use the Bishop as head of a buffer state between England and Scotland. He was known as a Prince Bishop and had the power to command an army. The King had no rights in the County of Durham as they all belonged to the Bishop. During this time the county was known as a palatinate.

However, these powers were removed by Henry VIII and he was also responsible for ransacking the shrine of St Cuthbert. In 1539 the Prior surrendered the Abbey to the King and a couple of years later the Cathedral was reformed with a Dean and 12 Chapters [6]. The Prior was responsible for many buildings and the development of many areas of Durham, as we shall hear about later.

The power that Durham displayed after this was mainly residual as there was no new powers added, but many were taken away.

During the English Civil War, the city was held for the Kings forces, and later handed peacefully to Cromwell. The Castle was never taken in its history but was sold to Parliament for £1269.

The decline of Durham’s power can be shown by there being no new major buildings built from the 1600’s until the Prison was built in Old Elvet in 1811.

When Bishop Van Mildert died in 1838, this was the end of one era and the beginning of another. Van Mildert was the last of the Prince Bishops, thus he was the last Bishop to have a sword on his coat of arms. However, this title was really only for ceremonial use as many of his powers had never been used since the 15th century. The new era also saw the creation of the University which started around this date. Durham Castle was given to the University and the Palace at Bishop Auckland became the Bishops main residence.

At this stage it is probably convenient to mention the role of Bishop and Prior in building the City. Although the Bishop was the spiritual head of the Cathedral, the building was run by the Prior and Convent, consisting of Monks which undertook the duties associated with the Cathedral. To confuse the arrangement even further the Prior directly controlled Crossgate and Elvet, whilst the Bishop controlled the main peninsula including the Market Place, Gilesgate and Framwellgate. This caused two sets of amenities to be built and is in part one reason why so many churches surround Durham.

Disputes occurred mainly due to money – things do not change over time! At one stage the Bishop actually blockaded the Prior in the Convent over visitation rights and dues paid to the Monastery. As the Bishop was the largest income earner the Prior had to plead many times with the Bishop for more money for repairs to the Cathedral itself. It appears that the local and central Government squabbles we see now are nothing new.

Walking tour of the central area

As with all tours it is common to start in a central place and fan out to see the relevant sights. With Durham this starting place must be the Market Place, to which it can be said that all roads lead to. The roads south from Darlington, north to Newcastle, east to Sunderland and west to Crook all converge on the small square marketplace.

The original Market Place was situated on the Palace Green in front of the Cathedral but was moved in the 12th century to its present site. The buildings around the Market Place are mainly 19th century, the most imposing being the clearing Banks. The Town Hall is worth noting. It was built in 1754 on the site of the Guild Hall and its roof is modelled on that of Westminster Hall. One of the numerous churches we shall discuss is situated here. St Nicholas's which is on the north side of the Market Place, was built in 1858 [42] when the original structure was demolished. Its spire is even more prominent now following the creation of the bypass road that has cleared an open space behind it.

Next to St Nicholas's the road of Claypath rises between the Church and what was the old Doggart’s’ store and the now demolished Co-Op store. This position was also where one of the main City gates stood here to protect the northern City entrance. Durham has never been famous for its defensive fortifications such walls, maybe because its natural defences gave an air of security.

The southern defensive or inner ring contained the Castle and Cathedral. Later the Market Place was included in an outer defensive section. The wall had its main purpose of fortification on the open northern section as the east, west, and southern sections had the looping River Wear as its main defence. The north wall included St Nicholas's church which had its northern wall built of great strength.

Many of you may remember the Market Place is where the solitary Policeman stood in his box directing the traffic, but with the new city centre bypass created in the 1970’s the Policeman has gone. For many years there was a Fountain in the Market Place, which in the latter years was surmounted with a statue of Neptune. The fountain was the main source of the city's water supply until 1849 [1], and now that it has been removed a cross set into the stone road mark its former position. The statue was repaired before being sited in Wharton Park above the Railway Station. It was later moved again when the Market Place was developed and has been returned close to its original site.

