Easy Hops From London Reward With Architectural Grandeur

Travel Weekly editor in chief Nadine Godwin provides a firsthand report on a quick and easy way to see major northern cities in England in a short period.

DURHAM, England -- Clients in London with two or three days to spare can see a remarkable amount of northern England in that time. In less than 48 hours I visited Durham, York and Lincoln, using the train as my sole source of transportation. I do not actually recommend squeezing those three cathedral cities into such a short itinerary, but I had seen York before and merely broke my journey to snatch another two hours there. For clients who have never seen any of the cities, a third day would be essential. In either version, this is an ambitious itinerary, but what clients get for their trouble are visits to three grand, and quite different, medieval cathedrals and a look at what remains of the castles in each city, among other things.

The cathedrals

York Minster, the largest medieval cathedral in England, has the brightest and prettiest interior of the three, and Lincoln's gorgeous west front is the most striking of the exteriors, by far. Both date largely from the 13th century and later while Durham Cathedral, built between 1070 and 1140, of the dark stone characteristic of the whole town of Durham is the most evocative of a long and varied history. With its large ponderous interior and its heavy pillars, it is deemed England's finest Norman church. The Durham cathedral Treasury is more varied than most, as well, including -- besides gold and silver plate -- historical manuscripts, ancient embroidery work and a thousand-year-old coffin and other relics from St. Cuthbert (d.687), who is buried behind the cathedral's high altar. In addition, the monk/scholar Venerable Bede (d.735), known best as the author of the first history of England, is buried in one of the chapels.

The castle part

History has not been as kind to the castles as to the churches, but Durham's has fared the best. Facing the cathedral grounds, it is a college now and visitors can overnight there when students are not in residence. Some original Norman and later medieval features survive, which can be seen on a guided tour. The giant kitchens have been in continuous service for more than 900 years. York has only the shell of Clifford Tower to remind visitors of a once-stunning castle and sometime royal residence. Perched atop a manmade mound, it was first built of wood by William the Conqueror (11th century) but today we see the 13th century stone remains. The castle at Lincoln, a short walk from the church, boasts medieval stone walls and one tower that, after a tedious walk up a tightly wound staircase, yields fantastic views of the cathedral and surrounding areas. The moderate entrance fee also covers entry to an exhibit featuring one of England's four remaining copies of the original Magna Carta distributed by King John in 1215.

All the rest

In fact, all the rest is more than this Web page will accommodate, but top attractions, not counting cathedrals, are as follows:

* Durham. It is not possible to miss this city's most salient feature, its hilltop setting. Clients will be well aware of its magnificence once they walk down from the hilltop railroad station, across the River Wear and up a second steep hill to see what they came to see. The cathedral was positioned at the end of what is effectively a peninsula created by the tight coils in the winding river far below because the keepers of St. Cuthbert's body wanted to keep it safe. Tourist maps highlight many other points but clients should not miss a riverside stroll for its grand views of the hilltop town, and the church in particular. This small city did not seem overly supplied with attractive restaurant choices, but I found a fine Italian establishment, Sassari, on Saddler Street between the cathedral and market square, where a dinner of soup, pasta and a glass of wine cost about $18.50, plus tip. By the way, visitors can buy snacks -- and at limited hours -- full meals in a small eatery on the cathedral green, in a building that started life as 17th century almshouses.

* York. Similarly, it is impossible to miss the top attraction here, the medieval walls, which in one section stand between the railroad station and the town. The white stone walls, attractive on their own, are enhanced in spring with a virtual eruption of daffodils below the exterior walls and in summer with flower gardens on either side. At three miles, they nearly encircle the city center, and clients can walk along major sections. York is chock-a-block with museums, medieval churches and historic buildings, but if time is limited, I suggest at the least a look at Shambles, a narrow and charming street with tiny and quaint shops; the Merchant Adventurers' Hall, billed as the finest guildhall in Europe, little changed since its 14th century origins and still owned by its original guild, and the popular Jorvik Viking Centre, which provides a time-car ride through a re-created Viking Age York. And to my amusement, on my first visit, I stumbled onto a small museum in the Monk Bar ("bar" means gate) which took for its theme the antics (or murders) of King Richard III, whose 15th century power base was in this city. In one corner was the kind of sign we recognize today in which a public official takes credit for a particular piece of construction. In this case, the museum's creators have the king taking credit for building the gate's tiny prison cell, fittingly for the man who imprisoned his own nephews.

* Lincoln. Now is time to take a deep breath because in Lincoln it is another stiff climb to a hilltop cathedral/castle site. En route, clients should pass to the west side of High Bridge in the town center, for the best view of this Norman vaulted bridge, the oldest in England with buildings on it. After passing this point, the straightest route to the old town's hilltop core passes a house that is considered to be England's oldest domestic architecture, built around 1170. Revealing of its past, it is called Jews House. Today, there is a restaurant on premises. The last leg of the journey to the top is along the well-named Steep Hill Street, a seriously sloped path that is lined with pretty little houses of varying styles and ages, creating a delightful scene. I concluded my sightseeing right here, with a simple dinner in a tiny tilted building where half-timber beams run rampant across ceilings and down walls. I paid about $10 for a hearty Yorkshire pudding and a soft drink. The restaurant was called the Spinning Wheel and the address was 39 Steep Hill. I couldn't have planned a more fit end to this ramble in the north of England.

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