Exploring the East Coast Mainline – Durham & Darlington

Earlier in November I headed up to Darlington on an LNER service (read about that here) with the intention on nipping up the Bishop Auckland branch and visiting the National Railway Museum’s second site, Locomotion at Shildon. Unfortunately, what I didn’t take into account was forgetting to check the opening hours, finding out on arrival that Locomotion is closed on Monday and Tuesdays. My trip was on a Tuesday…

Darlington’s stunning Victorian station

Having made it up to Shildon before discovering my faux pax, I decided to make use of the time I had in the North East and do some explorations for Exploring the East Coast. With my train home booked from Doncaster later in the day, the railway town was an obvious choice to tick off, with the City of Durham being my choice for the other stop. Jumping back on the train I had got off, I headed back down to Darlington’s grand Victorian station before jumping on a CrossCountry service for the 15-minute journey north.

The railway line approaching Durham station from the south provides stunning views of the city as it crosses Durham Viaduct including two of the city’s most obvious attractions, Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle. The station is about a 15-minute walk from the centre of the city, although a shuttle bus connects it with the Market Square and Cathedral for the princely sum of £1 all day! Durham is well served, with between four or five trains an hour from CrossCountry, LNER and TPE, connecting the city to London, Scotland, the Midlands, South-West and wider North-East. There’s also a couple of local Northern services at the start and end of the day.

The view of Durham from the railway viaduct

With the day being unplanned and therefore having limited time (seemingly a recurring theme to the Exploring the East Coast series), I opted not to visit the Cathedral and headed down to the River Wear which runs through the city and creates the Durham Peninsula on which the Castle, Cathedral and Market Square all sit. Footpaths along both sides of the river allowed for me to have a circular walk, with stunning views up to the Cathedral and also along to Prebends Bridge.

Prebends Bridge is a 16th century bridge built to replace the previous 14th century structure that was washed away in a flood in 1171. Forming part of the Durham estate, it was built to give access to the Cathedral from the south via the Watergate, however is now used only by pedestrians, with a barrier on South Bailer blocking vehicular access. The bridge is a Grade I listed structure and was restored in the 1950s, and is one of three stone-arched bridges in the city, along with the Framwellgate and Elvet bridges.

The view of the Durham Peninsula from Prebends Bridge

Construction of Durham Cathedral started in 1093, less than 30 years after the Norman invasion of Britain and was intended to show the strength and power of the conquerors, with the cathedral replacing the city’s previous ‘White Church’. The bulk of construction took about 40 years, however additions continued to be made until 1490. The Central Tower rises 66m above the Durham Peninusla, which itself sits about 40m above the river below. Along with a lot of the Durham estate, the Cathedral is Grade I listed, whilst it and the Castle have also been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986.

Today the Cathedral is not only a site of religious pilgrimage but also a must visit destination for any true Potter head. Parts of the Cathedral saw action in the first two Harry Potter movies with the Cloisters featuring as Hogwart’s courtyard whilst part of the Chapter House is home to Professor McGonagall’s classroom. The other big attraction in the centre of Durham is Durham Castle, another part of the UNESCO World Hertiage site but home to University College, Durham. Guided Tours of the Castle are available throughout the year at what seems to be a quite reasonable cost of £5 for adults with under 16s free.

Durham Viaduct towers over the west of the city

Whilst multiple days could probably be spent in Durham, exploring the historic centre, enjoying walks around the city and touring the elements of the UNESCO World Heritage site, time was against me if I was to give the town of Darlington sufficient time. A quick hop on the city shuttle bus saw me back at the station, although a trespasser on the railway north of Newcastle meant an extended wait in the sun on the platform. Thankfully the person was soon safely removed and an LNER Azuma was my ride back to Darlington.

Darlington town centre is just over a 10-minute walk from the station, with the city seeing a good mix of rail connections, with long distance CrossCountry, LNER & TPE services as well as a Northern services. The latter run between Darlington, Bishop Auckland, Middlesborough and Saltburn, and travel along the alignment of the historic Stockton and Darlington railway, the world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives.

St. Cuthbert’s church, Darlington

The main attraction, certainly for me, in Darlington is the Head of Steam Railway Museum at North Road station in the north of the town. Unfortunately, like Locomotion, this is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and so I couldn’t head there on this trip. Closer to the town centre, and on the walk from the station, is St. Cuthbert’s church, an early 12th century structure that was restored in the mid-1860s by the architects James Pigott Pritchett and Sir George Gilbert Scott, the latter of Midland Hotel at St Pancras fame.

Just up from St. Cuthbert’s, surrounded by East, West and Tubwell Rows, is a trio of Grade II listed buildings. The Old Town Hall and Market Hall complex consist of The Market Building, The Old Town Hall and the Clock Tower, which were all designated listed buildings in 1977, some 113 years after their construction. The Old Town Hall was home to Darlington Borough Council until 1970, however the building was inadequate for the council’s needs so they moved out to an atrocious piece of 1970s architecture across the square. The indoor market is currently undergoing restoration which appears almost finished, and I’ve got to say the building, both inside and out, was looking very impressive.

Darlington’s Old Town Hall and Market Hall complex

Whilst unplanned, I once again thoroughly enjoyed my explorations of the East Coast and definitely saw some things I wouldn’t have necessarily planned to have visited. Durham is a world renowned city that realistically deserves a good couple of days to explore, although it does seem more reasonably priced than I seemed to think it was. Darlington has a nice town centre, with a couple of historic buildings, although I don’t think it is worth a dedicated visit unless you’re tying it in with Head of Steam or Locomotion, in which case why not get an earlier train and enjoy a 30 minute walk from Darlington station to North Road station via the town centre?

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