County Durham's economy is on the road to recovery, with businesses reopening safely with the support of Durham County Council. PETER BARRON talked to traders in Durham City about their experiences

WHEN Melanie Bell and husband Darren decided the time was right to launch their latest business venture with a Continental flavour, Durham City seemed the natural location.

For the past seven years the couple has run the Three Horse Shoes Inn, at Lanchester, and their dream was to open a Mediterranean bar and restaurant.

“We’d spent time living in Spain so we wanted to bring a taste of that back home,” says Melanie.

El Pincho had been due to open on The Riverwalk, in Durham City, in April, but plans had to be put on hold when the pandemic struck.

Four months later, Durham City is slowly but surely – and with an emphasis on safety – emerging from lockdown, and there is a renewed sense of optimism in one of the world’s most historic and beautiful cities.

With the support of Durham County Council, businesses across County Durham – including all outdoor markets, with social distancing measures in place – have reopened, and economic confidence is growing again.

Since restrictions were eased the council has worked in partnership with retailers and landlords county-

wide to ensure businesses can reopen safely and residents and visitors can shop confidently.

The authority carried out assessments and planning so shops could reopen with social distancing measures, and closed some roads in town centres to give pedestrians priority. The council has also worked with national chains that struggled during the outbreak to help them reopen safely and is seeing a growing interest from independent traders.

According to Adam Deathe, manager of Durham Business Improvement District (BID), the city is operating at around 70 per cent of its normal retail activity.

“Like everywhere else, footfall dropped like a stone at the start of lockdown, but the current position is encouraging in difficult circumstances,” he says.

“The spend in the majority of businesses is holding up well, and customers are adhering to social distancing rules and wearing face masks.”

Businesses have also adapted well, with screens installed, capacity reduced, increased sanitisation and one-way systems put in place.

“It’s tough because overheads have increased at a time of limited opportunity to generate revenue, but everyone is working together to make the best of a bad situation,” Adam says.

“People are having to adapt, but what’s important is that they are supporting local businesses. It really is a case of Durham needs you. We are looking forward to the return of students as they will boost spend in the city and help the economy even more.”

Adam has praised Durham County Council for its proactive approach to supporting business throughout the lockdown, starting with becoming a national exemplar in the administration of business support grants.

“The way the county council engaged with businesses right from the start was a huge boon – and it has gone on being incredibly supportive. The council has bent over backwards to remove as many obstacles as possible to help businesses get going again and that needs to be applauded.”

He cited the example of the local authority working closely with restaurants, cafes and bars on increasing outdoor seating.

“The council was quick to identify that as something which was necessary if businesses were going to be viable, and there has been a really flexible approach.”

For Melanie, at El Pincho, it’s a relief to finally be up and running: “It was upsetting when our original opening plans had to be delayed but we’re open now.

“It’s early days but business in the city is definitely picking up,” she says.

From its position on Framwellgate Bridge El Pincho has enviable views of the magnificent cathedral and castle. Heritage was a clear factor in Melanie and Darren choosing Durham.

“There’s a real sense of history here – it’s such a lovely city with a lot to offer. Of course, it’s even more attractive now with staycations being so popular,” adds Melanie.

As she sets out on her new business venture, Melanie is encouraged by the investment being made in Durham’s future by the county council.

“It’s really going to make a difference, so I’m feeling optimistic. In the meantime, we’re all pulling together and it’s good to see Durham getting going again.”

As well as El Pincho, pancake café Flip & Stack is another new business to open on The Riverwalk, complementing existing businesses such as Cosy Club and Old Tom’s Gin Bar which have also reopened.

The Food Pit has also begun serving again, offering a wide range of food and drink including the Greek Kitchen, Bubble Waffle Society, Fresco Durham, Mano Thai, Durham Sausage Company, Durham Sausage & Burger, and the Fat Chicken.

To help revive the city’s economy, outdoor seating has been installed to accommodate up to 200 diners in the fresh air

Safety measures such as hand sanitisation stations and social distancing reminders have also been placed throughout the complex.

In contrast to Melanie Bell’s fledgling business, Alison Harnett’s traditional tearoom – with the appetising name of Tealicious – is well established, having been a feature of Elvet Bridge for eight years.

Despite operating with a 40 per cent reduction in seating to accommodate social distancing, Alison is delighted to be serving customers again at Tealicious.

She’s decided on a cautious route, opening Wednesday to Saturday for now, having previously been open seven days a week.

“I want to see how things go before fully jumping back in, but so far so good,” said Alison, a County Durham lass who grew up in West Cornforth and now lives in Fishburn.

Alison was supported with a Small Business Grant, processed by Durham County Council, and is also benefitting from business rates being suspended until January.

“The county council has been spot on,” she says.

“I applied for the grant on the Friday and it was in my account the following Monday.”

