The Auckland Project aims to completely transform and revitalise the town of Bishop Auckland in North East England. Bishop Auckland was once one of the most important places in northern England with it being the country home of the Prince Bishops of Durham and The Auckland Project has put Bishop Auckland back on the map. Read on to find out exactly why you need to visit The Auckland Project.
I recently spent a lovely August Sunday exploring the attractions of the Auckland Project in Bishop Auckland, a town just outside of Durham in the North East of England. Whilst being just a short drive away, I have to admit that I haven’t spent much time in Bishop Auckland save for trips to the retail parks on the outskirts so I was over the moon to visit the Auckland Project to experience the transformation of the town for myself.
I was very kindly provided with an All Access Pass courtesy of the Auckland Project to visit alongside my wife and little Evelyn but all opinions expressed in this guide are my own.
Brief History of Bishop Auckland
Bishop Auckland is a small town almost halfway between the city of Durham and Barnard Castle. It’s history dates back to Roman times with a fort at nearby Binchester (called Vinovia) which protected the Dere Street crossing of the River Wear. Since 1183, the Prince Bishops of Durham had their country home here which later transformed into Auckland Castle. Durham was strategically and politically very important (to protect England’s northern frontier and quell any rebellions) and so, as long as the Prince Bishop remained loyal to the King of England, he had the right to raise an army, mint his own coins and levy taxes. It was essentially its own state so you could argue that the Prince Bishop was the original King of the North. The Bishop of Durham still to this day has his office at Auckland Castle.
Bishop Auckland was also situated on the southern boundary of the Great Northern Coalfield. This is prime coal mining territory which sadly means that the whole area declined significantly with the closure of the mines. Whilst some villages and towns are no doubt still suffering after being built on the back of the industrial revolution, Bishop Auckland stands out for good reason. This is where the Auckland Project comes in.
The Auckland Project
The Auckland Project is a charity with a mission to regenerate Bishop Auckland and transform it into a heritage tourist destination. From the Auckland Castle to the Spanish Gallery to the historic railway from Bishop Auckland to Eastgate, the Auckland Project has purchased and revitalised attractions across the local area. What a job they are doing too; this small area in the north east of England is a place that is more than on the up.
Now that we’ve had a little introduction, let’s dive right in to what you can expect from a visit to the Auckland Project along with plenty of photos.
A GUIDE TO VISITING THE AUCKLAND PROJECT
Arriving in Bishop Auckland, the first place you’ll want to head to is the Auckland Tower. The Auckland Tower stands 29-metres tall above the market place and is the perfect introduction to both the Auckland Project and the town itself. You can buy your tickets here and grab a guidebook before heading to the viewing platform for great views across Auckland Park, the town and the countryside that surrounds. For someone with a fear of heights, it did take a few attempts to make it to the end of the little platforms that seem to float out into mid-air. On the first floor, take a few moments to read the informative boards that set the scene for the rest of your day.
You can see from the photos that the tower is clearly designed to stand out. Whilst extremely modern, the inspiration is anything but; a siege engine butting up against the castle fortifications. It’s definitely a love it or hate it piece of architecture and I’m in the love it camp.
After climbing the tower, you’ll want to walk through the gatehouse to the star attraction in Bishop Auckland, the Auckland Castle. Having recently reopened after an extension restoration, you are now able to discover close to 1,000 years of history right here. From one of the largest private chapels in Europe, you will walk from room to room experiencing the lives of Bishops of Durham. My favourite rooms were the grand throne room and the dining room which contains 12 of the 13 original lifesized paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons by Francisco de Zurbaran (dating back to 1641). In the throne room, you can dress up and immediately transform yourself into a Prince Bishop complete with a robe and a hat. I did get involved in a very information conversation with one of the helpful guides before slowly trying to take my Bishop’s hat off to look a bit more normal; I have no idea how the poor lady could take me seriously.
