The City of Durham is one of those magical places that outdoes itself at every turn, and merits the trip to this county by itself.
After seeing every historic site and seeing the tomb of Venerable Bede and the treasure of St Cuthbert, you’ll be wiser about England’s mysterious years before the Normans came.
Two long Rivers wend their way eastwards through County Durham: The Tees and Wear form tranquil valleys edged by moorland and hills.
These regions are known as the Durham Dales and harbour many of the county’s most charming historic towns, as well as majestic countryside that will have you itching to get outdoors.
For unfettered wilderness, strike out into western County Durham where the environment is protected by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Lets explore the best places in County Durham:
With twisting cobblestone streets and volumes of history it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the extraordinary City of Durham.
You may find yourself extending your stay just to make sure you make every discovery, because there’s an incredible amount to get through.
Start with the cathedral, up there with England’s most valued monuments and overflowing with vital fragments of early English history in its library and treasury.
The other pillar of Durham’s World Heritage Site is the castle, erected right after the Norman Conquest and with student volunteers from Durham University giving informative tours.
Dawdle along the riverside, browse the fabulous museums and get out to the wonderful North Sea coast.
The first steam-powered passenger trains in the world chugged along the Stockton and Darlington Railway from 1825, so this market town has reason to be proud of its contribution to the world . Head of Steam is a railway museum at the North Road station George Stephenson’s Locomotion No. 1, the first engine on the line looks as good as new.
Darlington’s Covered Market is in an impressive hall with an iron frame, that was completed in 1863 and has stalls that have been passed down through families for generations.
Pop in from Monday to Saturday for flowers, fruit and veg, meat, cakes and much more besides.
The story of this coastal town echoes that of many next to the North Sea.
Hartlepool was just a small place until railways and industrialisation arrived in the 1800s.
Within decades it was one of the most productive fishing ports and shipyards in the region, bringing in fresh fish and raw fleeces and sending it west to Yorkshire and Lancashire’s woollen mills regions, while exporting coal and textiles.
So the old waterfront is an apt setting for Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience.
Moored here is HMS Tricomalee, the oldest British warship still afloat and celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2017. The Hartlepool Museum on the quayside has the world’s first gas-powered lighthouse, and will also explain why Hartlepudlians refer to themselves as “Monkey Hangers”.
4. Bishop Auckland
This town got its name because of Auckland Castle, a hunting lodge that the Bishops of Durham chose for a residence more than 800 years ago.
Even now Auckland Castle is a functioning episcopal palace in more than 320 hectares of parkland, in which you’ll stumble upon a variety of interesting little monuments.
Take the stone Deer House, constructed in the a gothic revival style in 1760 to give the park’s deer food and shelter.
Bishop Auckland’s Victorian town hall became obsolete and was threatened with demolition, but it has since been revived as a cultural centre with a theatre, art gallery and cinema.
And, a little way outside the town are the remains of Vinovia a Roman fort, which includes one of the most complete hypocausts in the Roman Britain.
5. Barnard Castle
Found on the north bank of the River Tees in the eastern foothills of the Pennines, Barnard Castle is a small town that will blow you away with its culture.
For this you can thank Bowes Museum, which holds what is the greatest collection of art and decorative items in the North of England.
We’re talking El Greco, Canaletto, van Dyck, Fragonard and Goya along with a veritable treasure chest of tapestries, furniture and ceramics.
An astounding exhibit is the Silver Swan, a clockwork automaton crafted in the 1700s.
The town has some wonderfully picturesque ruins, including the eponymous castle, put up by the Normans in the 1100s in a lordly spot over the Tees, and Egglestone Abbey, built around the same time and dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1500s.
6. North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
Most of western Durham is a remote natural area on the northern limit of the Pennines Range.
This land of heather moors, hay meadows, broad valleys cut by powerful rivers may seem unaffected by man, but there clues all through the area of human intervention, both ancient and recent.
You can hike to Bronze Age burial mounds and see the vestiges of historic lead mines, and tucked into the open scenery are the old and pretty villages that would have houses these mining communities.
In the 10th century something momentous took place at the spot where the Church of St Mary and St Cuthbert stands today: A priest named Aldred the Scribe produced the earliest ever translation of the gospels to English, and in this period the church was the centre of Christianity for a area of what is now northeastern England and Scotland.
The current 11th century church is certainly regal, and marking in the walls show that Roman stone was used in parts of its construction.
Next to the Wear River is the Riverside Ground, where Durham County cricket team play their matches, and also hosting a five-day test match between England and a touring nation each summer.
