Bishop Auckland area

Bishop Auckland

Bishop Auckland or ‘Bishop’, as it is sometimes affectionately known to locals is situated at the confluence of the River Wear and the little River Gaunless. An important market town since Medieval times it grew in the nineteenth century as a centre for the coal mining district of south west Durham.

Bishop Auckland gateway
Old postcard showing gateway linking market place to the castle at Bishop Auckland

The early history of the town is centred around Auckland Park and Castle which was a principal residence of the Bishops of Durham for centuries. The history of Bishop Auckland goes back to much earlier times however and although its later medieval name ‘Auckland’ can be interpreted as ‘land of oaks’ it arose from an earlier name ‘Alclit’ that has Celtic orgins deriving from Allt Clud and thought to allude to an older name for the Gaunless.

The Gaunless is a name of Viking origin and despite the lovely scenery formed by this little river it has the rather unflattering meaning ‘useless’. Perhaps it was too slow to work a mill or was a little short on fish at the time it was named.

Place-name experts have concluded that the earlier name for the river is found in ‘Allt Clud’ and that the Gaunless was once called the ‘Clyde’. Allt Clud meaning ‘cliff on the Clyde’ is thought to have been the centre of an extensive Celtic estate encompassing much of the Wear Valley and came to be known in later medieval times as Aucklandshire.

Gateway Bishop Auckland
Gateway Bishop Auckland Photo © David Simpson

Bishop Auckland Market Place

A Gothic style gateway leads from the market place into the Auckland Castle grounds. Replacing a succession of earlier gatehouses on the site, it was built in 1760 by SirThomas Robinson of Rokeby Hall in Teesdale for Bishop Trevor but it is not the only building of note in  the town’s centre.

The central streets and market place have a medieval layout. Here old street-names include Bondgate (historically Fore Bondgate, Back Bondgate and High Bondgate) while other old streets and lanes include Castle Chare, Wear Chare, Finkle Street and Silver Street. The oldest thoroughfare is however Newgate which predates the town as it follows the course of the Roman Road of Dere Street. This was the main Roman road from York to Hadrian’s Wall and beyond to Caledonia. The Roman fort of Vinovia at Binchester lies just outside Bishop Auckland to the north.

One of the most prominent buildings in the market place is Bishop Auckland Town Hall (or sometimes BATH for short), a handsome French Gothic style building dating to the 1860s and a venue for music events and exhibitions.

Bishop Auckland Town Hall
Bishop Auckland Town Hall Photo © David Simpson

At number 42 Market Place is a craft workshop venue and gallery simply called ‘No. 42’ where the work of local artists can be viewed and purchased. Number 45 Market Place is home to a superb mining gallery with exhibitions showing the work of pitmen painters like Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness.

A new landmark to complement the Town Hall and other buildings  in the market place is Auckland Tower, a modern building that serves as a starting point for visitors to the town. The architecture of the structure is partly inspired by medieval siege towers.

Away from the market place other prominent landmarks include the Newton Cap Viaduct of 1857. It was a railway viaduct until its closure in the 1960s. In the 1990s it was adapted as a road bridge  bringing the A689 into Bishop Auckland in grand style as well as forming part of the Brandon to Bishop Auckland railway walk.

Just to the west and also crossing the River Wear is Bishop Auckland’s historic stone bridge, thought to have been built by Bishop Skirlaw in the 1400s. A Roman bridge was once sited somewhere to the east of Newton Cap.

Bishop Auckland is approximately half way between the popular tourist towns of Durham City and Barnard Castle but has often been overlooked by visitors in the past despite its beautiful castle, its handsome parkland and historic town centre. This was perhaps due to a degree of blight during the mining era but the place is starting to shine through.

Recent investment in Bishop Auckland has seen a major revival and the town is revealing its charms and beginning to fulfil its potential, with the new galleries and the establishment of the spectacular Kynren event that attracts thousands of summer visitors to the town. Like the town itself, the beautiful Auckland Castle has also seen significant investment and is being developed as an attraction that remains in keeping with its beauty and historic status.

Auckland Castle

Auckland Castle, also called Auckland Palace, began as a manor house belonging to the Durham bishops situated on the attractive ridge of land at the confluence of the Gaunless and Wear.

Perhaps in existence from the time of the Norman conquest, if not before, the manor dated back to medieval times. The Prince Bishops of Durham owned a number of manor houses and castles that reflected their important status.

