Giving history a new lease of life

November 5, 2019

Bishop Auckland is a town enjoying a cultural renaissance. Born from the vision of philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer to transform the town into a national and international tourist destination, The Auckland Project has embarked on a £150 million journey to turn Bishop Auckland’s most famous landmark, Auckland Castle, while introducing new attractions, such as a Spanish Art Gallery and Faith Museum. David Whetstone learns more about the conservation of Auckland Castle and how its revitalisation represents just a fraction of the changes in the town

From the upper platform of Auckland Tower, if you’ve a head for heights, you can see how history has shaped Bishop Auckland and get an unrivalled view of ambitious work in progress. The latter includes the Spanish Art Gallery – opening next year – and the Faith Museum, currently a metal exoskeleton attached to Auckland Castle.

The Tower, a grey wedge thrusting skywards from the Market Place, opened last year beside The Mining Art Gallery, whose 2017 opening attracted more than 1000 visitors.

As well as a vantage point, the Tower is the visitor centre and ticket office serving the attractions of The Auckland Project, whose £150 million investment marks a significant upturn in the fortunes of the Durham market town.

Its work began in 2012 after a dramatic rescue by philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, a financier with North East links.

Jacob and his Twelve Sons, an important series of paintings by 17th Century Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran, had been a castle fixture since Bishop Trevor bought them (well, most of them) in 1756.

When the Church Commissioners decided to sell, Jonathan stepped in to buy not only the paintings but also the castle, meaning they could stay together. And that was just the start. Since then, Bishop Auckland has enjoyed several red letter days. The next sees the re-opening of Auckland Castle, for 900 years principal home to the Prince Bishops of Durham. Perhaps ‘seat of power’ would be more apt, since in times past these Northern prelates enjoyed regal powers and privileges.

In pre-Tudor times they levied taxes, minted coins, oversaw justice and raised armies. In 1298, Bishop Antony Bek helped Edward I defeat the Scots at the battle of Falkirk.

You won’t find the Durham bishopric mentioned in the Domesday Book because at that time the taxes it yielded went not to the King but the Prince Bishop.

Auckland Castle is no longer the official residence although the current incumbent, Bishop Paul Butler, has an office there and services are still held in the chapel.

But anyone can see it throbs with stories, which is why a small party of journalists gathered for a preliminary snoop around. Susie Doyle, The Auckland Project’s head of development, set the scene, explaining that while “the wealth of our history over 1000 years” was the attraction, the motivating factor was the restoration of Bishop Auckland’s fortunes and those of its people.

“We want the future of the town to be as magnificent as the past,” she said.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund granted £12.4 million towards the refurbishment, which began three years ago, requiring temporary closure.

Previously, the castle attracted 30,000 visitors annually but only the chapel and state rooms were open to the public. There was a nice café in the library.

Now that the private quarters have been opened for the first time, the itinerary has doubled to include 14 rooms – with the new Bishop Trevor Gallery adding several more.

An audio-visual element has been introduced, paintings have been judiciously re-arranged and notable artefacts, some on loan, have been deployed to aid the narrative.

Our tour, led by Charlotte Grobler, curator at Auckland Castle, and Clare Baron, The Auckland Project’s head of exhibitions, began in the chapel, a banqueting hall until its 1660s consecration by Bishop John Cosin.

Only “conservation work” had been done here, said Charlotte. “It allows visitors to have a contemplative, quiet space.”

The colourful 17th Century ceiling is worth craning the neck for, while interred beneath are four bishops and a long-serving bishops’ butler. Bishops’ coats of arms stud the walls.

The first state room is the gentlemen’s hall. Once a thoroughfare, it now has a scenesetting animated film recalling the early days of the Prince Bishops projected on one wall.

Opposite is a portrait of Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall looking suitably pensive. As Bishop of Durham during the turbulent Tudor years and an advisor to Queen Catherine during Henry VIII’s divorce, he trod a precarious path.

Then it’s up the grand staircase to the ante room where we learn of Bishop Shute Barrington who, in 1791, commissioned architect James Wyatt to reboot the castle interior in Georgian gothic style.

The throne room got the full benefit. Portraits of all the bishops once hung here but now we get the look of the Barrington years. With most portraits gone, the walls blush authentic period pink.

In the adjacent long dining room, the splendid Zurbarans hang, the 12 originals purchased by Bishop Trevor and the copy he commissioned of the one that got away, Benjamin, which fell to a rival bidder.

Bishop Trevor supported the maligned Jews and his purchase of the portraits is seen as a bold gesture.

The private rooms are a delight, offering a glimpse of the bishops’ domestic lives. In the morning room, where Mary, wife of Bishop Handley Moule (1901-20), did her philanthropic work, an expanse of 1830s floral wallpaper was uncovered and is now back on view. Memories of tireless Bishop Ian Ramsey (1966-72) are sparked by a film from the archives, while Rebecca Jenkins was able to assist with the room dedicated to her father, the controversial but fondly remembered Bishop David Jenkins (1984-94), because it was her bedroom.

Relations with the miners, who for years filled the Prince Bishops’ coffers, depended on the incumbent. In the small drawing room, we learn how Bishop Westcott benignly ended a bitter strike in 1892.

The tour ends in the new, larger café where the Tudor servery uncovered during refurbishment is a splendid feature. Inevitably previous visitor figures will be eclipsed. Restoration of the castle’s walled garden proceeds while, elsewhere, The Auckland Project has plans for the town centre pub and hotel it owns.

Then there’s Kynren: An Epic Tale of England, the crowd-pulling summer pageant run by sister charity Eleven Arches and sustained by 1000 local volunteers.

It really is all go in Bishop Auckland.

Auckland Project
The castle re-opens on November 2 with a community open day. General admission starts the next day with the castle open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 4pm. Admission: £10 adults, £8 concessions and £3 under 16s.

A new Auckland Pass (£12.50, £10.50, £3 plus £28 family) permits multiple visits for a year to Auckland Castle, the Mining Art Gallery and Auckland Tower.

Tickets can be pre-booked via:

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Supporting role: Garry Holliday and Peter Crinnion