The landscape at this coastal town is as rugged and windswept as you would hope from a north sea setting.
On crisp wintry days there’s a raw majesty to the sea and the limestone cliffs, and you can feel the force of the elements on the coastal path before warming up at a pub.
And when the weather’s warmer the North Beach becomes very tempting; this is guarded from the sea by a breakwater and has little rock pools to paddle in.
The Church of St Mary the Virgin is fascinating, as it has an Anglo-Saxon nave that has been dated to the late-600s, which puts it among the 20 oldest churches in the UK.
A short way west of Newcastle in gorgeous upland countryside is this village, attached to one of the northeast’s most cherished visitor attractions.
The Beamish Museum is an outdoor heritage museum on a bewildering scale.
It’s so large that you’re encouraged to take vintage trams and buses to get around.
There’s an Edwardian town, with machinery, signage, architecture and amenities from around 1913, and a farm that is frozen in the 1940s, complete with tools and machinery from that era.
The Georgian North recreates a farm from 1825, where you can meet regional domestic breeds and check out a waggonway, horse-drawn transport on rails that was replaced by steamtrains.
Both locations are in a beautiful steep-sided valley and have a whole cast of re-enactors
By the River Wear in the heart of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Stanhope is a serene place and a handy spot if you’d like to plot a course into the marvellous landscape of hills and dales.
The Durham Dales Visitor Centre, next to the Church of St Thomas, will set you up with itineraries and path guides.
And you can also learn about some of the minor sights around the town.
For instance, you don’t need to be a palaeobotanist to be wowed by Stanhope’s fossil tree.
What you see in the town’s churchyard is a 320 million-year-old tree stump found in a sandstone quarry just outside the town in 1915.
This market town was the eastern terminus for the Stockton and Darlington Railway, and in its boomtown days was another of the Northeast’s big shipbuilders.
But its most famous contribution to the world was the friction match, invented by a local chemist in 1827. Preston Park is a huge green space to the southwest of the town, with attractions that have recently been given a makeover.
The museum in the stately Preston Park Hall has wide-ranging exhibits of old stagecoaches, armour and art, and also offers a window on daily life and industry in Stockton 200 years ago.
Butterfly World in the park is a heated glasshouse with exotic butterfly species flying free in tropical vegetation.
Teesdale is prized for its heartrending upland scenery and natural landmarks.
And Middleton, also in the North Pennines, is within walking distance of one of the River Tees’ wildest spectacles.
High Force Waterfall is a challenging but unforgettable hike against the craggy course of the river.
High Force may not be the tallest waterfall in the country, but when the river is in full flow it does have the highest volume of water falling over an unbroken drop.
You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to walks in Middleton: The epic, 267-mile Pennine Way trail passes through, and looming above the south of the village is Kirkcarrion a hill topped with a Bronze Age barrow where a chieftain is said to be buried.
A former East Durham mining town, Shildon grew quickly in the late-1700s and would have transported its coal via the wagonways that you can see at the Beamish museum.
But as the industry expanded steam power took over, and it’s no stretch to say that Shildon is the “Cradle of the Railways”. The Stockton and Darlington Railway was essentially built and maintained by the Shildon Works.
Although they’re now gone, the Shildon Locomotion Museum opened in 2004 where the works used to be.
The attraction combines a modern building with old workshops and sheds, and even the home of Timothy Hackworth, an engineer and innovator in the early years at the Shildon Works.
Hackworth’s Sans Pareil locomotive from 1829 is one of the stars, and took part in the Rainhill Trials to work out which engine would run the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
14. Durham Heritage Coast
With coal mining and other heavy industry long gone, nature has reclaimed parts of Durham that had been forgotten by holidaymakers.
And this is true of the coastline from Sunderland to Hartlepool, which has now qualified for Heritage Coast Status.
Apart from Seaham there are no resorts to speak of, so you find yourself in an unadulterated, craggy seascape made for rambling.
The Coastal Footpath hugs the North Sea shoreline, scaling rousing limestone cliffs and guiding you to spectacular promontories like Noses Point, or the remote and haunting beach at Shippersea Bay.
Earlier we mentioned the Roman fort at Vinovia near Bishop Auckland.
Well, an intriguing thing about that monument is that in the 7th century much of its stone was transported to what is now the village of Escomb on the River Wear.
And here it became the material for what may well be the oldest complete church in the country, and one of only three Anglo-Saxon churches still standing in England.
Amateur historians will get frissons inspecting the stonework, which bears Roman inscriptions and a sundial on the south wall.