AFTER a while, there is only so much mud and sploshing you can take on a country walk, and so for our last outing of the holiday season, we took a tarmacked stroll around the Wear in the middle of Durham City.

With the cathedral looming majestically above our heads on its wooded banks, and our feet below warm and dry, this riverside walk is every bit as satisfying as a day in the sodden Dales, and the entry into the city over the treetop Kingsgate bridge is practically as exhilarating as summiting any peak.

The Northern Echo: The cafe is in a courtyard where two vennels meet

We then dined at Vennels, a cafe enveloped in the heart of the city – it is approached by two narrow alleyways that run from Saddler Street and converge on a courtyard in which there are parasols, a patio heater and blankets for those brave enough to dine outside in January. In these virus-stricken days, on Sunday all tables were taken.

The café itself is in a dark, 16th Century building, and you wait in line to place your order and collect your food.

The Northern Echo: Vibrant sandwiches, pies and cakes on display at the Vennels counter

The queue gives you time to contemplate the menu – fabulous and inventive sandwiches, like ham, cheese and caramelised onion and mornay sauce, or roasted beets, feta and garlic mayo; some stirring soups like Durham Ham Broth; plenty of homemade pies and quiches and a fine array of cakes – and the meaning of the word “vennel”.

The Northern Echo: The entrance to the vennel that leads to Vennels Cafe

Vennel is a Scottish word, found from Aberdeen down to Perth and Edinburgh, meaning an alleyway – perhaps its origin is from the Latin for “vein”, or perhaps, like a ginnel, it comes from a channel. Most of the North East, from Lindisfarne to Newcastle and Chester-le-Street, uses the word “chare” for its alleyways, but south of Bishop Auckland – where there are four chares – the alleyways of Darlington, Richmond and Bedale are known as “wynds”. Durham is caught in two minds: it has a chare but it is also the only place in England to use “vennels” for its city centre alleyways.

“That is a very good choice; they are fantastic,” said the lady at the till in Vennels, awaking me from my etymological contemplation, as Theo, my son, ordered a Roadside Steak Burger. It came with “lots of fried onions, oozing with cheese” (£8.50), as opposed to its Poolside companion which came with “sliced cheese, raw salad, yellow mustard and ketchup”. Seconds later word came from the kitchen that there were no burgers. Instead, amid profuse apologies, he took a Parma ham and Swiss cheese baguette (£6.50).

Petra, my wife, took a bowl of spicy sweet potato and red pepper soup plus a “stinky stilton scone” (£4.50 plus £2.50), whereas I chose the most expensive item on the menu: the Vennels Important Picnic (£12.50).

The Northern Echo: The fireplace upstairs in Vennels with Johnny Walker striding across the top

The fireplace upstarirs in the historic Vennels

Rather than brave the outside, we carried our food up the wooden stairs, which creaked like a ship in storm, to the characterful first floor rooms where the floor pitched and tossed so you felt like you were walking on the deck of that rolling ship. We sat on old chapel chairs with pouches on the back for hymn books and at tables which still had the treadles for sewing machines on them. We gazed out at a fascinating hotch-potch of centuries-old bricks, stones, slates, tiles and windows in the buildings that line the vennel.

The Northern Echo: Theo's Parma ham and Swiss cheese sandwich

Theo’s baguette (above) was soft, well filled and quickly consumed. Petra considered her bowl a good winter soup, with a bit of heat but she could still taste both the potato and the pepper (below). Her scone had a full-on stilton flavour with a pleasant waft of mouldy socks to it.

The Northern Echo: Petra's spicy sweet potato and red pepper soup with a stinky stillton scone

The Northern Echo: VIP: Vennels' Important Picnic - a panoply of pickles

My picnic (above) was huge. I got two slices of a corned beef and potato pie, a slice of spinach and cheese quiche, a bun of cheddar cheese and onion marmalade, plus a warm sausage, a roll of ham and a bowl of pickles: sliced gherkins, a vinegary egg and an onion bigger than a golf ball which defied all attempts to spear it with a fork. At the first effort, it rolled off around the plate; at the second, it bounced onto the table. Fearing it would soon be on the floor, I pinned it with my fingers and pushed into it with my knife, but the middle of it shot out onto Theo’s plate, like a torpedo from its launching tube.

I had chosen the picnic because I couldn’t make my mind up between the pies and the sandwiches, and my indecision was rewarded: a homely pie, substantial quiche, plus a touch of sweetness from the marmalade. It was a pickle lovers paradise, although if I had been compiling it, I would have been more parsimonious with the pickles and added a flash of mustard for the ham and perhaps a dollop of chutney.

Nevertheless, it kept me going all day.

The Northern Echo: Chocolate cake

We had had the foresight to collect a couple of cakes when we were at the counter – the family on the table opposite hadn’t so rejoined the end of the queue and were away all the time I was grappling with my gargantuan picnic – and shared a very good chocolate one (£3.50) (above) and an excellent gluten-free orange and almond one (£4) (below), which was quite puddingy for a cake but retained both of its delicate flavours.

The Northern Echo: Orange and almond cake

Our bill for three, with drinks, came to £43.20. The queues to Vennels may demand a bit of a wait, but the food is fresh, vibrant and, for a café, imaginative, and the historic building is a joy to be in – if you can find it at the end of those whateveryoucallems: wynds, chares, alleys, ginnels or vennels.

Vennels Cafe

Food quality: 8

Ambience: 9

Service: 7

Value for money: 8

Vennels Cafe,
Saddlers Yard, Saddler Street, Durham DH1 3NP
Phone: 0191-375-9635 (no table reservations)