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Three Things You Didn’t Know About Durham and its Lego Cathedral

Durham Cathedral
Written by Kirstie

Three Things You Didn’t Know About Durham

For a small city in the North of England, Durham punches way above its weight. Its Castle and Cathedral are UNESCO World Heritage sites set high on a hill on a picturesque peninsula. Its university is one of the best in the world. And it’s a bit of a Lego lovers dream as we found out on our sponsored Days Inn Days Out Road Trip of British National Treasures. Here are three things you might not know about this pretty city in the North East..

Welcome to Durham

Welcome to Durham

Durham in a day and three things you probably didn’t know

Did you know Durham has a cathedral made entirely out of Lego bricks and that students have invaded the castle? Or that you can row around the town centre in a boat? Before I explore these three strange facts about the city, here are some of our video highlights of a chilled family day out in Durham…

1 Inside Durham Cathedral is a Lego Cathedral

Durham Cathedral is a jointly designated World Heritage Site with Durham Castle. It dates back to the 11th century and is the seat of the Bishop of Durham. In a new exhibition (just opened) it displays the coffin of St Cuthbert, considered the most important wooden object surviving in England from before the Norman conquest. It is vast and shadowy and nothing short of breathtaking.

It is not, to anyone’s knowledge, made out of plastic. But follow the cloisters towards the shop and you will see a rather cool replica of the cathedral that’s built entirely out of Lego bricks. There are 299,128 bricks in the Lego Cathedral and the only miracle is that someone didn’t lose the last piece before it was completed by a small girl in July 2016. The last piece was incidentally the door knocker. The famous door knocker that provided salvation for sinners? Er, no. Not that one. I’m talking about the little plastic door knocker that goes on the little front door. This Lego creation may not be the real cathedral but its still really rather amazing. Just look at those stained glass windows. It’s particularly impressive if you are five years old or a Minifigure. Or if you are a Lego geek.

Lego Cathedral in Durham Cathedral

Lego Cathedral in Durham Cathedral.

Some Lego Cathedral facts

If you are a Lego geek then you’ll want to know that it is 3.84 metres long, 1,7 metres high and 1.53 metres wide. You’ll love to hear it was built over three years with 20,000 man (and woman) hours going into it.

There are some drawbacks. A guided tour isn’t ever going to happen, unless you do happen to be a MiniFigure. The bells are never going to ring out like the real thing, even for weddings. And it has to compete with many other artistic versions of Durham Cathedral for cultural significance.

Photographing Durham Cathedral from the Cloisters

The cloisters at the real Cathedral within steps of the Lego version

More artistic versions?

A Cathedral as beautiful as this was made to be copied. We see several lookie-likey versions including  the Lego Cathedral in the World Heritage Site Visitor Centre made out of used scratch cards and created by James Owen Thomas. Another appears to be made out of sugar cubes.

Durham Castle courtyard

Durham Castle courtyard. Our second ‘Did you know?’

2 Students have invaded Durham Castle

Here’s another thing you might not know about Durham. Students have invaded it. Yes really; they occupied it ages ago. In fact Durham Castle is basically a grand student house for over 100 young people. It’s mindblowing to stand in the courtyard and imagine living here. It must be even more mind-blowing if you are of university age, as our eldest is. Yes, you could win the ballot and live in the tower. Yes you can go for a beer and live like a Prince Bishop on a budget. You can go to a concert in the 11th century Norman chapel, or hear the choir in the 16th century Tudor Chapel. You might meet your first girlfriend when you trip over her on the 17th century Grand Staircase or attend the formal dinner twice a week in the Great Hall. But only if you are a student. The students hold the keys to the castle in the pockets of their jeans.

Durham Castle courtyard viewed through castle window

Durham Castle courtyard viewed through castle window. I hope they’ve remembered their keys.

Getting a room is a lottery

How did this happen? Well, since it was first built the castle has changed hands and evolved. It was first established as a defensive structure, high on the hill above the River Wear. Later it was more of a palace and the main way for a Prince Bishop to show off his power and wealth. And then in 1837, the castle was donated to the University by Bishop Edward Maltby as accommodation for students. Bedrooms are allotted via a lottery.

