County Durham is a county in North East England with a population of 510,800. It's north of Yorkshire and south of Newcastle, astride the main north-south transport route. The east is mostly farmland, interspersed by former mining towns. Darlington near its southern edge is the main conurbation, but Durham is its main visitor attraction. The west is hilly, with sheep farms and remote moorlands.
Cities and towns
- 1 Durham has a well-preserved ancient centre, with a Norman castle and cathedral, and a large university.
- 2 Darlington the largest settlement in the county was birthplace of the railways and always industrial.
Most of the county's other towns are between Durham and Darlington, in fertile low-lying country along the A1. Beneath them is the Great Northern Coalfield, mined since medieval times, stretching up into Northumbria. Hence the industry, the steam engines to pump those mines, and the railways to haul and consume the coals. The underground mines have all closed, leaving the towns to scratch what living they can from new trades.
The main towns along this stretch are 3 Bishop Auckland, 4 Newton Aycliffe, 5 Shildon which has a railway museum, and 6 Spennymoor.
Other towns in the north of the county are:
- 7 Peterlee is a small former mining town near the coast. Shotton Colliery must be the world's only coal mine converted for skydiving.
- 8 Beamish village has an impressive outdoor museum.
- 9 Chester-le-Street has the county cricket ground. "Test" (international) cricket matches are also played here.
The western part of County Durham is in the Pennines, the long chain of hills that forms the backbone of England. There are lonely moors, and steep river valleys flowing out eastward, so the main road A68 follows a roller-coaster trajectory. Here are:
- 10 Barnard Castle is a market town with the grandiose Bowes Museum.
- 11 Consett is a former mining town on the northern edge of the county.
- 12 Middleton-in-Teesdale in a scenic valley, with High Force waterfall.
- 13 Stanhope in Weardale is an old lead-mining town.
To the southeast, around the River Tees, is an industrial area which from 1974 to 1996 was a separate county, Cleveland. Then this was abolished, and its towns south of the Tees were re-assigned to North Yorkshire. (The assignation is notional since these towns are "unitary authorities", not governed by a County Council.) Towns to the north, re-assigned to County Durham, are:
- 14 Hartlepool: a post-industrial port, with an interesting dockyard museum.
- 15 Stockton-on-Tees straddles the Tees. It's industrial, but there's a southern rural district, Yarm, now considered part of North Yorkshire.
The same 1974 re-organisation also removed Sunderland from County Durham. It's now part of Tyne & Wear.
Within England, only County Durham contains the word "county" in its title (in the way many Irish counties do), because the powerful Norman "Prince Bishops" of Durham ruled it as a palatinate separate from the rest of England's counties. Originally it covered all the territory between the River Tees and the River Tyne, but over the centuries, and especially with modern changes to local government, it's been whittled down and continually re-organised. The name no longer precisely corresponds to a unit of local government, and probably the only two people who can say exactly where County Durham lies are the High Sheriff and Her Majesty's Lord-Lieutenant, whose ceremonial duties relate to an older map of the world.
None of this is of the slightest concern to any traveller not gussied up in alderman's ermine or dress military uniform. For present purposes, "County Durham" on this page includes the post-2009 districts of Durham County (sic), Darlington, Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees. It doesn't include Sunderland to the north or Middlesbrough, Redcar or Yarm to the south.
Listen very carefully to the local language: you'll need to. First, believe it or not, it is English you're hearing. The minority populations and languages in this area are small: during the 20th C the county was shedding labour from mining and ship-building in an era when others (eg the textile towns) were drawing it in from UK and abroad. The only significant minority language is Polish, spoken by 1%.
The local English dialect is "Geordie", spoken in Durham, Newcastle and Northumbria; the word also means a resident of those areas. "Geordie" probably simply derives from "George", a very common name for a local coal-miner, and there used to be a miners' patois called "Pitmatic" or "Yakka" but it's almost died out. If you learn only one Geordie word, learn "Howay!", an all-purpose greeting, exclamation or warning.