Auckland Castle
Auckland Castle : Photo © David Simpson

The bishops’ castles included Durham Castle; Bishop Middleham Castle and Bishopton Castle, both near Sedgefield and the castle at Stockton-on-Tees. Further north at Norham in ‘Norhamshire’ on the River Tweed they owned Norham Castle and in North Yorkshire they owned the castle of Crayke.

The bishops owned manor houses at Auckland, Evenwood and Darlington while in Yorkshire their manors were situated at Riccall, Howden and Northallerton. Durham House on the Strand was the London residence of the Prince Bishops. Of the manors only Auckland survives.

Around 1183 Bishop Hugh Pudsey is thought to have been one of the first to build a residence on the site at Auckland but this was later converted into a castle by Bishop Anthony Bek in the 1300s.  Bek castellated the building and created a great hall but it wasn’t recorded as a castle until the late 1400s in the time of Bishop John Sherwood. It was about this time that Auckland superseded  Bishop Middleham as the primary residence of the bishops.

There were renovations and reconstructing in later years by Bishop Cosin in the 1600s but much of the building as we see it today dates to the 1700s and the eras of Bishops Richard Trevor and Shute Barrington.

Entering the castle from the gateway that looks out on the market place the first thing we notice are the arches of a Gothic screen wall built by James Wyatt in 1796 along with an inner gateway, It sets the scene for the castle’s overall 18th century Gothic style with signifcant portions of the castle dating to the 1600s and the former great hall now the beautiful chapel dating to the 12th century and the time of Bishop Hugh Du Puiset.

Auckland Castle
Auckland Castle Photo © David Simpson

Auckland Castle’s new Spanish Gallery is a significant attraction for Bishop Auckland making the region the home to the largest collection of Spanish art outside London. The star attractions are the Francisco De Zurbarán paintings of the castle’s great hall. The  Bowes Museum’s collection at Barnard Castle and this collection at Bishop Auckland make south west Durham a focal point for European works of art of international importance.

Another exciting new development at the castle is an extension currently being built that will be home to the first museum in England to explore the history of faith in Britain and Ireland. The project has been developed under advisory guidance from academics at the British Museum and the Universities of Durham, Cambridge, York and  Newcastle.

Outside, the castle’s walled garden first developed by Bishop Cosin in the 1600s and re-landscaped in the 1750s is undergoing a new restoration and revival and will include a new walled garden restaurant. The charming Gothic style Deer House  of 1767 in the castle’s park is one of the most interesting features of the grounds.

Anthony Bek, a hunting and fighting bishop

Anthony Bek (1284 – 1311), was the great hunting and fighting Bishop of Durham, who favoured Auckland palace, rather than Durham Castle as his main residence because of its proximity to the hunting grounds of Weardale. The Bishop took a keen interest in military affairs, as well as hunting and was always ready and willing to lead his army into battle against the Scots, as at the Battle of Falkirk in 1300.

Like Hugh Pudsey, an earlier Bishop of Durham, Bek was not shy of controversy and on one occasion he even became involved in a dispute with the Archbishop of York, after refusing orders to excommunicate some Durham monks.

The Archbishop of York was so infuriated that he decided to excommunicate, not the monks, but Bishop Bek himself. Bek was not to be defeated so easily and persuaded the king to reinstate him on the grounds that an Archbishop had no right to excommunicate a `Prince Bishop’ without the permission of the king.

Binchester fort and Escomb church

The Roman road of Dere Street passes through Bishop Auckland in a striking straight line as Watling Road, Cockton Hill Road and Newgate Street. This led to the Roman fort of Binchester, the site of which lies above a loop of the River Wear to the north of  Auckland Park. In Roman times Binchester was called Vinovia which means ‘a pleasant spot’. The remains of the fort, which cover an area of 10 acres has been excavated and includes one of the best examples of a Roman hypocaust (a central heating system) to be found in Britain.

Many of the stones from the Roman fort at Binchester were used in the construction of what may be Britain’s oldest church at Escomb a mile to the west of Bishop Auckland.

A pretty and somewhat humble looking building of Anglo-Saxon origin it has been described by the great architectural authority, Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘one of the most important and moving survivals of the architecture of the time of Bede’. The early history of Escomb and why it should have survived is a mystery.

