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Enjoy the very best of culture in County Durham

By Baldwin Ho  |  December 31, 2019

Culture tourism has grown considerably in the past decade and a prime example of why investing in culture in these times of austerity is the key to success can be seen in Durham. 2019 was designated the year of culture for the county and has seen record numbers of tourists flock to the area to immerse themselves in the multi-faceted festivals, events, anniversaries and openings.

Chief amongst the highlights was the 10th-anniversary celebration of the largest light festival in the UK, Lumiere. Despite the occasional forays into London, Lumiere is an arts festival that is Durham through and through since it was conceived in the area in 2009. The concept is simple: bringing visual arts out onto the streets, so it is accessible to everyone and not the privileged few who can afford to visit museums and art galleries. Artichoke, the creative geniuses who have curated Lumiere transformed a gloomy, winter landscape into a nocturnal, luminous wonderland.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral has been a place of worship, welcome and hospitality for almost a millennium, inspiring all who come

The highlights of their 10th-anniversary edition included bringing back many classic displays such as Mysticète which includes a life-like stunning 3D water-screen projection of a colossal Baleen whale and the giant ‘I Love Durham’ glittering snow globe in the heart of Market Place. There is an undercurrent environmental theme running through a number of the displays including the piece ‘Washed Up’, which is an illuminated kaleidoscope of colourful plastic pieces picked up from local beaches by artist, Diane Watson.

They’ve sought to include the community in the festival asking residents to suggest pieces for artists to bring to life such as ‘End Over End’ which is a magnified, multicoloured luminous toy slinky. And they’ve also got legacy pieces that have stayed on post-festival such as ‘Heron’, a luminescent homage to an iconic British bird.

Beamish is a world famous open air museum, telling the story of life in North East England during the 1820s, 1900s and 1940s

More traditional tourist sites like Durham Cathedral have seen a significant upturn in visitors thanks to its frequent appearance in Hollywood blockbusters such as in the Harry Potter movies and Avengers: Endgame. The UNESCO world heritage site has sought to modernise in recent years with the unveiling of Open Treasure a few years ago, where you can now see many important, religious relics and also the coffin and cross of St Cuthbert. And the cathedral regularly takes part in the Lumiere celebrations.

Not far from the city of Durham are two must-visit museums that bring to life the history and culture of the North-East of England. First is Beamish, the Living Museum of the North, which tells the story of the region in the 1820s, 1900s, 1940s and soon-to-completely open 1950s town. If you imagine walking onto the set of ‘The Truman Show’, this would be a pretty accurate description of the experience you will come across as period characters interact with you, you can ride on retro trams and vehicles and walk into an old sweets shop that will bring you right into the era of the 1940s. The recent Downton Abbey feature movie was filmed at Beamish. All this wouldn’t have been possible without the vision of the museum’s founder, Dr. Frank Atkinson in 1970, who put his money behind the project as well as a significant grant of £10.9m from the Heritage Lottery Fund in recent years which is the largest single investment the museum has ever seen.

Auckland Castle is one of the best-preserved bishops’ palaces in the whole of Europe and is at the centre of The Auckland Project

The final must-visit destination is the recently re-opened Auckland Castle. It was once the private palace of the all-powerful Prince Bishops of Durham; it has now been sensitively restored to its former Georgian gothic splendour and showcase the untold stories of these influential bishops throughout the ages. What you will admire is the interactive nature of the displays using vivid animation, soundscapes, and audio-visual displays and they don’t shirk from the less savoury aspects of the castle’s history.

Financier Jonathan Ruffer as well as The National Lottery Heritage Fund has plowed millions not just into Auckland Castle but the whole Bishop Auckland project. As well as the castle grounds, they have a deer park, walled garden, mining art gallery as well as the Auckland Tower visitor centre. And in the future, they will be opening a Spanish gallery and a faith museum. The project also includes the outdoor extravaganza that is Kynren, which describes an epic tale of England through a cast of thousands including animals, pyrotechnics and a spectacular set.

Durham is an amazing county in North East England, just three hours by train from London, and less than two from Edinburgh.

If you are looking for an enriching, cultural experience in the new year, look no further than a staycation in Durham.