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County Durham

County Durham Flag

County Durham is a sizeable county, but is often overlooked en route to other nearby northeastern cities. But this underrated county still attracts plenty of visitors keen to experience its fabulous mix of coast and country. Providing an excellent range of days out and attractions while thriving on its celebrated history, there’s plenty to discover in County Durham.

Days out in County Durham

Integral to the heart of England’s popular northeast, County Durham offers an excellent variety of places to visit, including plenty of castles, and things to do for family days out and weekends away. While beautiful countryside and the North Pennines AONB feature heavily in the west of the county, the populous eastern half includes the city of Durham and larger towns of Hartlepool, Bishop Auckland, Chester-le-Street, Darlington, and the ‘is it or isn’t it?’ town of Middlesbrough.

The county town and city of Durham is steeped in history and gives you plenty to explore on any visit. Dominating the city's skyline is the imposing, 1,000-year-old Durham Cathedral. Part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its vaulted ceilings, beautiful cloisters, and spectacular stained-glass have to be visited - though you may already recognise it from a few Harry Potter films!

Nearby Durham Castle is also part of the same UNESCO site, and a castle tour is a highly recommended experience the scale and history of this Norman fortress. While the Durham Museum and Heritage Centre provides a potted history of the city from medieval times to the present day with a recreation of a Victorian prison cell.

Outside the city, Beamish is home to the family-friendly Living Museum of The North, an open-air museum detailing life in the northeast across significant periods in time. In Bishop Auckland, a visit to the imposing Auckland Castle will give you a fascinating insight into its rich history. Nearby Barnard Castle features the stunning Bowes Museum, home to art, fashion, and design displays housed within a beautiful 3-storey French-styled countryside building. And of course the 12th-century Barnard Castle itself, rich in history with stunning views over the Tees Gorge.

Thanks to its coastal location, Hartlepool has plenty of maritime-themed things to do. Wander the historic quayside in Hartlepool Marina, and you’ll find the National Museum of The Royal Navy. With plenty of exhibitions and displays, you can also see the 19th-century, HMS Trincomalee, the oldest warship afloat in Europe.

In Darlington, you can visit the Head of Steam Railway Museum where you can step back in time to the 1840s to experience the platform, footbridge, and waiting room exactly as it was 150 years ago.

If outdoor activities are more your style, the western half of the county is almost exclusively taken up by a share of stunning scenery inside the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and UNESCO Global Geopark. Covering 770 sq. miles, the open moorland provides the perfect backdrop for dozens of walking, cycling and horse riding trails, plus climbing, fishing, watersports and much more. There are even plenty of dark sky discovery sites for stargazers and astronomers alike.

Topography, geology, and climate

Despite its opposing land qualities of exposed, open moorland in the west and coastal flats in the east, County Durham has largely similar soil types with only low to moderate fertility levels.

Eastern and central parts of the county are predominantly made up of slowly permeable and seasonally wet, acidic, base-rich loam and clay soils. However, there are pockets of lime-rich loam soils and slightly acid sandy soils. To the west, the features are largely the same except for more areas of blanket bog peat soils that cover the higher ground of the North Pennines.

With its warm climate, County Durham lacks any weather extremes thanks to the shelter given by the Pennines, with summer high temperatures averaging around 19ºC (66ºF) and winter lows of just under 2ºC (35ºF). The county also receives its fair share of rainfall, averaging at around 650mm (25”) across the year.

County Durham’s parks and gardens

While much of County Durham is made up of open countryside and moorland across the west, there’s plenty of natural beauty to enjoy. Understandably there are fewer parks and gardens to visit on this side, but there are some notable places to enjoy along with several gardens of note in the east of the county.

West County Durham

On the fringes of the North Pennines, near Barnard Castle in the Teesdale area, Egglestone Hall and Gardens are touted as ‘the secret garden of the north’. With 4-acres of beautiful gardens and a nursery to enjoy, there’s plenty to discover in this place where gardeners have been planting and growing for over 400 years. Winding pathways lead you through spectacular herbaceous beds and borders alongside wonderful shrubs, trees, and hardy perennials giving colour and interest across the seasons.

In the open countryside, just southwest of Bishop Auckland, Raby Castle Park and Gardens provide 200-acres of glorious parkland and some 5-acres of wonderful formal walled gardens to enjoy. Highlights include beautifully clipped lawns with shaped Yew tree hedges, alongside a rose garden, an array of finely stocked beds and borders, plus plenty of ornamental features.

East County Durham

Near the village of Wolviston, just outside Hartlepool, Wynyard Hall and Gardens are a popular destination for visitors and gardeners alike. The jewel in the crown is certainly the beautiful walled garden. With beautifully maintained, curving flower beds, alongside terrace walks, and planted shrubs, there are over 3,000 stunning David Austen roses. Featuring 135 different varieties from climbers to floribunda, this is a real treat. There are also plenty of other areas to enjoy including the Wild garden, the White garden, and extensive borders packed with more roses a wide selection of annuals and perennials.

Just outside the city centre in Durham, there’s an excellent choice of two gardens to visit. Firstly, the University of Durham Botanic Garden. Covering almost 25-acres, the gardens are used for study and research for the University and are set among beautiful, native woodland, giving you an ideal setting as you explore. Beyond the tropical glasshouses, you’ll find an Alpine garden, woodland and pond garden, a carboniferous garden, wildflower meadow and plenty more besides.

Secondly, the Old Durham Gardens are an amazing public space for you to enjoy. Less than a mile from the city centre, the gardens can be reached by several woodland or riverside walks. The orchard leads up to the hedged lower gardens, also containing several varieties of rare apple trees. Walking through the terrace, looking back to enjoy the views, you make your way through to the enclosed formal walled garden. The whole garden is a perfect way to relax and get back to nature.