But what makes Geordie a thing of fascination and wonder is that it is probably very close to English as spoken over thousand years ago, as it evolved from Anglo-Saxon. Read Beowulf and try to make sense of it - then have a local read it aloud in a heavy Geordie accent for a "Eureka!" moment. And attempts to translate the works of the Venerable Bede (8th C AD), who wrote in Latin, reveal that what he thought and dreamed in was Geordie. Howay, indeed!
1 Newcastle Airport (NCL IATA) has direct flights to London, Amsterdam, Paris and Dubai. It's easy to reach, being on the metro.
Manchester Airport (MAN IATA) is some 150 miles south but has excellent global connections, competitive fares, and an hourly direct train to Darlington, Durham and Newcastle.
2 Teesside Airport (MME IATA) near Darlington is closest but there's little reason to use it. It only has two to five flights a day, from Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Belfast City and London City; other destinations are seasonal or have fallen victim to Covid. Its only public transport is an occasional bus from Darlington, and they charge a £6 "facility fee" on departing passengers.
This county saw the world's first public railway, opened in 1825. The central spine of the county has excellent railway connections, being on the East Coast Main Line. Frequent fast trains come up from London Kings Cross via York to Darlington (2 hrs 30 mins) and Durham. They continue north to Chester-le-Street, Newcastle and Edinburgh. Other trains link Stockton, Middlesbrough and Sunderland. A branch line train runs hourly from Darlington to Newton Aycliffe, Shildon and Bishop Auckland (30 min).
The main north-south highway is A1(M), which is 2-3 lane motorway throughout the county. Other major routes are the A66 trans-Pennine route (beware snow and ice in winter, and the road closes in bad conditions); A19 along the coast; and A68 along the Pennines to Corbridge and Edinburgh.
Darlington and Durham have National Express coach services to London Victoria and Leeds. Angel bus 21 runs from Durham to Newcastle.
The central spine of the county is well-served by public transport as described above. Local buses (run by Arriva) fan out from Durham and Darlington to the other small towns, serving a string of communities along a river valley, but they seldom venture cross-country over the moors. Especially in the west of the county, you'll need a car, or you'll need to enjoy stiff gradients on your bike.
- The historic city of Durham needs a day or two to explore.
- Darlington has a railway museum, the "Brick Train" sculpture, and city amenities such as the civic theatre.
- Beamish has a wonderful outdoor museum showcasing life in a typical 19th century Durham town.
- Long scenic river valleys run out of the Pennines. The River Tees rushes over High Force waterfall near Middleton-in-Teesdale.
- Hike: the Pennine Way straggles along the crest between County Durham and Cumbria.
- Watch a county or international test cricket match at Chester-le-Street.
- Row on the river in Durham.
- Sledge or ski in the winter: Weardale near Stanhope even has ski-lifts, and a whole 186 metres descent.
Parmo is the local version of Chicken Parmesan. Unlike the classic New York or Italian styles, here it's closer to a schnitzel on a pizza base, with breaded chicken, and béchamel instead of Parmesan sauce; sometimes pork is also used. It's classic post-pub food in the northeast, and is especially common in the parts of County Durham nearest Middlesbrough.
Darlington and Durham offer many drinking opportunities and cater for a wide variety of clientèle. Darlington notably has the chick Seen and Harvey's bars to the west of the town centre where the vast majority of customers are middle class students. Most people head to the nearby club "Inside Out" which on popular nights opens all three rooms and opens until 4am. There is also an 80s bar / small nightclub on Skinnergate and there are countless thriving bars and pubs around the town centre.
There are large selections of youth hostels in the rural areas to the west, as well as luxury B&Bs and hotels. The towns feature hotels and B&Bs. Notably the Bannatyne hotel in Darlington which is a luxury hotel serving the region, and Rockliffe Hall in the very affluent village of Hurworth-on-Tees to the south of Darlington on the North Yorkshire border.
Keep your wits about you in Darlington town centre on a weekend night.
Beyond that, the hazards are mostly natural rather than man-made: the Pennines can experience cruel weather.
To the north is Newcastle, the attractive coastline of Northumberland and Berwickshire / East Lothian, then spectacular Edinburgh.
To the west is Cumbria and the Lake District.
To the south is the walled city of York, the craggy coastline of North Yorkshire, and charming genteel Ripon and Harrogate.