We shall now travel towards the Castle and Cathedral up Fleshergate, so called because of the number of butchers that used to be situated here. As we walk up Saddler Street we should stop before we approach Owengate. Across this road stood the Great Northern Gateway which stood 60' high and was the main fortification of the inner defensive ring. It was also the County gaol until Durham prison was built in 1819. The gateway was unfortunately removed in 1820 to aid vehicular traffic up to the Cathedral [43].

Saddler Street was also noted for its theatres and newspaper, printing and reading rooms. The last theatre along here is within the Salvation Army Citadel.

Travelling up to the Cathedral via Owengate we reach the open Palace Green and majestic views of the Cathedral. On our left as we move towards the Cathedral was situated the former site of the Bishop's mint. Coins were minted here for 400 years from 1135 [3] but the coins never had the Bishops image on them even though it was his mint. The new Almhouses are named after Bishop Cosin’s original almshouses which housed 4 men and 4 women.

The outline of the Cathedral has been altered many times since its original building from 1104. The main tower has had an extra portion placed upon it. On the eastern side of the building the Nave Alter has been built. This was financed from the profits of the Fulling Mill which was the Bishop's Mill.

The Galilee Chapel has been added to the west. Venerable Bede is buried here. A rumour spread, probably by the Monks, caused women not to be allowed into the Cathedral itself so they used the Galilee Chapel. A blue marble inlay set into the floor marks the boundary over which no woman could pass [7].

When the Galilee Chapel was built this blocked the main western entrance, so the present entrance was built. On this door is the famous Sanctuary Knocker. Criminals who used the Knocker were allowed to stay a maximum of 37 days when they would be escorted out of the County, usually to a seaport. The Knocker was watched over by two janitors whose bricked up windows of their chambers can still be seen. The Knocker was last used for sanctuary in 1524 and actually the original knocker is stored in the Cathedral Treasury.

Although the Knocker is famous for its link with sanctuary, it is probable that there was a sanctuary zone around the Priory marked by a series of crosses placed on all the major roads, such as Charley’s Cross, Nevilles Cross, etc.

The Castle opposite the Cathedral is now used by the University and the majority of the buildings are Norman or Middle Ages. The Keep however was built in 1840 on the site of the original, to house students. Under the old Keep a whale’s skeleton was found in the foundations. The only explanation for this was that of the Bishop's right to any valuables found within the County [12]. One look around the Castle shows its natural strength and the reason why it was never taken.

Along the eastern side of the peninsula containing the Castle and Cathedral are the North and South Bailey's. This is a long street which hosted the persons required for the defence of the Castle. However, as Durham became fashionable for a Town residence, many of the north country's major families had residences here. In the back gardens of the Baileys the remaining stretches of the city wall still remains.

There are two churches along the Baileys, one of which is St Mary le Bow which was the site of the original Saxon resting place of St Cuthbert. The Church is no longer used as a Parish church but houses the Heritage Centre for exhibitions and tourist information about the historic parts of the City.

Next to St Mary le Bow is Hatfield College, you can see it through its imposing wrought iron gates. There are two such gates, one from the Baileys and the other from Bow Lane. Hatfield College was once one of the numerous Coaching Inns within Durham.

Travelling south further down the Baileys we come to another parish church. This one is set back from the road and is called St Mary the Less. The church was founded in 1150, and for 170 years from 1572 the Rectory was held in sequestration because the profits were so small that whoever had the keys of the church left to him became Minister without “let or hinderance” [22]. As with many churches around the City it was rebuilt in the mid-19th century and became a chapel for St Johns College in 1918.

As we walk down the end of the Baileys, we come to one of the remaining gates of the City called Water Gate. This gate was at one time opened and closed at “the owner’s pleasure”, but when Rev Henry Egerton purchased the nearby house and gardens, he removed the old Postern and built the present archway in 1796 [21]. This was partly done as beyond the Gate we come to Prebends Bridge. Built in 1772 as a replacement for the old Foot Bridge washed away by the flood of 1770 [21].

