Though two of its most impressive historic attractions are situated squarely in its county town, County Durham is also home to exceptional sites such as the Locomotion museum in Shildon and the grand seat of the Vane family at Raby Castle.
The remains of Roman forts and suppressed priories pockmark County Durham’s landscapes, while the open-air Beamish Museum animates cultural and industrial traditions of northern England from over the last 200 years.
Here are 10 of the best historic sites in Durham.
Durham Cathedral is a stunning 11th-century cathedral that has been at the centre of religious activity in the area for over 1,000 years. Dominating the town of Durham, it offers a fascinating glimpse into medieval Britain and superb views for those willing and able to climb the 300 steps to the top of the tower.
Religious activity at the site of Durham Cathedral hails as far back as the 10th century. Today the cathedral’s magnificent columns, stained glass, and high vaulted ceilings make Durham one of the most stunning cathedrals in the country.
Barnard Castle in County Durham is a ruined Norman castle that sits high above the Tees Gorge. Once a key stronghold in the north, today its ruins provide an atmospheric walk through some of Britain’s most intriguing history, centred around royal power and revolt.
The first stone fortifications at Barnard Castle were built by Guy de Baliol, a Norman lord granted the estate by William Rufus in 1095. However, it was under his nephew Barnard de Baliol that the site and town were truly expanded, both taking his name in the process.
A number of original features can be identified including the castle towers and the 14th-century Great Hall, while Richard III’s boar emblem can still be seen carved above the inner ward.
The lively and fascinating open-air museum at Beamish in County Durham brings to life the cultural and industrial traditions of northern England over the last 200 years. Its reconstructed streets, shops, and landscapes allow visitors to physically walk through some of Britain’s most significant modern periods, in a historical experience like no other.
The museum tracks how life in the north of England changed during the industrial revolution and focuses on how the region was transformed through the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian periods.
Originally commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1072, Durham Castle was intended to ensure Norman control in the North of England, and was built in the traditional motte and bailey style. It became the seat of the Bishops of Durham who were tasked with enacting royal authority in the area, and with each new tenant was altered to reflect his wealth and status.
The Castle remained the seat of the Bishops of Durham until 1832, when it was moved to Auckland Castle. Durham Castle was donated to Durham University, becoming its founding college of University College.
Binchester Roman Fort was founded around 79 AD to guard the crossing of the River Wear by Dere Street, the main road connecting York to Hadrian’s Wall and Scotland. It was the largest Roman fort in County Durham, and evidence points to its construction in parallel with Agricola’s march northward into the Brigantes’ territory.
Today, Binchester Roman Fort site is open to visitors who can explore its atmospheric remains, including two well-preserved bathhouses. The first lies within the fort complex and holds one of the best-preserved hypocausts (underfloor heating systems) in Britain, while the second lies outside the fort complex, and contains walls still standing 6ft tall.
Locomotion, in Shildon, County Durham, is a museum dedicated to the history of railway vehicles located in the world’s first railway town. Shildon cultivated a reputation for locomotive engineering in the early 19th century and became known as the ‘Cradle of the Railways’.
Locomotion is a significant tourist attraction in the North East of England, home to engineering innovations restored and conserved by technicians at the museum. Its collection of historic railway vehicles range from the very first steam locomotive to pull a passenger train on a public railway to Queen Alexandra’s Royal Saloon — a palace on wheels.
7. Raby Castle
Comprising a curtail wall with eight towers surrounding a central keep, Raby Castle was built by the Neville family in the 14th century. It remained in their possession until 1569, when it was forfeited to the Crown following the failed Rising of the North.
Since 1629, it has remained the seat of the Vane family. The castle is among the most impressive intact castles in the north of England, while its ornate interiors and furnishings span hundreds of years. Visitors can explore various rooms of Raby Castle and can also access the deer park.
8. Escomb Church
One of the oldest early medieval churches in England is located in County Durham, a mile or so west of Bishop Auckland. Escomb Church is a Grade I listed building that was founded around 670-675 AD. The gable of the south porch contains a 7th or 8th-century sundial, while the north wall includes a reused Roman stone with the upside-down markings of the Sixth Legion.
Escomb church has changed little since it was built. Its nave is narrow and tall, and its chancel arch is of typical Roman form, with possible traces of medieval paint. Many of the stones show signs of roman tooling, strengthening the suggestion that the roughly dressed stones were quarried from Roman remains in Binchester.
9. Finchale Priory
Four miles from the City of Durham, Finchale Priory (pronounced finkle) is the remaining structure of a 13th-century Benedictine priory in operation until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536.
The priory’s enchanting ruins sit amidst woodland on the banks of the River Wear, a location initially chosen by the sailor and pilgrim St Godric who founded his hermitage there in the 12th century.
Longovicium was a Roman fort on Dere Street, the main Roman road which linked York with Hadrian’s Wall, around 8 miles west of the City of Durham. The remains of the fort include headquarters buildings, a bathhouse and barracks, while a nearby vicus has also been located through aerial photography. A column and an altar belonging to Longovicium can be be found in the nearby All Saints’ Parish Church.