When I visited at the end of last month, there was a palpable tension in the air at Bishop Auckland, as if a storm was about to break. The reason for this high-pressure zone was the much-anticipated reopening of the magnificent Auckland Castle.
Built by the Prince Bishops of Durham in the 12th century, Auckland served first as a hunting lodge and then a state residence. It was restored in the 18th century and stayed in the hands of the Church until 2010, when philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer stepped in, buying the castle, with its unique collection of Zurbarán paintings.
Ruffer founded the Auckland Project to restore the castle and found other attractions in the town, including a gallery of mining art and a faith museum.
Now, it’s all coming to pass. Alicia Nye, who owns Fifteas Vintage Tea Room on the town square with her sister Rebecca, said: “We opened because we knew all this was going to happen. We’ve been pushing it and pushing it, telling people, ‘Someone is investing their own money in Bishop Auckland, so we need to support it’.”
She concedes that there is quite a bit of negativity around Bishop Auckland. As with many small Northern towns, the 2008 financial crash hit hard, and it has struggled to recover. Still, there are shoots of growth. Independent book shops, florists, and gift shops are springing up, while the Auckland Project is creating jobs for locals – the castle’s on-site café is almost entirely run by former and current apprentices from the local school, for instance, (and they make the best gingerbread biscuits I have ever tasted).
There’s also Kynren, an enormous live outdoor pageant that takes place throughout August and early September. It’s a gallop through English history, with the aid of dozens of actors, battle recreations, live animals and even fireworks. The show opened in 2016 and has attracted 250,000 visitors to the town in that time alone.
Alicia remains hopeful that Bishop Auckland’s big break is just around the corner, and the castle will provide the influx of tourists this delightful little place needs. “It’s going to be the place to be,” she tells me, without a hint of doubt in her voice.
Five fine reasons to visit Bishop Auckland
The tea room
Those looking for a spot to relax after a long walk around the castle will love the retro charm of Fifteas. It’s designed to be a place where old and young can mix and stop in for a natter with a huge slice of cake, a cuppa and the music of Dean Martin, Doris Day, and Frank Sinatra.
The silent icon
Before he met Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel was a Bishop Auckland boy. He grew up in the town, and his parents owned a theatre there.
Nowhere else in the world will you find a gallery of artwork devoted entirely to miners and their work. The paintings extend from Victorian times all the way up to modern artists, such as Robert Olley (above), Tom McGuinness and Norman Cornish, and offer a glimpse into the back-breaking industry that powered Durham for decades.
Bought by Bishop Trevor in the mid-18th century, the castle’s artistic centrepiece is a set of 13 paintings depicting Jacob and His Twelve Sons (including Issachar), kitted out in a mixture of biblical costume and the sort of baroque finery that was in fashion when they were painted in the 1640s by Francisco Zurbarán – or most of them were (His Grace was outbid on the 13th painting, so one is a copy).
A wondrous sight, complete with its own enormous chapel, a bright pink throne room and collections of centuries-old art. Each room is themed around a particular bishop who lived there, taking visitors from the 12th century all the way to the modern day.
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