Visit County Durham for a history-filled autumn break

Visit County Durham for a history-filled autumn break
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Throughout County Durham, you’ll find plenty of examples of the amazing heritage of this region that was once known as 'King Coal' – it being the leading producer in England – and the 'Cradle of the Railways' after steam locomotive engineer Timothy Hackworth pioneered his new ideas and designs here. There's also Durham city’s majestic Romanesque Cathedral (where relics of St Cuthbert, St Bede and St Oswald are buried) and nearby Castle (built by William the Conqueror) which are both now UNESCO World Heritage Sites because of their architectural and religious significance.

Not to be outdone by the region, the Durham Marriott Hotel Royal County has its own share of history, too. Now a large 4 star hotel set on the banks of the River Wear and overlooking this picturesque city, it started life as a row of town houses built around 1630, one of which was once inhabited by the half-sister of Lady Mary Tudor while another  was home to members of the Bowes family (part of the Queen Mother’s family tree).

A section of the hotel was once a coaching inn where the London to Edinburgh Royal Mail Coach would stop. Even Oliver Crowell stayed on the site in 1650 on his way to the Battle of Dunbar, and it’s said King Charles I took refuge here before being found and arrested for treason. So – a colourful slice of history for this now-peaceful building!

The Royal County has expanded over the years (it now has three floors, 149 rooms and one suite) and its status today as a Grade II listed building brings an air of grandeur to the hotel, perfect for the many civil wedding ceremonies, business meetings and local galas it today plays host to, and totally inkeeping with our history-filled County Durham weekend.

We arrived at the hotel in the dark, after a long drive, and on checking in we were told that our room had been upgraded to a ‘Superior Double Double’ which certainly sounded impressive, and indeed turned out to be just that. We each had a gigantic double bed, with four huge feather pillows each and the fluffiest duvets I’ve seen in a while – bliss! There were two large flatscreen TVs (with cable channels) – one in the bedroom area, and one in the ‘sitting’ area.

The en suite bathroom was sparklingly clean, had towels galore and plenty of delicious-smelling complimentary toiletries. In the wardrobe we discovered two sets of cosy towelling bathrobes and slippers, and in a cupboard under the TV – a huge tray of tea and coffee-making facilities, including a very generous selection of speciality teas and biscuits. We quickly settled in to our short term home from home…

Taking ourselves on a little tour around the hotel, we could smell the The Beauty Centre’s Spa before spotting it – wonderful aromatherapy fragrances, wafting around reception. Sadly we had no time for treatments, though we did notice for future reference that the hotel offers some attractive ‘Spa Getaway’ deals. There’s also a glamorous indoor pool and fitness centre, complete with jogging & fitness trail. No 59 Old Elvet is the in-house restaurant, where breakfast and dinner are served, there are two bars, Bar 1815 and the Champagne Terrace, and there’s also a Starbucks – all of which are open to non-residents.

The hotel has an ideal city centre location – just a five minute walk from the centre of town. Here you'll find lots of little lanes and pedestrian-only walkways, guiding you around various independent gift shops and eateries, sitting happily alongside some of the bigger chain names. The pretty River Wear makes for an attractive focus to a visit too – whether that might be a walk alongside it, a boat cruise upon it, or a cosy pub meal beside it!

Finding your way around is no problem at all, given the many new tourist information points dotted around the streets, showing you where you are, and listing the various nearby attractions. In the centre too is Durham’s wonderful art-house cinema and theatre, The Gala, which as well as a packed programme of film, comedy and drama, also hosts the annual Durham Book Festival.

On Sunday morning we began with a fortifying buffet breakfast. The hotel’s friendly and attentive staff were on hand to guide us around the various options, which turned out to be a comprehensive choice of everything – from beautifully-presented fruit and yogurt to a full English breakfast, with a huge range of speciality meats, cheeses and various tempting pastries in between. A perfect start to the day.

After saying our goodbyes and checking out, we took a drive to some of the county’s nearby attractions, starting with Locomotion: The National Railway Museum at Shildon. This huge hangar-type building houses, preserves and restores some of the world’s most historically important trains.

There are over 60 vehicles from the National Collection including Timothy Hackworth’s original 1829 Sans Pareil steam locomotive. Though it was easy to forget the historical and cultural significance of these exhibits when watching visiting children so enjoying themselves clambering up the steps alongside the trains, peering into cabs and coaches, and playing with the museum’s interactive displays.

Then just ten minutes or so away is 900 year old Auckland Castle – once the mediaeval home of the Prince Bishops of Durham, who it’s said had equal power with the Kings of England. The Castle has the largest private chapel in Europe, religious masterpieces, and is surrounded by a vast mediaeval park. It also has an energetic program of weekly and seasonal events for families, including on-site ‘Geocaching’, ‘Museum at Night’ events and ‘Walks on the Wildside’ which includes nature trails through the Castle’s parkland.

With stomachs beginning to rumble, we popped into the adjoining (and rather grand) Library Tea Room, where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch – including a delicious pumpkin, lime and chilli soup and a Ploughman’s, complete with local Weardale cheeses, chutneys, and the most divine waldorf salad. A real treat.

Energy restored, we moved on to nearby The Bowes Museum which has connections with the Queen Mother’s family (as I mentioned earlier). This magnificent French-style chateau building not only has rooms full of amazing permanent art collections (including paintings by Canaletto and Goya), and collections of textiles, ceramics and furniture, but has also held some hugely popular temporary exhibitions, the most recent of which – ‘Yves Saint Laurent - Style is Eternal’ – had to be extended due to demand.

One absolute must-see though, is the life-sized mechanical silver swan which has become the icon of the museum. At 2pm every day, kids and grown-ups alike crowd round to see this musical automoton come to life to perform its daily show, where it appears to serenely drift along the river before calmly plucking a tiny wiggling silver fish from the water. Bearing in mind this piece was designed and made (in Paris) in the 18th century, it’s a piece of utter joyful magic. A fittingly fascinating end to a trip around this bustling, historic county.