You've had the first XV in Newcastle - now here are six impact players from down the road, writes Geoff Cumming.

Just 12 minutes from Newcastle by train, nestled attractively on the River Wear, is leafy Durham.

If Newcastle's heady atmosphere begins to flag, Durham offers an old-fashioned bench of six compelling attractions to reinvigorate.

1. Durham Castle

Sited on a hairpin bend in the river, Durham Castle was built under the orders of William the Conqueror to protect the prince-bishops of Durham, who were charged with safeguarding the northeast of England from the Scottish barbarians. The brilliantly preserved fortifications form an admirable backdrop to the city and are well worth close inspection. The bishops lived here until 1832, when it became part of Durham University (some students have rooms in the rebuilt Keep).

The 14th century Great West Hall is impressive, as is the dim and dank Norman chapel, a forest of pillars and arches with quirky carvings dating from 1083.


2. Durham Cathedral

Across the square is Durham Cathedral, the third cathedral built on the site. Built in honour of St Cuthbert, who is buried here, it began as a priory for Benedictine monks and construction spanned 40 years until 1133. The Romanesque building, with columns 6.6m around, is rated the best example of Norman architecture still standing. Internal features include the diamond-ribbed stone vaulting, the first built in Europe, while less visible are the flying buttresses, which were invented here.

3. Riverside walk

The peninsula on which the castle and cathedral are sited is a world heritage site. A path flanking the tree-lined river offers glimpses of both and you'll get an appreciation of why they were never breached by invaders.

Photos: Durham, England

A view of Durham Cathedral from the River Wear. Photo / Thinkstock

4. Drinks break

Even substitutes deserve a break and Durham has several watering holes serving high quality ales and food. Best view of the castle is to be had from the rooftop garden bar at The Bishop Langley, on the river by Framwellgate Bridge. Others of note include the Market Tavern in Market Square, The Shakespeare Tavern on Saddler St and The John Duck on Claypath. Oldfields restaurant on Claypath is committed to traditional cooking (think pressed ham and black pudding or braised beef shin) using local ingredients washed down with excellent craft beer.

5. Crook Hall and Gardens

Down river from the city centre, Crook Hall dates from the early 1200s. It features a medieval staircase and pieces from later periods - and lays claim to a ghost. Welcoming owners Keith and Maggie Bell live in the more recent Georgian addition. The themed gardens include classic English flowers in the Walled Garden, Cathedral Garden, where the beds are planted to resemble stained-glass windows, statuary in the orchard, and plenty more. A fine afternoon tea is also on offer.

6. Infantry inspection

Behind the train station is the Durham Light Infantry Museum, paying homage to a regiment which spanned over 200 years. Formed to fight the French in 1758, members went on to conflicts as far afield as the West Indies, Spain, Russia and the New Zealand Wars.

The ground-floor exhibition honours the 12,000 members killed in World War I. Among the weapons, uniforms, medals, photographs and letters is a note about John Murray, awarded the regiment's third Victoria Cross for his efforts fighting at "Te Ranga" (Tauranga) in the Battle of Gate Pa.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies twice daily from Auckland to London, via Hong Kong.

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