Durham - close to perfection on planet earth

PUBLISHED: 11:35 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 18:14 20 February 2013

(Picture courtesy of Durham Cathedral)

(Picture courtesy of Durham Cathedral)

Durham is a magical place at any time of year but Tom Fennelly discovers that it sparkles more than ever in the run up to Christmas

With its magnificent cathedral and imposing castle standing proud and tall for centuries at the centre of one of the most attractive small cities in Britain, Durham casts a spell on visitors during a Christmas celebration which attracts tens of thousands from near and far to the delights of a setting which is truly world- beating.
The castle and cathedral became one of Britains 26 World Heritage sites in 1986 and in 2008 the site was extended to include Palace Green and the surrounding buildings, formerly the civic buildings of the Durham Palatinate.
Little wonder then that such a concentration of heritage, history, architecture and culture has stood for hundreds of years as the vital hub of a centre of power, religion, and learning,
Bill Bryson, international author and Chancellor of Durham University has said: Durham, I have come to realise, has a capacity to astound out of all proportion to its size. I dont know any place that manages to be more intimate and infinite at once.
Bryson became Durham Universitys 11th Chancellor in 2005 and he recently announced that he will stand down in July 2011.
The US-born author, who has lived most of his adult life in England, is best known for his series of books observing life in North America, Britain, Europe and Australia. He sang the praises of Durham in his account of touring around Britain, Notes from a Small Island (1995), describing it as a perfect little city with the best cathedral on Planet Earth.
At over 900 years old, Durham Cathedral is without doubt the greatest Norman building in Britain and together with the castle is of outstanding universal significance for its medieval architecture.
The twin icons of the cathedral and castle, create the distinctive Durham skyline and a unique townscape, which dominate the peninsula and prompted famous architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner to describe it as one of the great experiences of Europe and The Sunday Times later called it, one of the most sublime places on earth.
Durham has been voted in the UKs Top 15 cities by influential travel magazine Conde Nast Traveller and in 2007 readers voted it Best City in the UK. A BBC Radio Four listeners poll voted Durham Cathedral Britains favourite building.
The World Heritage site provides a stunning backdrop for the Durham Citys Traditional Family Christmas Festival, now in its 17th year.
The three-day event (December 3 to 5) brings over 160 quality craft, gift and gourmet food stalls together in massive marquees on Palace Green, including the Universitys YUM cafe area.
Children are at the heart of Christmas with a special Childrens Corner on Palace Green on Saturday and Sunday, with free pony and trap rides with Jingle the pony, a live Nativity scene including reindeer, tile painting, static falconry display and a juggler.
On Friday and Saturday (December 3 and 4) local producers display a mouth-watering selection of food and drink in a Christmas Food Fair, in the wonderful setting of the Cathedral Cloisters. There are live cookery demonstrations (Saturday and Sunday) in the Pemberton rooms, featuring executive chefs from Durham University, the Cathedral Undercroft and many of the local hotels.
During the festival the cathedral, castle and the university debating chambers are open and the cobbled streets leading up from the Market Place buzz with excitement and expectation as the whole city shares in an atmosphere of Christmas celebration which is hard to match.
Separate tours of Durham Castle (Friday and Saturday only Tel 0191 334 3800)) and the World Heritage Site (all three days) are available. Charges apply and pre-booking is advisable.
Christmas crafts workshops in Clayport Library and a fairground in Millennium Place (Saturday and Sunday) and Durham Universitys Charity Committee DUCK race with 20,000 plastics ducks (Sunday) are also included in the action-packed programme of Christmas events.
One of the festival highlights will be the childrens St Nicholas lantern parade on the Saturday when over 300 youngsters follow the Salvation Army band from the Market Place for a
service in the Cathedral, which will also feature traditional carols and Christmas readings (Saturday 11am and 2pm and Sunday 2pm)
Durham City Markets Managing Director Colin Wilkes is the main co-ordinator of the festival and he says that they are hoping that by extending the event with a third day on the Friday many more local people will be encouraged to join in while tens of thousands of visitors are expected by coach and car from as far away as
the north of Scotland and
South Wales.
Durhams acclaimed park and ride system is one of the easiest ways to enjoy a visit at any time and during the Christmas Festival and the remaining shopping days to Christmas it is the recommended way to enjoy a hassle-free trip. The cathedral courier bus service will also be operating.
Colin said: The Christmas Festival has grown each year and with three days it will create wonderful festive atmosphere across the city, starting with the outdoor Saturday stalls in the Market Place and music from the Bearpark & Esh Brass Band, Band of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and the Salvation Army.
There were markets stalls on Place Green 1,000 years ago. The craft and gifts and food stalls in the marquees, the food fair in The Cloisters and seasonal music and carols create a very traditional English Christmas atmosphere. The whole place comes alive in a seasonal celebration bringing together past and present in our splendid city.
The opening times for the Durham Traditional Family Christmas Festival are Friday, December 3 (10am-6pm), Saturday, December 4 (9am-5pm) and Sunday, December 5 (10am-4.30pm).

For further details ring Tourist Information on 0191 384 6153 or visit www.durhamchristmasfestival.co.uk.

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