Alison is grateful for the council’s help with allowing additional seating outside. “It adds to the pavement culture and makes social distancing easier, so that’s been a real positive” she says.

She also welcomes the current period of investment in the city centre, such as the flagship Milburngate development, a £120m scheme on the banks of the River Wear which will feature bars, restaurants, a luxury cinema and hotel.

“Durham is such a picturesque and historic city and what’s happening is a vote of confidence in the future,” she says.

At Hotel Indigo, general manager Tom Orange brings a wealth of experience to Durham City, having been general manager of the Royal County Hotel 18 years ago before taking a career break.

The two-year-old hotel – featuring a Marco Pierre White restaurant – reopened on July 4 and experienced a “soft” first month back, with a 35 per cent occupancy level that plateaued for the rest of the month.

“People wanted to see how the easing of lockdown restrictions played out before travelling,” explains Tom.

However, August figures are “extremely good and ahead of expectations”, with September bookings also “relatively encouraging” he adds.

It’s been especially gratifying for Tom, as a veteran of the city, to see a boost in visitors due to the staycation market shifting north.

“What we are seeing is people who would have been spending their money on holidays abroad staying in this country, but wanting to avoid the crowds, so they’re heading north,” says Tom.

“We all know what a beautiful and historic city Durham is, but people are coming from all over the country – Somerset, Birmingham, Liverpool and Norfolk – and many are experiencing the city for the first time.”

Tom is also excited by the investment taking place, saying the Milburngate development will add “a new dimension” to the city.

“It will give visitors more variety but it’s also being done with sensitivity to the historic parts of the city,” he says.

Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, it adds up to a positive picture for Durham, which is bucking the national trend.

“I speak to colleagues in different locations and Durham is in a better position,” he says.

“It’s a compact city with a nice selection of hotels and quality restaurants. With first-class tourist attractions, such as Beamish Museum, on the doorstep, it’s got a lot going for it and it’s great to see it getting back on its feet.”

A Durham County Council spokesman, Cllr Joy Allen, says: “Reopening the county’s high streets safely has been crucial to supporting

the economy and getting people back to work, as well as giving the hospitality industry a much-needed lift.

“Tourism gives a great boost to the local economy and high streets, and we are already seeing people making use of the diverse range of shopping and recreation opportunities in the city.

“During lockdown people shopped locally, and this is something we are actively encouraging people to continue doing, while also welcoming new visitors. We are always revising our measures in line with Government advice, but the very clear message is that Durham is open for business and rediscovering its buzz.”

The last word goes to Alison Harnett at Tealicious: “There’s nothing better than having a potter around Durham, enjoying the shops and the views then having a cup of tea. It’s the perfect day out – and it’s great to be back.”


Durham Bus Station

The county council has approved planning permission for preparations to start on demolishing the Durham Bus Station and replacing it with a modern transport hub which will welcome visitors to the city.

The new bus station has been designed to increase the overall space for passengers in a light and airy setting, with a range of improved facilities. Investment in the new station will help to support businesses in their recovery from the pandemic by improving transport links, attracting visitors to Durham via the station and increasing footfall into the city centre.

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Old Elvet Bridge

Durham County Council has been working with businesses to reopen cafes and restaurants and to identify additional pavement space for tables and chairs. The objective is to provide visitors with a unique and safe opportunity to eat and drink in the historic heritage centre against the backdrop of Durham Cathedral.

In addition to the extra space allocated on Old Elvet Bridge, the council has also been liaising with ZapS and Tealicious to allocate additional space outside their businesses.

Four other businesses are also looking to use the bridge area: Tapas Factory, Tin of Sardines, Croissanterie and Tango Burger.

Each business will be allocated additional space or an extension of their agreed pavement space to place tables and chairs on the highway.

Individual businesses will be required to clean tables and chairs regularly; ensure seating arrangements comply with social distancing guidelines and avoid a detrimental impact on highway users. 

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Milburngate development

Phase one, involving the construction of 70 per cent of the entire Milburngate development, continued during the coronavirus outbreak with safe working measures in place.

It will feature nationally-recognised leisure operators including boutique cinema company Everyman, restaurant brands Bar + Block and Miller and Carter, and a 92-bed flagship Premier Inn hotel.

Alongside its premium leisure facilities, Milburngate will also incorporate 5,000sq.m of speculatively-built Grade A offices, creating capacity for more than 400 new jobs, and 153 built-to-rent apartments.

The structural steel erection of the Premier Inn Hotel is under way, along with the construction of the Everyman Cinema building and adjacent restaurant units.

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  • Visit County Durham has launched a staycation campaign showcasing all of the experiences across the county which have been worth the wait. The campaign will further support businesses and is the first step in recovery for the county's visitor economy. It can be found at Please also visit


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