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The best time to visit Durham (in any other year)

Durham is one of the most gorgeous cities in Britain. In fact, I’ll double up on that statement and say that Durham could hold its own – in good looks and history (per yard) – against most cities in the world.

For me, the best time to visit any given place is defined by the quality of light and how few people happen to be sharing the vistas with you – the fewer human obstacles the better (so I suppose COVID has its artistic benefits for those of a similar view).
But in the case of Durham, the second rule gets jettisoned because – in more ‘normal’ days – one of the best times to visit this stunning City of light, shape and colour, is when the freshers hit Durham University, round about the first week in October.

Silhouetted freshers at Durham University represent a kind of student everyman

For one week(end) only, the pricier restaurants are filled with students eager for a last posh nosh before taking to the red carpet of adult life – which is what the top British Universities tend to roll out these days – accompanied by dewy-eyed parents, who are more than willing to pick up one last tab before their chicks take to a life of self-denial and Greggs pasties (Bell’s Chippy for a Friday night treat en masque, anyone?).

‘Young men must suffer when they think that, how ever much they may protest as students, their future is bounded by (home?) office walls, their fame spurs them in vain while the laurels go to pop singers.’

Nancy Mitford

If a Las Vegas hotel ever decides to do a tasteless plastic mock-up of British University life through en rose, they won’t find a better template than Durham. The place is like a perpetual film-set in miniature, fit for a Harrovian remake of ‘The Young Ones’ requiring a latter-day Mitfordian makeover, where ‘U’ (‘U’ being ‘Upper-Class’ in Nancy Mitford-speak) Yar-speakers get to play at real life before hitting it proper (and yes, Cinders, I do know that many Durham students have not been spooned silverly into a shoe that does not fit – just let me have my fun, owe-kay?).

Is there a better pint of real ale than in the Dun Cow?
A better place to belt out Progressive House than from University College’s elevated position in the Castle grounds?
Or a more scenic wobble home from (or to) a Hatfield party night, than up Dun Cow Lane and barefoot over a poo-free Palace Green, towards that famed widened arch?
Or was there ever a more breathtaking way to start each day of your three year stay, than to go on a jog through a thousand years of art rendition and copycat photography, along the river path overlooking that done-to-death vista of Durham Cathedral, from the steps of one of the row boating huts?

Although university life has made it nigh impossible for poorly paid local workers to afford a city centre pad, and a battalion of Mac-wielding salesmen have risen to agent any available cranny, this should not be a stick with which to beat Yar-dinese yoof, for these students bring far more to Durham than they take from it.

After all, its not the stuff from which you came that matters, but what you ultimately become, and idealism oft mixes it up Owen Gate with the rustle of ball-gowns and tinkling glasses, and an education-to-date nourishes the politeness not to remind the rest of us what we might (or might not) have been, had we been afforded a similar rite of passage.

So if you go to Durham in any other year, do try to avoid the weekend crush and the Summer months – and I always recommend a crisp blue Winter’s day as being better than any other to greet the sunrise, not least because of the respectable hour at which it rises.
But whatever time you choose, make sure its term time, for the bright young things give this city a rare vibrancy, and the smallness of Durham’s centre means you can’t help but be an extra on their glittering stage, in what for many will be their finest and most memorable lifetime’s achievement, and I for one feel privileged each time I click briefly through it.