If you are not lucky enough to be a student who won the accommodation lottery or able to visit one, the best way to see the castle is to book a guided or self guided tour, or get married there. A tour is a lot cheaper so we book onto the 10.15 group tour on a Sunday morning as the bells are ringing out for church. Our guide Naomi recently finished a history degree and talks with feeling and authority, showing us the earliest known stone carving of a mermaid in the UK, set high into the sandstone pillars in the Norman chapel, which is believed to be the oldest room in Durham.

Examining the exhibits in costume at the Palace Green Wolfson Gallery

All dressed up to examine the exhibits at the Palace Green Wolfson Gallery

Gowns on the river

We learn more about life as a student in days gone by in the family friendly exhibition space of the Wolfson Gallery in the Palace Green Library. Through comics and cartoons we see the very first student was a guy called John Cundill who showed up with a suitcase in 1833, long before student loans were introduced. Things were different then. For a start he and others were required to wear their gowns even when out rowing on the river.

Rowing on the river? That takes me to the third thing you probably didn’t know about Durham.

Rowing boats for rent down on the River Wear in Durham at Elvet Bridge

Rowing boats for rent – did you know you can row Durham?

3 You can row around the city

How many University cities can you row around in a wooden boat? Well, ok you can’t row around the whole of the city. But someone had the great idea of putting the castle on the hill, with the medieval old city surrounding it. And a river circling the peninsula. You can travel along the River Wear on a cruiser or take a rowing boat out. 26 rowing boats are available from Brown’s Boats near Elvet Bridge. We pick a family size boat called Susan.

Lie back and let the kids row and imagine being a student or building Lego or whatever has inspired you about this magnificent city. You can also spot the Durham Ox on the river bank, a sculpture based on the legend of a cow that broke down and accidentally invented the city. Oh, didn’t you know that? You really don’t know Durham at all do you?

Rowing on the Wear in Durham, seen from Elvet Bridge

Practical Information

The Castle

You can visit the castle by booking onto a guided tour. Tickets are £5 and available from Palace Green Library. More details here.

Durham Castle, viewed through entrance arch.

Durham Castle, viewed through entrance arch.

The Cathedral

The Cathedral is free to enter although donations are appreciated. The Lego Cathedral is free to view. Special exhibitions like the current Magna Carta and the Forest Charters exhibition, and the St Cuthberts coffin and the Open Treasure collections have a small charge.

Durham Cathedral towers seen from approach to Palace Green

Durham Cathedral towers seen from approach to Palace Green

Rowing boats

It costs £20 for a family of four or £25 for a family of five to hire a boat for an hour with Brown’s Boats, just beneath the castle on the River Wear. Boats are available for hire weekends, bank holidays and school holidays from 10-6. Last boat out is at 5pm.

Rowing on the Wear in Durham

Rowing on the Wear in Durham

Where we stayed

We stayed at the Days Inn Durham, which is conveniently located at the Roadchef service area off the A1M, halfway between Sunderland and Durham. It’s about seven miles into Durham City Centre which takes about 15 minutes in normal traffic.

Staff at the Days Inn gave us a huge North East greeting and left Wyndham Rewards chocolate gifts on our pillow. Wyndhams Rewards is the award winning guest loyalty programme of Wyndham Hotel Group that makes it easy to earn and redeem points at more than 8,000 hotels around the world – including at Days Inn hotels and 18 other brands.

If you want you can have a breakfast in the Roadchef services next door which has a Costa Coffee and McDonalds. At Days Inn receptions you get a 25% discount by purchasing a £10 value voucher redeemable at the Roadchef services for just £7.50.

All rooms have tea and coffee, and flat-screen TV. There is 24 hour reception, complimentary Wi-Fi and free parking for registered guests. Families can request an extra bed for a child. Well behaved dogs are welcome. There are even dog biscuits at reception.

Days Inn Durham

Days Inn Durham

Disclosure: This post is part of our Days Inn Days Out Road Trip, a campaign sponsored by Days Inn to promote great days out within easy reach of Days Inn hotels. We visited four Days Inns for four great British Days Out. The choice of days out, views, experience, opinions, photography and videography produced are all our own. The sight seeing and rowing were entirely our own.

About the author

Kirstie

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.

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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...

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