Student cities: studying in Durham
Durham is a collegiate university, meaning you’ll be a member of one of its 13* colleges that admit undergraduates. Almost all first years live in college; many of those in their final year also choose to do so.
The Durham student experience starts with your college. You can make friends with people studying a huge range of subjects, eat meals together, join college societies and sports teams, get a job in the college bar (or just drink there) or stand for election for a role helping to run the place. Depending on which college you pick, you could also find yourself dressing up in your best clothes and academic gown on a regular basis to attend formal dinners – don’t forget to take a bottle of red.
Each college has its own bar, which range in size and character. Collingwood College bar is decorated like a traditional, oak-panelled pub; St Aidan’s College bar has a touch of café ambience; Grey College bar is small and snug; Van Mildert College bar has its own beer and cider festivals.
The university’s student union is excellent in terms of the range and number of its student groups. Starting with ‘A’, there are groups for arthouse cinema, Anglo-Japanese, Argentinian tango, African singing, and assassins. There’s also the Aerial Arts Society, which involves Durham students dangling from the rafters while hanging onto silk ropes or giant hoops and doing athletic poses. ‘C’ is a much more sedentary and taste-bud-related category and includes societies for chocolate, cider, cocktails and coffee.
Durham has numerous student theatre companies. See our guide to top universities for student drama in Scotland and northern England for more information. It also makes the TARGETcareers top universities for debating, top universities for football and top universities for rowing.
Durham – prettiest city in Britain?
The view from the River Wear towards Durham is one the prettiest in England. The city looks lovely.
The cathedral and castle are its jewels. The former dates from Norman times and has topped BBC polls as the nation’s favourite building. The latter is home to University College, so if you’re accepted into this college the castle will be your base for dining and socialising – though your accommodation block might be just outside it.
The castle is one of 63 listed buildings on the university’s estate, which includes a 1930s Art Deco chapel (for the college of St Hild and St Bede) and Bishop Cosin’s Library, which dates from the 15th century. The university also owns a ten hectare botanical garden, which is a classy place to picnic.
You don’t need to make a special trip anywhere to admire Durham’s good looks. The city centre is very compact and the cathedral and castle dominate the skyline, so they’re right there in full sight as you head to lectures, the pub or to meet a friend for coffee.
Durham has a number of nightclubs including Studio, the Boat Club and Jimmy Allen’s, whose large dancefloors cover three storeys of an old prison.
It’s also home to Klute, a firm student favourite that plays cheesy tunes. The club once had the honour of being dubbed the second worst nightclub in Europe in a lads’ magazine article – and then became the worst club when the original winner burned down. Rumour has it the journalist responsible never actually entered the club but Klute has embraced the story, even featuring it on its website.
For a small city, Durham has a lot of pubs. The Swan & Three Cygnets, with its riverside garden, is a regular student haunt as is the cosy Colpitts Hotel. Other pubs on the recommended list include The Library, The Shakespeare Tavern, Cross Keys Inn and Court Inn, where you can get a traditional English breakfast for a reasonable price.
Gala is a theatre and a cinema; Durham also has a Picturehouse cinema, which is part of a nationwide chain of cinemas showing mainstream and independent films.
On the festival front there is an annual book festival and a big Christmas festival, which is a part-cultural and part-shopping experience with 185 stalls. In July there is a brass music festival, with brass bands playing everything from New Orleans funk to dances from Rajasthan and covers of 1990s rave music. Set aside any image you may have of trombones playing quaint old songs – this festival has a touch of the hipster about it.
Shopping in Durham
Durham’s main shopping areas are The Riverwalk, which is a new wining, dining and retail complex with pretty views of the cathedral across the river, and Prince Bishops, which is in the city centre. In Fowler’s Yard is a set of artisan workshops, spinning wool, making jewellery and micro-brewing on the banks of the River Wear.
Nightlife and culture near Durham
If you want big city life, Newcastle is 12 to 15 minutes away by train and 45 minutes by bus. There are night bus connections at weekends costing £5 for a single ticket.
Newcastle is buzzy, with plenty of music venues, nightclubs and bars. The art galleries are very good, particularly the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.
Blink and you might be in a film set of Gotham city. Newcastle has futuristic new buildings, old industrial architecture illuminated by spotlights, nightspots lit up by gaudy neon and a railway bridge that skims over gothic buildings.
Countryside and coast near Durham
If you like the countryside and have a car, or a friend with a car, you’re in for a treat. At Durham you’re in driving distance of the Cheviot Hills, the big waterfall at High Force in the North Pennines, Hadrian’s Wall and the Scottish borders. But the biggest treat is the Northumbrian coast, which is windswept, remote and dotted with castles and old religious buildings. Some of the architecture owes a lot to buildings in Germany and the Netherlands, so it feels a bit different. Alnwick, Bamburgh, Seahouses and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne are well worth a visit.
Universities in Durham
*There are 13 colleges in Durham city that admit undergraduates, plus a further two at the university’s campus in Stockton-on-Tees.