I spent a few hours in Durham last week, visiting a number of the city's pubs on my first visit for several years. And I found that there were still some absolute crackers....
I have driven past the sign for the Durham turn off the A1(M) many times over the years, as recently as a couple of weekends ago, but until last week it had been at least 10 years since I had last visited the city itself. So when I was looking for somewhere to go out and do a little research of a local pub scene, on the basis that I had never written about it, it was quite an easy decision to make, particularly when a couple of other places I had considered were ruled out for one reason or another. So Durham it was on a cold, late March, Wednesday.
There is much of interest in the city, the heart of which sits atop a peninsula in a loop of the River Wear. There is a huge cathedral which keeps watch over the city, its historic powers greater than most, with the bishop taking the title 'Prince Bishop' from the 11th century up until 1836. They ran their own court system. could impose taxes, mint their own coins, and even raise an army, as long as they stayed loyal to the crown. Nearby is the castle, which was where the Bishop of Durham lived until it became home to the university. All over this part of the city are historic buildings and ancient streets which recall the city's past and wealth, whilst across the river rows of 19th century terraced streets cling to the hills. Whilst the city itself wasn't particularly changed by the industrial revolution, it had been known for weaving and carpets were made in the city. Beyond the city, however, lay the Durham coalfields. Numerous villages had pits, and the city became known for the Durham Miners Gala, which first took place in 1871, and remains the largest socialist trade union event in the world.
For once the trains worked like a dream. Both journeys to and from the city were on time and the carriages were pretty quiet, so it made for a relaxing way to travel. If only it was always like this...! One hour and 39 minutes after leaving Huddersfield, Durham's stunning cathedral welcomed us from across the city as we crossed the huge viaduct that straddles the final few hundred yards into the station. And from there, after alighting from the train, it was a matter of a few yards along the platform to the first place I had earmarked on a rather flexible to-do list.
The Waiting Room has been open for about 4 years and is situated on the northbound platform of the station. It is situated in the former Ladies Waiting Room and is attractively furnished, with wooden floorboards, fireplaces, and furnishings. There were 2 hand pumps on the bar, which on this visit were featuring beers from Firebrick from Blaydon, whose beers I have always seen away from rather than in Newcastle. I bought a pint of Pagan Queen, which was a pleasant 4% pale (NBSS 3). There were also fonts featuring a number of keg beers. A friendly place, I said as I left that I might get back before I got my train back, but in the end it never happened.
|The Waiting Room, Durham Station|
I walked down the road from the station, the nearest pub, the Station House was closed till 4, so I went across the road to the Bridge Hotel. Situated on a corner opposite some student accommodation, it was originally built in the mid-19th century as a place to stay for the workers who built the viaduct it lies beneath. I walked in and a group of guys were animatedly watching the racing on TV. From a fairly conservative beer selection on handpump, which featured beers from some of the big boy brewers, I ordered a half of Hophead from Dark Star, now under the control of Fullers. I have to say it was in excellent condition, rating it NBSS 3.5, and it was one of the best beers I had all day. I retreated to an area to the right of the bar as the racing on TV kept the guys enthralled in the main room, and I have to say I enjoyed my half hour at this friendly pub, which is still a place where you can stay to this day.
|The Bridge Hotel, Durham|
I thought I had been in the next place, situated just over 5 minutes walk away in one of the many hilly parts of the city, but when I walked in to the Colpitts Hotel (opening picture) I realised that wasn't the case. Situated at the end of a stone terrace on a street corner beside a sloping bend in the main road, it commands a presence. The pub is operated by Tadcaster brewers Samuel Smith, whose pubs seem to feature less in the Good Beer Guide these days. But I have to say this is one of the best pubs I have visited in ages. First up, the beer I ordered, a half of Old Brewery Bitter was spot on and the best I drank all day (NBSS 4). Copies of Durham Drinker, the local CAMRA magazine, were on display in a dispenser at the side of the bar, and I picked one up to read. As I browsed through its pages, I got into conversation with the landlady, Kate - I think it was - who was extremely convivial, asking where was I from, what brought me to Durham, etc. During our conversation the subject cropped up of Sam's ruling that phones, laptops, etc, are not allowed to be used in the pub under the company's Digital Detox programme, details of which were displayed on a poster behind the bar, but I was told that the intention is that it will encourage conversation, which, to be fair, it certainly did here, as the guys who came in subsequently were all very friendly and chatty. I ordered another half and then went for a wander around the pub: there was a lovely snug to the rear of the main bar with the fire lit, a pool room, and an attractive lounge beyond the bar. Under normal circumstances I would include a number of photos I had taken of the attractive interior of this excellent traditional pub but due to Smith's somewhat controversial policy I am not able to do so, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to embarrass my friendly host. But take it from me, the pub is well worth a visit when you are in Durham, and to give you an idea, here's an image from the brewery's twitter feed....
