This is nothing like my university dorm

It seems an odd place for a bunch of university students to live – an 11th century heritage-listed castle. But somehow it works!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Durham Castle, Durham, England

I remember well my university days. I don’t remember my university nights quite so clearly.

That’s the way it’s supposed to be, though, isn’t it? University is the bridge between childhood and serious adulthood – the period when your newly-acquired legal rights allow you to do many wrongs and a day in bed recovering has few consequences.

I lived on campus at my Australian university and I remember the crazy parties we would have, the holes in the wall from intoxicated exuberance and the look on the faces of the cleaners when they saw the aftermath in the common rooms.

(I’m pretty sure this never happened, but my memory wants to conjure up an image of a cleaner with a jaw dropped and buckets and mops falling from their hands in shock.)

Durham Castle and Cathedral, Durham, England

It’s for this reason that I have trouble getting my head around University College in the English city of Durham. I don’t understand how a bunch of undergraduate students can actually live here!

Let me explain.

Durham University is one of the three big institutions in the UK – the others being Oxford and Cambridge. Because it’s in a small city a long way from any major ones, the majority of students live in sharehouses or colleges in the city.

University College is one of the residences and is home to about 150 students.

Durham Castle and Cathedral, Durham, England

That all sounds pretty straightforward so far. Until you find out that the college is inside Durham Castle which was built in the 11th century and is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. I bet it’s the only one in the world that has a bunch of 20-year-olds living in it!

Durham Castle and Cathedral, Durham, England

The Great Hall, used centuries ago by religious and political leaders, is where the students now eat each of their meals.

The beautiful Tunstall’s Chapel hosts services for the college residents, and there are even bedrooms in the towering stone keep with its castle-like windows giving views across Durham.

A ‘museum’ of important artefacts fills a corridor on the second level of the building that I would be terrified of walking down lest I knock over a 15th century bust.

Durham Castle and Cathedral, Durham, England

Seif El-Rashidi is the World Heritage Co-ordinator of Durham and he doesn’t see a problem with a group of young people essentially being the day-to-day custodians of such an important building.

“I think there’s a strong sense of ownership of the castle by students which I think is a great thing,” he tells me.

“It’s one of the best things about this castle that the people who use it care about it. I think with anyone if you make them think this is their thing and they’re privileged to use it and to experience it, they feel like it’s theirs. If you give people loads of restrictions – oh, you can’t sit here – they become alienated from it.”

“And I know this from my experience working in Cairo where many historic buildings are restored and then shut off because they think the public is going to ruin them and as result they throw rubbish in front of them and they don’t care because they don’t mean anything. But this castle – it means something.”

Durham Castle and Cathedral, Durham, England

Durham Cathedral, Durham, England

Just across the lawn from the castle is Durham Cathedral. Once, the two were intimately linked – the cathedral was the city’s house of worship and the castle was where the bishop lived.

These days there is no direct link but the bond is still strong. The bond comes from the community of Durham which sees both as the symbols of their city. (The view of them both from the train as you arrive is spectacular!)

The cathedral was founded in 1093, after the Norman conquest of England. By any of today’s standards, it would be spectacular. By the standards of the time, it is almost hard to believe.

144 metres long and 66 metres high at the top of the central tower, it is an architectural marvel.

Durham Castle and Cathedral, Durham, England

Stained glass windows; small carvings of faces in the walls; recently-uncovered frescoes; ornate altars; and more.

At times, walking through the building, it feels more like an art gallery than a church.

My guide, Lillian Groves, has been showing the cathedral to visitors for years. She says she’s always finding something new herself, though.

Durham Castle and Cathedral, Durham, England
Durham Castle and Cathedral, Durham, England

And while it is clearly a religious building and the art and the atmosphere is spiritual, there is more to Durham Cathedral than just a place of worship.

Much like the castle, Seif El-Rashidi says there’s a sense of community that he also tries to encourage with festivals and special events.

Durham Castle and Cathedral, Durham, England

“It’s impossible to think of Durham without thinking of the cathedral,” he says.

“You’ll find, for example, on a Saturday, people shopping in the market will walk up with their stroller and the children into the cathedral and spend fifteen or twenty minutes and leave. It’s a cornerstone not just as an institution but as a place.”

“It’s hard not to see it’s a moving place and a beautiful place. In the same way you sit by the sea or a river and contemplate, it has a meditative quality even if you’re not religious.”

Durham Castle and Cathedral, Durham, England
Durham Castle and Cathedral, Durham, England

The cathedral and the castle may have been built in a strategic position on a hill to protect people during a time when religion and military forces were intertwined. Today they are still just as strong… but it seems it’s the people who are protecting them now.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of NewcastleGateshead and Visit County Durham but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.


This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

15 thoughts on “This is nothing like my university dorm”

  1. Wowsers! I went to uni in Australia too and there’s no way it was anything like this! Check out their food hall. My god I think I was just happy to find a seat in the courtyard that didn’t have bird crap on it! This is awesome.

    • I’m pretty sure there are plenty of universities that are modern and ‘normal’. But there are also quite a few that have colleges that look like this – Oxford and Cambridge have lots of them. But this is the only one that’s actually a World Heritage Site and has such an interesting military and religious history.

  2. Awesome masterpieces – I wonder how it would be like to capture these magnificent artworks. Is there a fee to get inside the cathedrals? What is the best time to visit the place?

    • Hi Pam!
      There is no fee to go inside Durham Cathedral although they do ask for a voluntary donation of your choosing. I would also recommend spending the 5 pounds on a guided tour when you’re there.
      For Durham Castle, the fee is 5 pounds for an adult (3.50 concession) but you need to go as part of a tour so it’s worth contacting them in advance to find out when they are offered.
      Other than that, I don’t think there’s any right or wrong time to visit. They are both beautiful all the time!

  3. Hi Michael, I went to college in Australia as well, but the staff expected military discipline from us, so not fun at all! That aside, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, because I’ve been in the UK for such a long time and I’ve always ignored Durham. I read a lot about it today, and I’m ashamed of myself. You know what? I’m buying a ticket to go there now!

    • Ha – fantastic! It wasn’t too far away from Newcastle so I popped down to see it when we were there. I reckon it would make a really nice day or overnight trip from somewhere like London, though.

  4. So great to see someone blog about my old dorm at University! Yep, I was a student at Castle (or ‘castleman’ as we’re known!) and it’s something I’ll never ever forget, or stop feeling proud of. My first year I lived in the castle keep (you can see my bedroom window in the first photo), and my third year I was lucky enough to live in the gatehouse (the window right above the entrance arch), a great spot for keeping out invaders from other colleges (usually with water pistols). We ate all our meals in the great hall, and twice a week had ‘formal dinners’ which consisted of wearing our black gowns, listening (and not understanding) prayers read in Latin, and consuming much wine. Pretty much like Hogwarts! Got married in the Tunstall chapel a few years later, and had all our guests stay over! The castle is the most amazing living monument in England, and even if you just visit for an hour, you won’t regret it! Lovely photos Michael, glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

  5. I enjoyed looking at this post and these pictures really do put Hogwarts to shame. I wish the University I went to was 1/4 as grand as the pictures I have viewed here. Great photos and experiences!


Leave a comment