Silver Street in Durham has issues facing many UK high streets. In the first of a series of special reports, we ask North East historian David Simpson for his views on this important street.

SILVER Street, at the heart of Durham is full of potential character and one of the oldest thoroughfares in the ancient city, tracing its origins back to medieval times, writes David Simpson.

Old streets in historic places like Durham are often filled with quaint and charming shops but a recent wander along the course of this little street left me saddened by its run-down nature and struck by the unwelcome abundance of empty boarded-up shops along its short and narrow course.

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If you think of York, you might picture thriving streets with a long legacy of history, full of character and charm like the famous Shambles but Durham’s narrow Silver Street sadly seems to be a ‘shambles’ of a quite different kind; a shambles of neglect and decay.

The Northern Echo: In a stroll down Durham’s Silver Street, historian David Simspon was saddened to see empty, neglected and decaying properties 			               Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

It’s not all bad of course – there are several outlets in the street that do have great charm and certainly do meet the expectations of the historic setting. It’s notable that some of these are independent businesses.

It must be deeply disheartening for hard-working enterprises to find their efforts denigrated by empty, neglected and poorly maintained properties on their doorstep. I would suggest that with a degree of will, effort and action from both the council and property owning landlords this could become a thriving street.

Durham is one of the gems of North East England, often high on the list for visitors to the region. The cathedral and castle form a beautiful World Heritage site set in a wooded landscape, enveloped by the winding River Wear at the heart of which are narrow streets and vennels that are the very DNA of the place.

Durham is one of the front windows to the world not just for the County of Durham but for North East England and for Britain in general. The city is after all the home to one of the nation’s most magnificent buildings but what sort of impression does a streetscape of this kind give to the world?

The Northern Echo: Picture: DAVID SIMPSONPicture: DAVID SIMPSON

It may only be a small city in size, more akin to a small town but this makes it all the more important that Durham works effectively with what it has.

I personally welcome some of the new developments in the city but at Durham’s core there are no more than four or five short central streets, three of which have deep historic roots, feeding the little market place at the heart of Durham’s centre.

Silver Street is one such street, linking the market place to Framwellgate Bridge in the shadow of the great castle with splendid views along the river. It is only a short street of around 40 properties but it is a primary street that plays a crucial role in Durham’s image.

In my wander along the street I noted ten empty properties, a number of which are substantial in size and several are boarded up. Some look in a very sorry state, resembling in places the run down outer city centre fringes you might expect to find in a much larger industrial city. Sadly, even one of the occupied shops in Silver Street has a notice of impending closure.

The Northern Echo: Picture: DAVID SIMPSONPicture: DAVID SIMPSON

Of course, empty shop units are by no means a problem unique to Durham but some places are successfully instigating the urban revival of their existing core heritage. The recent pleasing retail developments at Mackie’s Corner in the heart of Sunderland is a good case in point in a city that has seen some superb re-developments of core heritage features such as the Peacock public house and neighbouring old Sunderland fire station, now converted into one of the region’s most impressive performance venues.

We could also mention the innovative and focused approach that Stockton-on-Tees has had to the life of its town centre or the revitalised centre of Bishop Auckland. All of these developments have resulted from considerable investment of course.

Durham faces challenges like everywhere else but some of its competitors might wonder why a place with such obvious natural assets and a relative affluence can host such a sorry looking street at its very core.

The old name of Silver Street has a debated meaning. One theory is that it derives from the presence of silver smiths or a bishop’s mint, another theory is that it signifies the approach to the beautiful sylvan woodland of the Durham river banks.

The Northern Echo: A timber-framed building in Silver Street. Picture: DAVID SIMPSONA timber-framed building in Silver Street. Picture: DAVID SIMPSON

Whether its name is rooted in the riches of monetary abundance or in the heritage of a wooded landscape, Silver Street’s image has become something of a ‘Penny-Poor Way’.

Across the country there much discussion about the roots and solutions to town centre challenges. Economy, poor planning or the indifference of distant landlords to civic responsibility could be part of the problem.

More obviously, competition from online retail and out of town shopping is certainly a factor and ‘expensive’ parking is often cited too, but I feel a sense that whatever the causes and solutions Durham could be doing much better.

* David Simpson writes about the history, culture, places and people of the North East on his website,

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