County Durham may be divided into two very different parts: there is the densely-populated, typically industrial region along the coast where the rivers Tyne, Wear and Tees join the sea, and then there is the rural, western part, with the city of Durham at its center.
Historically, Durham was one of the most important political centers in England. Under the Normans it was the residence of the Prince Bishops, who were at once spiritual and secular rulers. The city is among the most beautiful in England. It is dominated by the castle and the massive bulk of the Norman cathedral; the design of the latter, started in 1093 by the Norman bishop William of Calais, was revolutionary in its day. The choir was given cross-ribbed vaulting, the galleries were supported externally by flying buttresses, and the transverse arches dividing up the nave were Gothic (pointed), not rounded. The robust, incised pillars of the nave rise to perfect rounded arches, with yet more arches above, all patterned with typical Norman geometric carving. This cathedral was the foundation of Gothic architecture in England. In addition to the chronicler of early English history, the Venerable Bede, it is also the final resting place of the revered, but misogynistic, St. Cuthbert.
Opposite the cathedral stands Durham Castle, once in the front line of conflicts with the Scots and later, in the 12th century, residence of the bishops who ruled the region. Like the cathedral, it stands within the ancient town on a bluff overlooking a curve of the river Wear, which once acted as a natural moat.
South of Durham is the busy market town of Darlington, a byword among railr