Durham Castle is a wonderful Norman castle in the centre of the North East England city of Durham, itself a wonderful old city dominated by the castle, cathedral and the university.
Indeed the castle is now part of one of the university’s constituent colleges, University College (known colloquially as ‘Castle’) whose lucky students get to live in the Castle itself.
History of Durham Castle
Durham Castle was the home of the Prince Bishops of Durham. The castle stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Wear.
The site was chosen because it would be easily defended by its natural fortifications and “it commands commanding views up the valley of the River Wear.”
It’s has been described as “one of the most perfect examples of Norman architecture to be found anywhere in Europe.” and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
The castle was begun under the direction of the Earl of Northumberland in 1071, Waltheof. However he was killed for rebelling against William.
The Bishop of Durham, Walcher, subsequently acquired the Earldom, thus becoming the first Prince-Bishop of Durham. He continued the building work.
The earliest parts of the castle were likely wooden, with stone being added as it neared completion. As with other Norman castles, Durham had a motte and bailey design.
A motte is a mound, usually of earth, on which a keep (initially wooden) was built. At the base of the mound a protected courtyard, or bailey, was built.
The Great Hall in Durham Castle was built in 1136 and it was expanded with an upper floor in the 15th century by Bishop Bek.
This room served as a dining hall for the lords of Durham and their guests but also as a courtroom where disputes were resolved by trial by combat or judicial duelling until 1823.
Other expansions and modifications were made during the Middle Ages, turning the castle away from its military roots, and toward a site to show off the wealth and prestige of the Prince Bishops.
In 1827, the last Prince Bishop, William Van Mildert, gifted the castle to the new University of Durham.
It has housed students every since. As it expanded, Durham became a collegiate University and the Castle became the centrepiece of ‘University College. Indeed its nickname is ‘Castle’.
How to get to Durham Castle?
As we’ve said, Durham castle is in Durham, which is on the North East of England near Newcastle and the Scottish border.
Here are the best options to travel there.
Durham is close to the main highway in this part of the world, the A1, which goes from London to the Scottish border. Therefore it is relatively easy to get to Durham by car.
The main issue, however, is parking, which is actively discouraged near the central ancient part of the city, which contains the castle and cathedral.
Therefore driving is only an option if you don’t mind a decent walk in, or use the park and ride service (park on the outskirts and take the bus in).
The first option is by train from London. The journey takes around 2 hours and requires a change at Darlington.
There are trains from London King’s Cross every hour, with the last train at 0200 on Saturday night.
The train fare is £14 for an off-peak return ticket, which can be booked up to 12 weeks in advance or up until 11:59pm on the day of travel.
The other option is by bus from Newcastle. The journey takes around 3 hours and requires a change at Darlington or Durham Bus Station and costs £8 each way (or £16 return).
There are buses from Newcastle Central Station every 30 minutes, with the last bus at 2100 on Saturday night..
You can also take the bus from Sunderland. The journey takes around 1 hour and requires a change at the Centrebus Station in the city centre and costs £3.50 each way (or £7 return).
There are buses from Sunderland every 30 minutes, with the last bus at 2100 on Saturday night.
Durham Castle is both a wonderful place to visit (especially combined with a trip to Durham Cathedral) and also one of the few castles on this site in full modern use, as part of Durham University.
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