From this bridge we achieve one of the most famous sights of Durham as we look towards the Castle and Cathedral, the wooded banks and below on the river the two fulling mills astride the Wear. Before the 18th century the banks were tree less, a sight hard to imagine as you walk through the leafy glades today.

We now turn right and walk up to into South Street. This area of Durham is one of those areas previously owned by the Prior so many amenities were duplicated in Durham, with one set controlled by the Bishop and another by the Prior. In South Street was the Priors prison, their dove cote [19] and further down the bank the fishponds [21].

On your left before you travel down South Street you will see Durham School with its impressive stone frontage designed by Salvin in 1844. Before this date the school premises were on the Palace Green.

At the bottom of South Street, we pass housing on the site of the city library opened in 1961 on the previous site of the old Johnson Grammar School.

On the opposite side of the road is St Margaret’s Church. This church has been altered many times with the external of the building showing the many changes. St Margaret’s served the commercial area of Millburngate, thus for many traders it was their local parish church. For many years St Margaret’s was a dependant chapel of St Oswald’s which is on the other side of the city. Hence parishioners had to walk across the peninsula to be married, buried etc. Their protests succeeded in changing the role of St Margaret’s to a full parish church but only bit by bit and then it took until the 19th century [12].

We are now in Crossgate, one of the old throughfares and the road in olden times to the west of the County. Many of the older houses have fine black oak staircases, which are quite common and somewhat of a symbol to Durham City.

We now move into North Road, which is a new throughfare by Durham's standards. Built in 1840 it was called King Street for a while. The Bus Station, Old Miners Hall, 2 Methodist chapels and the Shakespeare Hall are all situated along the road. The Bus Station has been modernised frequently, the original old iron and glass stands have now given way to the standard modern brick structure, are these improvements; I’m not quite sure.

The Shakespeare Hall was originally built as a Temperance Hall to combat the number of Public Houses there were in Durham at that time. The new bypass road built in 1972 has cleared the area in front of the main railway viaduct, giving an improved view. This viaduct was built on quite marshy ground, so it is built on oak piles that have been driven into the ground [12].

Going back down North Road towards the Castle we approach the Millburngate area. This area has been completely cleared of the medieval buildings which had become slums.

In its place a shopping centre has been built, which has again been expanded. The Millburngate buildings blend in well with Durham's skyline and have merited worthy praise, which is more than can be said of the old National Savings building further down the riverbank. A Lego building would have been more attractive, luckily the initial phase of the Millburngate complex hid most of the eyesore before it was demolished in 2018.

Our travels have brought us to Framwellgate Bridge. This bridge is the earliest of the river bridges. Bishop Flambard was responsible for the building of this and other notable structures, a fame which has lasted longer than the dubious one of being known as the 'Torch'. This was due to the Taxes he imposed on people for the then King William II [14].

The bridge originally had gateways with towers as the bridge was part of the outer defensive wall. All of these have gone to improve vehicular access in the 19th century [6].

Across the bridge we come to the narrow incline of Silver Street. With the 1970’s bypass the road can now be walked in safety, as it is pedestrian only, so double decker buses are not trying to squeeze past the shop windows. Unfortunately, nearly all the old properties have been sold and altered to give the standard shop frontages. Some of the last to go in the 1980’s was Greenwell's the Grocers and Smith's the Chemist. Entering these premiss was like stepping back in time.

We now pass across the starting point of the tour in the Market Place and proceed towards Elvet Bridge. The bridge itself was built in 1170 although as with the other river bridges it has been widened to accommodate the greater traffic flow [22].

One of the reasons the bridge was originally built was to connect the Borough of Elvet, run by the Prior, to the City, run by the Bishop. Thus, when the bridge was completed the people from Elvet could come to the Market Place to trade hence increasing the taxes collected for the Bishop. Once the bridge was built people no longer had to ford the river, but it is probable that tolls were collected on the bridge as the baggage trains still used the old fords.

Elvet Bridge originally had a gate on the City side and two Chantry Chapels, the remains of St Andrews are still visible on the Elvet side.

Under the Bridge on the City side was located the Goal. This ceased to be used when County Assizes were built in Old Elvet. Part of the old Goal can still be seen adjoining the multi-storey car park.