|The Colpitts Hotel, Durham (image: Samuel Smith)|
I really enjoyed my hour at the Colpitts, but I had to move on. I had a quick stop at the Half Moon, just over one of the bridges over the River Wear on the curiously named New Elvet, after a crazy 10 minute period when I misread the directions on Google Maps and headed off in completely the wrong direction. When I finally arrived, there was a great, predominantly, rock soundtrack playing as I walked in and made my way to the bar. I ordered a half of Draught Bass and asked if I could plug my phone in for some extra juice. No problem, I was told. The beer was most enjoyable (NBSS 3.5), and I enjoyed it stood up as the phone charged up and I plotted my route to the next port of call.
|A real classic: The Victoria|
It was about 10 minutes walk up New Elvet and then taking a left fork along Hallgarth to the next pub, which is another classic. The Victoria is an unassuming looking place situated on an unassuming road, and as I arrived a couple of guys were having a smoke on the cobbles outside. I walked in to a very traditional-looking pub which can hardly have changed over the years, with wooden bar fittings, an old Victorian cash drawer, pottery, and coal fires. The pub was built in 1899 and not surprisingly is Grade II-listed. Most of the seats were already taken, with several people stood at the bar. I ordered a pint of Allendale Golden Plover, a 4% blonde beer, and without any prompting, a couple of guys stood at the bar shifted their coats up on a bench seat so I could sit at the table opposite the bar. I took a sip of my beer, and it was delicious, cool, and refreshing, very much as I have come to expect from this consistent brewer, and in excellent condition (NBSS 3.5). I noticed there was another room behind the bar, and as the main bar filled up, the friendly guy behind the bar ushered a couple of ladies through to this room via the bar. I would have loved to have got some pictures of this lovely pub, but it was too busy to do so, so here's the day's cask line-up....
|The line-up at the Victoria, with the snug beyond|
I didn't have time to visit the Dun Cow and Old Elm Tree, both of which I had visited before, but I had enough to visit one I hadn't, which was almost back at the station. The Station House is situated on a sharp junction under the high railway viaduct and diagonally opposite the Bridge which I had visited earlier. It has been open since about 2015, and like both the Colpitts and the Victoria, despite its relative short existence, harks back to simpler times. I walked in, a couple of large tables running across the room, each with a solitary guy, each wearing a hat, who both said hello as I walked towards the bar, which is basically a serving hatch from the beer cellar with handpumps along one wall behind a glass screen.
|The Station House, Durham, before it opened|
I ordered a half of Shuggy Boat Blonde from Cullercoats Brewery based a few miles away beside the River Tyne in Wallsend, and went to sit in an area down a few steps from the main room, where a guy was sat with a pint and studying his phone. The beer was pleasant as it always has been previously (NBSS 3). I followed my companion across the room and looked at my phone, which had just buzzed. I'd just had a WhatsApp message from my sister showing bright blue skies and an azure sea from where she was in Cornwall, whilst here in Durham, as I looked out of the window, another flurry of snow was swirling around. I finished my beer, I'd just about time for another half, so it was back to the serving hatch for a half of a 5.5% US IPA from North Riding, which was very well-balanced and had some presence to it, as you might expect from a beer of that strength. A very enjoyable NBSS 3.5.
|Inside the Station House....|
The station was round the corner, then up the hill, and I wanted to ensure I had enough time to get back, so I finished my half and bade my farewells. The Station House was friendly, but pretty unassuming, and an ideal spot for a pre-train pint. I managed to make my way up to the station in quicker time than anticipated and consequently had a few minutes to spare before the train arrived, on time as well! And as we headed back across the viaduct with the Station House and Bridge Hotel way down below, the cathedral looked pretty spectacular across the city as the early evening light began to fade....
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