Legend of the Pollard Brawn

Legend has it that at some time in the middle ages the Bishop Auckland area was the haunt of a huge, ferocious brawn (or boar), which terrorised this part of the Wear valley in much the same way as the Lambton worm at Chester-le-Street. Many attempts had been made to kill this dangerous beast, but all had failed, so the Bishop of Durham offered an unspecified reward for anyone who could rid the local countryside of the terrible creature.

Richard Pollard, a skilled but poor young knight rose to the challenge and began to study the behaviour of the brawn, which is supposed to have been as large as a cow. Finally, arming himself with several spears, Pollard was able to pursue the beast south of Auckland towards Raby Castle and Staindrop in Teesdale, where after a long and bloody struggle, he was able to kill the beast.

Upon completing the task Pollard proudly cut off the brawn’s tongue and placed it in his pocket as a souvenir. Unfortunately Pollard was exhausted from his pursuit and fell asleep as the dead creature lay by his side. A little later, a man was passing by and noticed the sleeping knight and his quarry.

Remembering the bishop’s promise of a prize, he could not resist the opportunity of reward and quickly made off with the carcass, without awaking Pollard. When Pollard awoke, he was horrified to see the brawn had been taken, but guessed what had happened and quickly made his way to Auckland Palace, to see the Bishop of Durham.

Arriving at the palace, Pollard found he was too late, learning that someone had already presented the bishop with the brawn and received an ample sum of money in reward. Pollard nevertheless gained entry to the palace, when he claimed that he was the one who had slain the brawn.

When Pollard showed the bishop the brawn’s tongue, the carcass was examined and the young knight’s claims were proved to be true. After considering, the bishop told Pollard that as a reward he could have all the lands he could ride around, in the time it took him to finish his meal.

Wasting no time Pollard set off, accompanied by one of the bishop’s servants, but astonishingly returned to the palace only a few minutes later. The bishop was surprised that Pollard had taken so little time, but learned that the reason was simple, Pollard had ridden around Auckland palace itself !.Of course the bishop could not possibly give Pollard his palace and its grounds, but was impressed with the young knight’s clever thinking, so instead presented him with some of the most fertile lands in the Auckland area. These lands became known as Pollard’s lands.

Witton le Wear and Hamsterley Forest

Witton Castle at Witton le Wear, to the west of Bishop Auckland stands at the entrance to Weardale. It was once the seat of the Eure family but, later passed into the hands of the Lambtons. For many years the castle was the home of the famous Red Boy portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, a painting of the only son of John George Lambton, first Earl of Durham.

The Red Boy
The Red Boy

Today the painting is part of that family’s London collection. Over the river to the west of Witton le Wear, we find the village of Hamsterley, which is not to be confused with the village of the same name on the River Derwent in North West Durham.

Nearby on the valley sides of the river-like stream called the Bed-Burn Beck is Hamsterley Forest, the largest in County Durham. It is situated on the hillsides between the valleys of Weardale and Teesdale. Not far from Hamsterley forest we may find the remains of an overgrown ancient fort called the ‘the Castles’. It may be Iron Age or Romano-British in origin.

Cockfield and the Gaunless Valley

The little river Gaunless forms a valley to the south west of Bishop Auckland with interesting sub-Pennine countryside interspersed with former mining settlements and farming villages of earlier times. One notable place is the Bishop Auckland village of South Church that lies within a loop of the Gaunless. This is home to the very large medieval church of St Andrew Auckland which dates to the 13th century and is the largest parish church between the Tyne and Tees.

To the south west the Gaunless skirts industrial and retail developments around Tindale and Tindale Crescent which poses the question was  the Gaunless once called the Tin? Here Bishop Auckland extends south westward into the villages of St Helen Auckland and West Auckland which are separated by the Gaunless itself. The village of St Helen Auckland has a tiny towerless 12th century church dedicated to St Helen and its tiny size is in great contrast to its counterpart at St Andrew Auckland.

Further west still is Evenwood, Butterknowle and the fascinating village of Cockfield all located where the valley has strayed south towards Raby Castle and the neighbouring dale of Teesdale that lies beyond the former coalfield area.

Cockfield is noted for the neighbouring Cockfield Fell, a lowland fell that forms an ancient landscape that escaped the field enclosures that swept across other lowland areas in the 18th century. It is one of Britain’s most important early industrial landscapes with traces of early medieval mining as well as Iron Age farming settlements and medieval field boundaries. There are even traces of early 19th century colliery tramways.