Across the bridge we enter Elvet. Elvet is split into two roads, Old and New. Old Elvet is what we shall talk about first as it is probably the most unchanged of all Durham's roads since the 1850's. The 1970’s bypass enters into Elvet next to the Royal County Hotel, famed for the sight of the Labour Party Leaders on Miner’s Gala Day on the balcony.

Along the road, the north side especially, has a fine sweeping curve of Georgian fronted houses. Near the end of Elvet we come to Old Elvet Green across which is the grand frontage of the Assize Courts and Durham Prison. It was built in 1811 and cost then £140,000. It is interesting to note that in 1920 [22] the average number of prisoners was 230, in the 1980’s the capacity is 669 but 957 are interred there. However, when one reads what the daily food allowance and the living conditions were like in the 19th century, it is no wonder that the number of inmates were much lower then. At the beginning of the 20th century, records show that 91% of all prison sentences were due to drunkenness.

At the end of Elvet stands the Magistrates Courts, not a notable building in itself but previously Elvet Station stood here. It operated a service to Sunderland and Hartlepool but only remained open for 38 years [39].

Going back to New Elvet one notices the differences in buildings. Most of the old buildings have been replaced by modern brick and concrete fronted buildings, mostly belonging to the University. The old Toffee Factory was situated near the rivet here but has long gone.

At the end of New Elvet and approaching Church Street is the latest addition to Durham bridges. This is a concrete footbridge built to aid student access in 1968. The designer was Ove Arup, but the bridge was initially criticised as it did not match the surrounding architectural designs. However, his more famous work of Sydney Opera House hardly matches its surroundings either.

We enter Church Street through the narrows caused by the tall houses on both sides. This road was the main vehicular road to the south of the county until the 1920’s when Durham western bypass was built.

Along this road on the right is St Oswald’s Church. Notable because it is the oldest church in Durham, parts of it were built in Saxon times. The roof is built entirely of ancient gravestones [21].

The fields close by were used by pilgrims to graze their horses when they came to visit the shrine of St Cuthbert.

If you travel towards the river from St Oswald’s the path will take you down along the river to Prebends Bridge, hard to imagine as you walk through the trees, the closeness of the city as even the main buildings are obscured by the trees.

Not only did the river prove to be a defensive asset, but the steep banks on either side of it made any attempt at the small defensive wall very difficult. Trees were sparce in the Middle Ages on these banks, so any attempt on the walls could easily be spotted and repelled. The weirs on the west side of the looping river beside the Mills, were used not only to drive the Mills, but also to deepen the river to aid its defences.

It is strange how some constant changes of our built environment go sometimes unnoticed. How often do we look down to what we stand on to consider the changing road surfaces. If you think back it was the prosperity of the city which allowed the road surface to change from mud, cobbles to the modern tarmac. These changes did aid transport especially up those various steep inclines. Many of the cobbled streets have gone, but parts of Crossgate and Neville Street remain to remind us of the uneven and noisy surfaces. Even now the road noise and vibration, limits the speed of modern cars on these roads, somewhat more reliably than the uglier speed bumps.


What does the future bring for the city that has stood for over 900 years. It is of no doubt that the Castle and Cathedral will remain to impress many generations to come, but it is hoped that the surroundings will also keep their character.

It is interesting to read the many books written after the Second World War about how the City would change. There is no doubt that changes were required, firstly to alleviate the traffic problems, and secondly to remove the unsightly buildings.

Maybe we should not be too quick to condemn the new brick building as future generations might view their forms as interesting. Just as the terracotta brick building of the Old Shire Hall built in 1890 to much criticism, now gives an interesting pause in the Georgian frontage of Old Elvet.

My personal regret is the loss of many of the older shops, whose interiors represented a bygone age and can never be reproduced. Surely ease of commercial shopping is not worth that price.

It is hoped that this brief talk about Durham has either refreshed the memories of those who have visited Durham or whetted the appetite of those yet to visit this historic city.

Tour of Durham: Text
bottom of page