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Cathedrals, Cobblestones, and the Magna Carta: Britain by Rail

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

A popular and easy way to see Britain is by train. Britain’s compact size means that you can get to nearly every corner of the island in a relatively short amount of time when you travel by train. This is a great option for those who do not want to rent a car or hire a driver, as well as for those who want to visit more destinations during their trip. Keep in mind that if you only travel by rail you will be sticking with larger destinations, like cities, as opposed to smaller villages that might only be reached by road. When we create packaged rail journeys for our clients, we include every piece of the puzzle, so they never need to worry about a thing. For extra peace of mind, we can have a local guide meet you upon arrival to give you a lay of the land and answer any questions you may have.

This week I am sharing with you one of our popular rail journeys in the northeast corner of England. Our clients typically depart from London - either because they have flown into a London airport or because they have spent some time in the city before departing on the rail journey. You can just as easily depart from a more northerly city such as Manchester if you are flying into there instead.

London to Durham

Start out at London King’s Cross for the train to Durham (if you are a Harry Potter fan be sure to arrive a few minutes early to visit Platform 9 ¾). After a journey of just under three hours you will find yourself in Durham, the most northerly city on this itinerary. Durham is a lovely city, noted for its world-famous cathedral, quaint cobbled streets that wind their way around the city, and relaxing riverside walks. Some of my tops picks for things to do in Durham include:

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral Durham Castle England UK
Durham's Cathedral and Castle overlook the River Wear

One of the grandest cathedrals in Britain, many visitors will recognize its columns and cloisters from the Harry Potter films where it served as many of the interiors of Hogwarts. In medieval times, criminals who had committed a ‘great offence’ and were fleeing from the law could reach safety by knocking on the door of the sanctuary. They would then be given 37 days of sanctuary to try to reconcile with those who were searching for them. Monks would sit above the door at all hours of day or night to keep an eye out for those who needed to be let in. Spectacular views of the city are on offer with the tower tour.

Durham Castle Part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, Durham Castle was built by William the Conqueror only a few years after the Norman Conquest in order to keep invasions from the Scots, Danes (and potentially angry locals), at bay. Today it is home to the students of University College Durham, who will enthusiastically act as tour guides for visitors who are interested in finding out what it is like to live in a 900-year-old castle.

Durham Cathedral Durham palace green England UK
Durham's Palace Green and Cathedral

Palace Green Originally the marketplace of Durham and today an area of grass flanked by the cathedral, castle, and other interesting buildings. Visit the Palace Green Library where you can uncover the story of Durham’s past while just over Palace Green itself the visitor center explains why this was one of the first places in England to be granted World Heritage Site status.

Open Treasure The treasures of St. Cuthbert are on display along with a 700-year-old sword which is presented to modern day Bishops when they arrive in Durham. During your visit you can also see St. Cuthbert’s original wooden coffin (from the 7th century!), and other items including his pectoral cross and the Anglo-Saxon vestments gifted to his Shrine. St. Cuthbert is particularly important to worshippers in this region of England since it was his community which was forced to flee Lindisfarne following the infamous Viking invasion.

Durham to York

After Durham, hop a train heading south and before long you will find yourself in York, one of my favorite cities. Halfway between Edinburgh and London, York is a glorious mix of medieval and Georgian architecture. Here are just a few of the must-see spots in York:

Shambles York UK Harry potter Yorkshire
The Shambles is a medieval shopping street in York

JORVIK Viking Centre A groundbreaking visitor experience where you take a journey through the reconstruction of Viking-age streets and experience life as it would have been in 10th-century York. Everything you see during your visit is based off of the meticulous excavations of the Viking settlement that was located in this very spot over 1,000 years ago.

York’s Chocolate Story York is known as the UK’s home of Chocolate, from the Chocolate orange to the globally famous KitKat. Discover how to make and taste chocolate like an expert while learning about the history of chocolate and how the sustainable future of chocolate production is being ensured. But of course the best part is tasting the freshly made chocolate crafted right in front of you by the master chocolatiers!

York Minster

York Minster Yorkshire England UK
York Minster

Crowning York’s skyline, and home to over a thousand years of Christian history, York Minster is an iconic spot that is not to be missed. It was here in York that Constantine was named Emperor of Rome and you will find a statue commemorating this just outside the Minster’s walls. Be sure to visit the inside and marvel at the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the UK and one of Europe’s greatest artistic masterpieces.

Clifford’s Tower Enjoy stunning panoramic views across York and as far as the York Moors from the top of Clifford’s Tower, which is the largest remaining piece of William the Conqueror’s York Castle. York Castle is one of two castles that were once in York, though all that remains of the other is the mound upon which is was built. The tower has, at times, served as mint and as a prison. One of its most famous prisoners was George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (known commonly as Quakers). Dick Turpin, the highly romanticized yet at the time notorious highwayman known for stealing horses, poaching deer, burglary, and murders, was also held (and eventually executed) here at Clifford’s Tower.

York to Lincoln

Lincoln is known for the Magna Carta, Britain’s ‘Best Street,’ and the Lincoln Imp. What is the Lincoln Imp? Keep reading about a few of my favorite spots in Lincoln below to find out…

Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral England UK
Lincoln Cathedral

Explore inside the Gothic style Lincoln Cathedral, which was built in stages between 1072 and 1311. Those with sharp eyes might find a demon, a little charmer who became the symbol of the whole city, the Lincoln Imp. Legend says that Satan himself sent the imp to the cathedral to wreak havoc. After smashing windows and knocking over the Dean, an angel came forth to put a stop to the chaos by turning the imp into stone. There is a spotlight to help you find him, high in the upper reaches of the cathedral, sitting there with a cheeky grin that tells you he was truly up to no good.

Steep Hill Lincoln’s picturesque Steep Hill was awarded the title ‘Britain’s Best Street’ in 2012 by the Academy of Urbanism, because of its fascinating array of independent shops lining a parade of architecture that spans almost 2,000 years. Wander the lovely street on your own time and pop into one of the tea shops along the way for a spot of tea before continuing your exploration of the city.

Lincoln Castle Magna Carta England UK
Courtyard of Lincoln Castle

Magna Carta at Lincoln Castle One of only four remaining copies, Lincoln’s Magna Carta is considered the primary surviving copy of the original document of 1215 which was delivered to the cathedral’s monuments room that very year. Having been taken to Fort Knox, Kentucky for safe keeping during the Second World War, it is now on permanent display in Lincoln Castle.

Medieval Bishops Palace Located right near the cathedral, the Medieval Bishop’s Palace was once among the most important buildings in the country when it served as the administrative center of the vast diocese of Lincoln. From this location you will enjoy sweeping views over the ancient city and the countryside beyond.

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