During the Middle Ages, the county was an ecclesiastical centre, due largely to the presence of St Cuthbert's shrine in Durham Cathedral, and the extensive powers granted to the Bishop of Durham as ruler of the County Palatine of Durham. The county has a mixture of mining, farming and heavy railway heritage, with the latter especially noteworthy in the southeast of the county, in Darlington, Shildon and Stockton It is an area of regeneration and promoted as a tourist destination; in the centre of the city of Durham, Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral are a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site.
Many counties are named after their principal town, and the expected form here would be Durhamshire, but this form has never been in common use. The ceremonial county is officially named Durham, but the county has long been commonly known as County Durham and is the only English county name prefixed with "County" in common usage (the practice is common in Ireland). Its unusual naming (for an English shire) is explained to some extent by the relationship with the Bishops of Durham, who for centuries governed Durham as a county palatine (the County Palatine of Durham), outside the usual structure of county administration in England.
The situation regarding the formal name in modern local government is less clear. The structural change legislation which in 2009 created the present unitary council (that covers a large part – but not all – of the ceremonial county) refers to "the county of County Durham" and names the new unitary district "County Durham" too. However, a later amendment to that legislation, refers to the "county of Durham" and the amendment allows for the unitary council to name itself "The Durham Council". In the event the council retained the name of Durham County Council. With either option, the name does not include County Durham.
The ceremonial county of Durham is administered by four unitary authorities. The ceremonial county has no administrative function, but remains the area to which the Lord Lieutenant of Durham and the High Sheriff of Durham are appointed.