A journey through Durham’s medieval traditions

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Durham is one of England’s most historic cities, but many of its ancient buildings aren’t simply dormant relicts — they’ve been repurposed in imaginative and functional new ways. Hotel Indigo Durham one such example. This medieval office building once belonged to Durham University before becoming a boutique hotel. Throughout the city, you can find many connections to Durham’s storied history through its design, architecture and cultural experiences. Here are five ways to take a walk through Durham’s past.

Climb the tower of Durham Cathedral.

There is no better view of Durham’s compact, cobbled streets and medieval buildings than from the top of the central tower of the UNESCO-listed Durham Cathedral. Dating back to 1484 and rising to a height of 66 metres, the tower belfry is a favourite with locals looking for a birds-eye view over their city.

From the top of the domineering gothic tower, you can see the tops of the ancient university buildings winding their way up Durham hill, the regular festival-goers parading through the streets and students rowing along the River Wear in fancy dress costumes.

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Read ancient manuscripts in Durham University Library.

Durham University’s Palace Green Library dates back to the end of the English civil war — Bishop John Cosin built it in 1669. Locals and students alike sit on the long, dark, oak tables under oil paintings of former bishops and notable figures from the city’s history.

On the bookshelves, hidden in dark corners, and inside cupboards, you can find some of the English-speaking world’s oldest books and manuscripts. Connect with both Durham and human history as you browse through these texts in one of the city’s oldest buildings.

Chase a dragon through Durham’s cobbled streets.

Myths and legends are a way of life in Durham, where stories are passed down through generations. Among the oldest of these legends is the Durham dragon. Locals believe the story dates back to 1569, when an Italian migrant brought a stage dragon to the city, telling locals it was a real dragon from Ethiopia that had devoured more than 1,000 people.

Each year, a parade takes place in the narrow and winding cobbled streets of the city as locals replicate the visit of the dragon. The Theatrum Mundi Festival in July is a great way to explore the historic neighbourhoods of Durham whilst meeting the locals, passing under medieval archways, between well-preserved houses and through cloister gardens.

Photo Credit: “Leeds Morris at the The Falcon” by Sam Johnson via Flickr. License info.

Feast on Plough Sunday in Durham Priory.

An English custom first recorded in 1413, Plough Sunday is celebrated with the English folk tradition of Morris dancing and musicians playing medieval lutes and tambourines. Historically, Plough Sunday marked the start of the agricultural season. The tradition died out in the 19th century as agrarian practices changed, but the Durham Priory monastery has revived this ancient festival locally.

Today, Morris dancers and agricultural workers receive a leather pouch containing four commemorative coins before feasting on the freshest local foods inside the ancient Durham Priory. The event is a fantastic experience for visitors interested in Durham culture, as it combines ancient local traditions with the picturesque interior of the city’s most recognisable building.

Photo Credit: “Durham Regatta spectators” by Durham Today via Flickr. License info.

Row along the River Wear in costume.

The River Wear was once the lifeline for the locals of Durham, and present-day residents still celebrate the waterway. The annual summer regatta is almost as old as the city itself. During the event, locals dress up in costumes and rowboats along the river, passing under ancient bridges that predate roads, and past some of the oldest and impressive buildings in Durham.

The view from the stately Old Shire Hall, now Hotel Indigo Durham, is ideal for watching the regatta. From watching the city’s history float by on the river to sleeping in one of its ancient buildings, opportunities to immerse yourself in Durham’s rich past abound in this breathtaking city.

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