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Arts and culture in County Durham

By Kingfisher Visitor Guides

Gallery-hop to your heart’s content and join the party at fabulous festivals throughout the year. County Durham bursts at the seams with attractions that culture vultures dream of.

Durham heritage museums

Described as ‘perfect’ by best-selling author Bill Bryson, the city of Durham enchants with medieval alleyways and the tree-lined River Wear. Perched atop the peninsula, Durham Castle and Cathedral are World Heritage highlights for culture vultures. Step back in time across 1,000 years of history with a tour of the castle, today’s home of University College.

Durham Cathedral

Take in the architectural delight that is Durham Cathedral

Dating back to 1093, majestic Durham Cathedral is a Romanesque masterpiece, as well as the burial place of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede. Pop inside for a guided tour of what’s been voted among Britain’s best buildings. That’s not all though, with head-hunting swords from Borneo, Egyptian mummies and Chinese porcelain housed in The Oriental Museum.

Dating back to 1093, majestic Durham Cathedral is a Romanesque masterpiece, as well as the burial place of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede

Durham theatre and festivals

Resting at the heart of the city’s performing arts scene, the £15 million Gala Theatre is the place to glam up and settle in for world-class shows. Check the programme for a performance that tickles your fancy, including dance, drama, comedy and music. Pre or post-show drinks and snacks are served at the contemporary Gala Lounge.

Durham Brass Festival

Performers at the popular Durham Brass Festival, which is held every July

Time your trip to coincide with one of Durham’s vibrant annual festivals. Colourful union banners, live music and thousands of people pack the streets for the Durham Miners’ Gala. Celebrating community, international solidarity and working-class history, the action kicks off in Durham City Centre Market Place. Get ready for some serious toe-tapping every July at the Durham Brass Festival. You’ll enjoy concerts, lively street parties and big band sounds across four days.

Bishop Auckland galleries

Just 12 miles southwest of Durham city and framed by lush countryside, the vibrant market town of Bishop Auckland brims with culture. First established as a hunting lodge, the gothic Auckland Castle served for over 900 years as the country residence of the Prince Bishops of Durham.

Climb the tower for sweeping views across the lush Deer Park and town. Then, stroll through the elegant State Rooms, the Mining Art Gallery and the Spanish Gallery. Don’t miss out on seeing the Zurbaran paintings, classified among the most significant religious artworks in Europe. Can’t get enough of gallery-hopping? Head to Spennymoor Town Hall Gallery for Norman Cornish paintings.

Read more: History and heritage of Durham Tees Valley

Bishop Auckland festivals

Summer brings plenty of outdoor fun to Bishop Auckland, including Kynren, a theatrical extravaganza billed as an epic tale of England. Previous shows thrilled audiences with tales of war, magic, rebellions and the quests of King Arthur. The awe-inspiring stunts, pyrotechnics and equestrian skills wow crowds at 11 Arches Park each year.

Kynren festival in Bishop Auckland, Durham

Journey through 2,000 years of history, myth and legend at Kynren

If you’re a foodie, follow your nose to delicious treats at the annual Bishop Auckland Food Festival. County Durham’s largest food event features celebrity chefs cooking up a storm on a backdrop of dynamic street entertainment. Fancy yourself a budding chef? Workshops let you in on chef secrets and stalls serve up innovative recipes.

Barnard Castle

Built around its striking, namesake castle, the town of Barnard Castle hosts the fashion-loving Bowes Museum. Inspired by his French actress wife, Josephine, John Bowes had the château-style mansion built in the 19th century to display a collection of around 15,000 items. Unfortunately, both died before its completion. Set aside plenty of time to browse across three floors of collections. They include the Fashion and Textiles Gallery with wardrobe artefacts of Empress Eugenie, and the Blackborne Lace Collection.

The pride of the museum is the 18th-century Silver Swan, a mechanical automaton that preens itself in a performance set to music. It’s among the most exquisite items of the 25 Outstanding Treasures, which include a segment of a 15th-century carved altar screen with scenes of ‘The Passion and Death of Christ’. As you explore, you’ll walk in the footsteps of fashion icons like Yves Saint Laurent, Vivienne Westwood and Stephen Jones, as they’ve held fashion shows on the grounds. Afterwards, catch a show at the town’s Witham Hall, a modern arts venue with a show-stopping performance programme.

Inspired by his French actress wife, Josephine, John Bowes had the château-style mansion built in the 19th century to display a collection of around 15,000 items

Another attraction worth a visit in Barnard Castle is Barnard Castle itself. Set on a high rock above the River Tees, Barnard Castle takes its name from its 12th-century founder, Bernard de Balliol. With fantastic views over the Tees Gorge this fortress sits on the fringe of an attractive working market town also known as ‘Barney’ so there is plenty to do for families on a day out. Try and spot Richard’s boar emblem carved above a window in the inner ward or visit the sensory garden of scented plants and tactile objects.

Travel through time and watch legends come to life at Kynren

Read more

Top 10 things to do in Durham Tees Valley

Sport in Durham Tees Valley

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Image credits: ©Kevin/;; Richard Kenworthy/BRASS; The Bowes Museum; Video: Kynren/YouTube

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