DURHAM Christmas Festival returns, not only creating the city’s busiest retail weekend of the year, but also, for its 25th anniversary, pledging support to St Cuthbert’s Hospice.

As well as the regular three-day festival, this year there is an additional charity preview night of the Craft & Gift Marquee on Palace Green, giving visitors the first look at 180 stalls between 3pm and 7pm on Thursday, with profits going to the local hospice.

Then from Friday to Sunday, the festival is once again expected to draw thousands of visitors from across the region and beyond into the city centre.

Visitors will be able to shop with more than 250 independent traders, and make the most of a wide variety of seasonal entertainment.

Santa will be in his Grotto on Palace Green and and on Saturday the annual children’s lantern procession will head from the Market Place to Durham Cathedral’s St Nicholas Service at 3.45pm. There will also be a number of carol services Durham Cathedral across the weekend.

The heart of the festival is a double marquee on Palace Green, housing more than 180 independent traders offering gifts, homewares, decorations, food and drink.

This is complemented by the Regional Food and Drinks Producers’ Market in the Cloisters of Durham Cathedral, a festive market in Durham Market Place and Durham Market Hall, which will be open from Friday to Sunday also.

Colin Wilkes, managing director of Durham Markets which organises the festival together with Durham University, said: “For many, both traders and regular visitors, Durham Christmas Festival is the only way to start the festive season.

“By spreading markets out from the Cathedral to the Market Place, the whole city centre becomes involved, with shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs all benefitting.

“To add to the atmosphere, we’ll have buskers performing popular festive favourites throughout the city centre. We’re proud to have brought this festival to Durham for 25 years, and hope everyone enjoys it again this year.”