Bishop Auckland

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September 10th 2021
Published: October 10th 2021
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The bus journey from Durham to Bishop Auckland took about half an hour or so and it was a nice drive through some small towns, villages and the countryside. I loved all the green fields. The bus stops in the marketplace in Bishop Auckland and I got off there as it was near to the art gallery I would be visiting first. I had some time before my allotted visit so I took a bit of a walk around the town centre. I headed across the marketplace, which wasn't too busy. There were a few people sitting outside one of the cafes as the weather was nice. I took a walk up Bondgate, which is one of the streets adjacent. Since it was still early not all the shops and galleries were open, however it was still a nice little walk. I also headed down another street which seemed to have more of your bog standard shops on. Then it was back to the marketplace as it was time to visit the art gallery.

The Mining Art Gallery looked closed as the door that looks like the entrance was closed, however there was a sign pointing to the side door. I headed in and got checked in for my visit. An art gallery dedicated to mining sounds incredibly niche, but the pits were a massive part of the landscape, culture and economy of the Northeast and have had a lasting impact on the area, so I was intrigued to learn more about the artists as my limited knowledge only really consisted of Norman Cornish, a local Spennymoor artist. First, there is a great timeline at the start of the gallery which a brief outline of mining history and mining art. Just across the way, there was a beautiful quote by Tom McGuinness about painting about what you know and, I think, what you love and this makes more real and relatable to you and the viewer. I really wish I'd been able to take a photo of the quote but photography is forbidden in the gallery. There was some of his work and also that of Henry Perlee Parker, who is known as the father of Social Realism.

I headed into the first main room, which contained some paintings and quite a bit of information. I was shocked reading about George Bissill, a forgotten pitman painter of Derbyshire, who had hoped that joining up in the First World War would take him away from a life underground. However, he was buried alive in a tunnel while working near Béthune in France when a tunnel collapsed. What really shocked me was that after the war he had to go back to the mines to work. I can't even imagine how traumatic that must have been. I also learnt about the Spennymoor Settlement, which was set up by the Farrells in 1931 to provide a community centre in Spennymoor. It provided a range of recreational, education and welfare activities for the unemployed. The Settlement wanted to provide community through neighbourliness and social services, and also allow its members to become more knowledgeable and creative. It is particularly renown for its drama and art and helping to foster talent in Norman Cornish, Herbert Dees, Tom McGuinness and Sid Chaplin.

Just before you walked into the next room, there was a picture of a miner on the wall and the noise of a drip, drip, drip. Also, this little corridor was quite dimly lit. It gave some insight into the atmosphere that the miners would have faced down the mine. It was great how they utilised this space to add an extra element to the gallery. The next room contained pictures depicting what it was like to work down the mines and also had some artefacts on display such as miners' helmets and bait boxes (lunchboxes). This room was quite dark which added to the atmosphere of what it would have been like to have been down the pits. The third room was dedicated to the work of Norman Cornish and another artist whose name I've forgotten. I know Norman Cornish was a product of the Spennymoor Settlement, but I can't remember about the other artist. Their paintings were great as they showed the miners in their leisure time such as at the pub. I also really liked the painting of the snowy streets of wintry Spennymoor. It looked cold but cosy.

I headed upstairs. There were two rooms here containing paintings by Bob Olley, a miner turned artist from South Shields. This was just a visiting exhibition on loan from the museum in South Shield, which has now been added to my list of places to visit. I really liked all the paintings I saw. The pictures of backyards and lanes with washing hanging out really captured the past and everyday life back then. There were explanations of mining etiquette next to the pictures so that you could learn about what went on in the scenes such as the passing of cigarettes from miners just about to start their shifts to those who had just finished in Shift Change. Also the form and shape of some of the miners in Olley's paintings reminded me of Soviet propaganda art with the well muscled miners taking centre stage in the paintings. The paintings didn't sugar coat things as the one filled with rats, showed another grim aspect of being a miner; having to work alongside all those creatures. I also liked the bathhouse pictures showing the miners getting ready to go out and enjoy themselves after work. All in all, I really enjoyed the gallery. It was interesting to see local art produced by local artists that I hadn't heard of, and also see a time that is now over.

Since I still had a bit of time before my entry to Auckland Castle, I decided to head over there and take a walk around the Deer Park on the estate as this is open to the public for free any time. It was a very short walk from the museum to the Clock Tower at the entrance to the castle. There was a member of staff there who was very helpful and pointed me in the right direction of the deer park and also told me a bit about the clock tower, which dates back to around 1760. It was designed for the Bishop Richard Trevor by Sir Thomas Robinson. The Clock Tower has recently undergone restoration and when that was happening, they found out that the bell in the tower dates even further back, to the 12th century. He also pointed out a new building that was under construction which is to be a faith museum once it is completed. There is a real sense of regeneration and investment going on in Bishop Auckland to make it more attractive and to encourage visitors. I walked past the walled garden and the entrance to the castle.