Walled Garden / Deer Park
Dating back to the 17th century, the Walled Garden opposite the Auckland Castle have been redeveloped and now fresh vegetables are grown here for their restaurant and cafes. It’s a lovely garden to walk around though quite steep in places.
It’s more mentioning that you could walk further past the Auckland Castle to the Deer Park (free, open dawn to dusk) with 150 acres of parkland. I haven’t seen any deer but the Deer House was built as a place to shelter and feed the deer for hundreds of years.
Mining Art Gallery
As I mentioned earlier, coal mining was everything for the people of the North East of England for many years. The Mining Art Gallery in Bishop Auckland brings together collections of artwork depicting life in the coal mines. There are over 420 works in the gallery including many by Norman Cornish (the North East’s equivalent of LS Lowry). The current exhibition upstairs in the gallery is ‘Unity is Strength: Durham Miner’s Gala’ and can be seen until 30 December 2022. I really enjoyed the bright, sometimes photo realistic, artworks that capture the Durham Miner’s Gala from the first meeting onwards.
As I mentioned earlier, Auckland Castle has been home to the famous paintings of Jacob and His Twelve Sons for hundreds of years but that isn’t the only Spanish painting in the small town. The UK’s first gallery dedicated to the Spanish Golden Age of art is right here in Bishop Auckland. I’ll admit I’m not really one for art but you couldn’t not be impressed with the quality of works on show here. I found that many of the paintings were quite dark in that they depicted death, a lot of death.
Until 4th December 2022, you could see two very famous pieces of artwork; Salvador Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross (even I’ve heard of it!) and El Greco’s Christ on the Cross.
In keeping with the Spanish theme, El Castillo, a new Tapas Bar, brings the taste of Spain to Bishop Auckland. There’s nothing like this in the local area so I can imagine that El Castillo will remain ever popular. The food is excellent, and I mean that, I was really impressed. We went with the Croquetas de jamon serrano (crispy deep-fried potato & cured ham with chorizo ailoli), Crispy Chicken Wings with Romesca, Chorizo a la sidra (chorizo simmered in cider with Breaking Bread sourdough) and a selection of Spanish Cured Meats. The full menu is here and I’ve no doubt there’ll be plenty of small plates that take your fancy.
More To See
Kynren – The most epic tale of the history of England set in the open air of the Durham countryside. A show you cannot miss!
Weardale Railway – An 18 mile heritage railway line between Bishop Auckland and Eastgate with 6 miles re-opened using 1960’s passenger trains. You can currently travel between Stanhope and Wolsingham in the Durham Dales.
Two Day All Access Pass – £30 Adult, £15 Child, £45 1 Adult & up to 4 Children, £75 2 Adults and up to 4 Children
Spanish Gallery – £14 Adult, £7 Child (under 4’s free)
Auckland Castle – £14 Adult, £7 Child (under 4’s free)
Mining Art Gallery – £7 Adult, £3 Child (under 4’s free)
Between now and 31 March 2023, all attractions are open from Wednesday to Sunday 11am to 4pm (apart from 3 November to 18 December when it closes at 3pm). For up to date opening times, I’d recommend checking the website here.
The El Castillo Tapas Restaurant is open Wednesday to Sunday; 11am to 5pm (Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday) with last orders at 4pm & 11am to 10pm (Friday and Saturday) with last orders at 9pm. I’d highly recommend booking a table just to be on the safe side!
Getting Here & Parking
Bishop Auckland is only a short distance from the A1; you would just come off at Junction 60 before heading due west on the A689. It’s very easy to get to if you’re driving. For parking, the best paid car park is probably North Bondgate (DL14 7PG) which is only a short walk away. You can park for free on Durham Road if you time it right and its a stones throw from the Auckland Project.
From Durham, whether you’re local or fancy a train ride on the East Coast main line, you can get the number 6 bus through to Bishop Auckland or there are local trains from Darlington that you can catch too.
READ MORE FROM MY ADVENTURES AROUND THE UK HERE
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