Surveying the ornate white plasterwork of the Throne Room in Auckland Castle – a neo-gothic riot of spires and curlicues designed in the 1790s by the fashionable and feckless James Wyatt – I hear the voice of my long departed grandmother tutting, “It’s all very pretty, but you wouldn’t want to be the one had to dust it”.
My gran had been a housemaid in the nearby mansion of a Durham mine owner. Her assessment of interiors was based on below-stairs practicalities. I think she would have enjoyed walking through the grand state rooms and domestic living quarters of the newly restored Auckland Castle, which opens to the public on 2 November.
The prince-bishops were once wealthy and powerful men. From the time of William the Conqueror until the parliamentary reforms of the 1830s, they ruled over the palatine county of Durham, a semi-autonomous state, minting their own coins, raising their own taxes and commanding a private army. The tour through 17 rooms subtly and imaginatively tells their story, highlighting the significant role they played in British and world affairs (campaigning for the abolition of slavery, warning of the rise of Hitler, arguing with Margaret Thatcher), while at the same time charting their gradual domestication – from battle-axes and caparisoned warhorses to TV, biscuits and Mumford and Sons.
It would certainly be a lot easier to run a vacuum round the snug sitting room of current Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, which concludes the tour, than it would be the Chapel of Saint Peter’s at the start of it. One of the largest private chapels in Europe, Saint Peter’s was created as a great hall in 1190 and expanded when Auckland Castle – a dozen miles south-west of Durham and near the rich hunting grounds of Weardale – became the preferred residence of the prince-bishops. It was converted to a place of worship by Bishop John Cosin following the Restoration, when he returned in triumph from his exile in France to find that parliamentarian commander Sir Arthur Haselrigs had blown the castle’s original two-storey chapel to smithereens – incensed by its idolatrous trappings. Cosin got his revenge on the Puritans, commissioning the ornately carved wooden screens and reredos, Frosterley marble columns and the solid silver, gilded altar set that sits on public display in the vestry. Take that, Cromwell.
The £12.4 million restoration of the castle is part of the Auckland Project, an ambitious £150 million regeneration scheme that already includes the Mining Art Gallery, a viewing tower and the Bishop Trevor Gallery, which is currently hosting the National Gallery’s Masterpiece touring exhibition (an Auckland Pass covers entry to all four, £12.50 adults, £3 children) as well as the open-air theatrical spectacular that is Kynren.
Over the next few years Bishop Auckland will also see the opening of a gallery of Spanish art; a Faith Museum; a study centre devoted to Francisco de Zurbarán (whose life-size Jacob and His Twelve Sons series adorns the walls of the castle’s long dining room); a new boutique hotel in Market Place; and a destination restaurant in the soon to be redeveloped 17th-century walled garden, designed by Japanese architects Saana. The aim is to make the town – the heart of the abandoned Durham coalfields – a tourist destination that holds people for a day or two rather than just a couple of hours. The scheme will create hundreds of entry-level jobs in a county that suffers high unemployment and has some of the most deprived areas in northern Europe.
It has certainly come a long way since local lad made good, Jonathan Ruffer, the man behind the Auckland Project, bought Auckland Castle in 2012. I’d last visited four years ago. Then the Georgian gothic exterior, with its flurry of turrets, arched windows and castellated screen walls, had a moribund air. Inside a musty scent prevailed. The back stairwells had flimsy doors, rickety partitions and municipal wallpaper, reminding me of the Bayswater hostel I’d lived in as a student. The views from the windows, however, made clear the grandeur that had once been the preserve of the prince-bishops. On one side the magnificent ancient woodland of the great deer park, on another the wide market square with its chateau-roofed town hall flanked by smoothly elegant 17th and 18th century buildings. There was a distinct continental edge to Bishop Auckland’s centre that years of cash-strapped neglect had not extinguished. It was a jewel badly in need of a polish. It seems to be getting one at last.