I came to the gate at the entrance to the Deer Park and that was a bit of a bugger to open. The bloke coming the other way said that you needed a masters degree to open it and I don't think he was wrong, from the side I was on the angles were impossible, so I let the people on the other side do it. I followed the track down the hill walking near to the castle castle and getting some glimpses of Auckland Castle. I came to a fork in the path and couldn't remember which one the guide had told me to take for the Deer House, so I took the left track. This took me down a track past a field filled with sheep lounging in the shade of a tree. The views of the surrounding countryside were gorgeous. It was all so lush and green. I passed a woman sitting on a bench having her lunch. It was the perfect spot for it. I came to a small bridge that crossed a small river. I had a walk on it to look up and down the river, the views weren't that great. There was also a gate on the other side of the bridge, so I didn't go any further. Instead I took the uphill path next to the river to reach the deer house. It was lovely looking at the deer house in the sun with the trees framing it as I walked up the path. The deer house had been built in 1767 by Trevor, the Bishop of Durham. It was built to provide shelter for the deer that roamed the park. It's a pretty nice structure, I wonder if the deer appreciated it. You can't go into the deer house, so I just took a walk around the perimeter. It was nice to wander in the sun.

I headed back to the castle as it was almost my timed entrance time. The staff were all very helpful. The bloke at the entrance gate gave me a brief overview and then the woman that signed me in explained the way around the castle. The ticket price is quite expensive at £10 as you only get to see a few rooms of the castle, but there has been a lot of restoration work going on, the castle was only reopened to the public in 2019, and it must cost a fortune to maintain the place. Auckland Castle and its history dates back to the 12th century. It had previously just been a deer park, but Bishop Hugh Pudsey, Bishop of Durham established a manor house there. The castle was used as a retreat for bishops needing to escape the pressures of their job. Later, Bishop Bek relocated from Durham Castle to have Auckland Castle as his main residence. Bishops in Durham were not just bishops but were known as Prince Bishops as they wielded as almost as much power as the monarchy. The Prince Bishops were commissioned to defend the monarchy on the Scotland England border.

The first place I headed was St. Peter's Chapel. It has been a continuous place of worship for around 350 years. In 1665, Bishop Cosin had it created from the remains of the medieval great hall. The chapel isn't very big in length, but is in height. The chapel itself is quite plain apart from the stained glass windows and the ceiling. The windows were bright and colourful depicting religious scenes. I think the sun helped to brighten them up. The ceiling is so high because when Bishop Cosin was renovating the medieval hall into the chapel, he raised the ceiling to almost 20 metres. Also, he commissioned the vividly painted woodwork as a display of the Prince Bishops' power and authority. A lot of the original paintwork was removed on the orders of Bishop Barrington in the 1790s and no further colour was added until the 1980s when the ceiling was repaired and repainted. I loved the really high windows that let all light in too. Back out in the corridor, there were some pretty stained glass windows.

I made my way to the Gentleman's Hall, where there was a short video playing on a loop that explained the role and power of the Prince Bishops. I headed up the stairs and headed through the waiting room to the Bishop Trevor Gallery. The gallery is named after Richard Trevor, who was Bishop from 1752 to 1771. The exhibition currently in the gallery is Beauty in the Everyday: Dutch and Flemish Masters at Auckland Castle. I enjoyed walking around the exhibition and seeing paintings. I really loved the paintings of fish just lying on the table waiting to be used in a meal. I also liked the landscape paintings as it was nice to see different places. After looking round the gallery, I headed back to the waiting room that visitors used while waiting for their audience with the Bishop. The guide there (and also all the other guides in each room) was super informative and told me a bit about the room. The restoration project appears to have been done really well with each room being painted the exact same shade it had been in the past.

I entered the Throne Room, which was where the Bishop sat and conducted his business. The Bishop's throne was on a raised platform so that he was above the people. There were also paintings of 4 of the previous bishops hanging on the walls. I think the room was also used for parties. The guide told me that the large rug there now was made by the same firm that makes Wetherspoons' carpets. I suppose they are used to making heavy duty carpets that will take a good battering. There were also small pineapples on the door handles as pineapples had been grown in the castle's garden. I made my way through to the Long Dining Room. In the centre of the room, there was a long table set out as if a banquet was taking place. I liked seeing what they would have eaten back in the day. One of the guides in the room told me about Francisco de Zurbaran's paintings of Jacob and his Twelve Sons that adorn the walls. These had been purchased by Bishop Richard Trevor, however he wasn't able to purchase them all and had to have a reproduction of one of the paintings made and this cost him almost as much as the incomplete set of the originals.

I was a bit surprised that after the Dining Hall, that was it. There wasn't anything more to see as the rooms upstairs were roped off. I headed down to the café and got an iced coffee, which I enjoyed in the courtyard. It was a really nice area to sit, relax and have a drink. I then headed out to look around the grounds. There were some great views of the countryside and of the castle and chapel wing. It's a really beautiful building. My trip to Bishop Auckland was good. I really enjoyed the museum and the castle and got to learn some more about the area.

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