Durham is in England

08Jul07

Last month I was discussing future plans with another American student at the Trinity May Ball. I mentioned that I was going to Durham, to which my colleague erroneously asked, “ah, you’re going to Duke?” He was referring to the university located in Durham, North Carolina famous for its basketball programme.

In this light, I thought I’d say a few words about the Durham located in the North Eastern part of England, nestled in green hills which make it — I’m told — the focal point of English weather. Durham is a historical city known for its towering cathedral. One Lonely Planet travel guide lists it as #6 of the top 25 things to experience in the UK. In fact, you may have already seen the inside of the cathedral as the set for one of Hogwart’s classrooms in the Harry Potter movies.

County Durham (“Durham County” in American parlance) is historically of a mining region, a heritage that lives on today in events such as the Durham Miner’s Gala. Americans are more likely to understand this if I mention that County Durham was the setting for the film Billy Elliot. The film more-or-less captures the Geordie accent, which I’m told has been the cause of some confusion by previous American students. (Not well represented in the film, on the other hand, is the Geordie reputation for hospitality.)

Durham University is [arguably] the third oldest university in England. Like its older siblings Oxford and Cambridge, Durham also is based on a college system (think of Griffindor to Hogwarts). The university commonly uses the term “Doxbridge” to connect it with the two more internationally-renowned universities… but I have to admit that I’ve never heard anybody use this term in Cambridge. At the same time, the University can boast being the 2005 Times University of the Year (at the risk of over-generality, the English are quite fond of these league tables). At any rate, Durham University is one of the UK’s forefront research centres, and it is its Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology that has brought me here (more on this in a later post).

Regarding Durham, Bill Bryson waxed poetic, writing in Notes from a Small Island:

Why, it’s a perfect little city. If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It’s wonderful.

He was later made the Chancellor of the university.

By my Californian sense of scale, Durham is a small town: it’s population is around 25,000 and any place within the city would be easily accessible by foot were it not for its San Francisco-esque hills. The closest Tesco and Sainsburys are a bus ride away, though there is a Waitrose and Marks & Spencer not too far from city centre. In fact, I seriously suspect that the mega-sized Tesco is larger than the whole of Durham’s city centre.

Tesco, by the way, is the reason why Walmart’s `Asda’ superstores have yet to take over the UK. The battle is something like Godzilla vs. Mothra; one supports the local beast, but then wonders what to do when it finally triumphs and can now stomp over Tokyo all by itself.

But alas, I digress. Few things in Durham can be said to exist on a Godzilla-esque scale. For the most part it retains all of the charm of a small town, where people recognise one another on the street and stop to chat a bit. (If you’ve never experienced this, it’s fantastically refreshing.) This weekend there was a “brass band” celebration as part of the city’s International Festival, which I found very enjoyable. Despite being a tourist attraction, it’s reasonably buffered from the outside world, leading to a scholarly seclusion that is rather reminiscent of Cornell. I’m told by my adviser that a walk along the river will do marvels for clearing one’s thoughts.

Unlike Cambridge, Durham is just a fifteen minute (and £3.60) train ride from Newcastle, a major metropolitan area and the end point of Hadrian’s Wall. I’m assured that anything I can’t find in Durham — a nonzero set, for sure — can be found in Newcastle. From Newcastle, one can take another short train to Seaham, brochures for which have promised me luxurious beaches. (If it ever stops raining I’d love to see this for myself.)

Like Cambridge, however, Durham is an English amalgamation of old and new. While the cathedral towers over the entire city, many areas have been renovated in the past few years (some as recently as the past months). This includes the founding of the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology (IPPP) and the Institute for Computational Cosmology, as well as commercial areas. My own college was just completed last year and I suspect I’m among the first international postgraduate students to take part in its budding traditions (a deliberate change from Trinity College).

Anyway, that’s Durham in a nutshell. I’ll post an advertisement soon about the IPPP with the implicit hope of bringing it to the attention of other American physics students.



8 Responses to “Durham is in England”

  1. 1 denise

    Durham is a lovely place. I’m from California as well and am a 3rd year phd student in astrophysics. Hope you enjoy your stay!

  2. Durham is in England! Good title!!

  3. Indeed — I forgot to mention that Durham is prone to moments of absolute beauty.

  4. On “Doxbridge”, it’s my understanding that apart from a sports tournament between the three universities and one or two individual projects involving the three institutions (similar to “Loxbridge”, which is used very limitedly for history collaboration), the term is not used by Durham very much. Several who’ve looked into this have found the term seems to be more commonly used at Cabridge and Oxford (albeit still obscurely) than at Durham!

  5. Bryson was right, Durham is a ‘perfect little city’! The University is the life and soul of the city – if you’ve ever visited both during term and during the holidays, when the students are away, you’ll notice the difference!

  6. 6 Berhan

    Hi, I wanted to get to the place Durham (Bishop Auckland station).. I wanted to know where is that based. Is it South East or… ? I am planning to travel there from London. I wanted to find the cheapest price there because I need to get to collect my kitten from that station. I wouldn’t stay there, no longet them 10 minutes. Would you please email me the response please!

    Warm regards,

  7. 7 Linda

    Oops – I left my comment on the wrong page…I’ll paste it here. Sorry.
    The wonders of Google – I typed in Tesco and Durham as our choir
    will be singing at the Cathedral next summer and we found Tesco to
    be very helpful when we did a residency at Canterbury in 2006. It
    brought me to your delightful blog. I am disappointed, however, to
    hear that Tescos is a busride away. Do you recall any grocery stores
    within walking distance of the downtown (Swallow Three Tuns Hotel) ?
    Any other interesting little places we should see that we wouldn’t
    find in a guidebook?


  1. 1 The Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology « An American Physics Student in England

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