Jeremiah Dixon
Jeremiah Dixon

Perhaps this landscape was an inspiration for Cockfield’s most famous son, the astronomer and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon (1763-1767) who was born here. It was Dixon who surveyed the Mason-Dixon line two mark the boundary between two separate landowners in America. He surveyed it along with another British astronomer, Charles Mason. This line later became the demarcation in the American Civil War between the southern and northern states. It ultimately gave its name to ‘Dixieland’  and its famous jazz.

West Auckland and the World Cup

West Auckland is a former mining village to the south west of Bishop Auckland but has medieval origins with a large village green dating back to the 12th century. It is surrounded by 18th century houses and a couple of notable houses of the 17th century. One is the  Old Manor House of the 1670s, a substantial stone building of great character that is thought to have 12th century foundations. Now a hotel, it is tucked away behind trees at the north west corner of the green. Also of note is The Old Hall, a three bay stone house of the 1600s that faces out onto the south side of the green.

In addition to its historic charms West Auckland has a fascinating story to tell. In 1910 the mining village made history when its football team travelled to Italy to represent England in the first ever soccer ‘world cup’. The competition was instigated by the businessman Sir Thomas Lipton – of tea fame – and the legendary part of the story is that West Auckland FC were only invited to take part in the event due to a mix up over a letter addressed to Woolwich Arsenal FC (W.A.F.C).

Competing against the top teams from Switzerland, Germany and Italy, the amateur County Durham side amazingly reached the final and defeated the mighty Italian giants Juventus by two goals to nil.

West Auckland went on to successfully defend their title the following year and therefore retained the trophy – ‘The Thomas Lipton Trophy’ for all time. When the team returned home however, they found themselves badly in debt and had to resort to selling their world cup to the local landlady for cash. Nevertheless the village held on to the cup until 1994, when sadly, it was stolen and never recovered. A replica can be seen today in the West Auckland workingmen’s club.


The town of Shildon, across the River Gaunless, a mile to the south east of Bishop Auckland will be forever associated with the history of the railways, as it was from here on the 26th September 1825 that George Stephenson’s famous Locomotion Number One’, made its historic journey to Darlington for the opening of the world’s first public railway.

Shildon, rather than Darlington was the western terminus for locomotives on the Stockton and Darlington railway and in fact the railway itself, extended further west still, beyond Shildon towards Etherley and Witton Park Collieries near the River Wear. This part of the railway was operated by means of stationary engines.

Shildon was also noted in railway circles as the home of the railway pioneer Timothy Hackworth, who had been an assistant to George Stephenson. Locomotives built by Hackworth at Shildon included the Royal George, which ran between Stockton and Darlington and the Sans Pereil, which competed against Stephenson’sRocket at the Rainhill Trials in 1830.

Timothy Hackworth’s former cottage at Shildon has been converted into a museum dedicated to the work of Shildon’s most famous son. Until recent times Shildon was still a railway town, but sadly its last great link with the industry was broken in 1985, by the closure of the local waggon works. Today, however its railway links are restored as he home of the National Railway Museum at Shildon.

Kirk Merrington and Windlestone

Kirk Merrington, a village north east of Bishop Auckland, near Ferryhill and Spennymoor is associated with the Edens, who are one of County Durham’s best known families. Members have included Sir Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister of Britain (1955-57), who was born at the nearby family seat of Windlestone in 1897. Windlestone Hall is also associated with Sir Timothy Eden, author of an excellent two volume history of Durham, published in the 1950s.

The church at Kirk Merrington is situated on a high ridge with good views of the surrounding Durham countryside. In 1153 the building witnessed an unusual siege in which William Cumin, a notorious usurper Bishop of Durham, was captured by Roger Conyers, a Durham baron.

Cumin had taken refuge in the church, because of its naturally defended location, with extensive views of the surrounding enemy countryside – good views can still be obtained today. The usurper had been able to maintain his false claim to the bishop’s throne for three years, during which time he had violently ruled and terrorised the Palatine of Durham under the encouragement of King David of Scotland

Whitworth Hall : Bobby Shafto

Spennymoor is a town with industrial origins, but the countryside nearby has an unexpected romantic connection. The connection is with Whitworth Hall, not far from the River Wear to the north of the town. Here once lived none other than a certain Mr Robert Shafto, whose name is immortalised in the well known North Country Ballad;

“Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
Silver buckles on his knee,
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.

Bobby Shafto’s bright and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair;
He’s my ain for evermair
Bonny Bobby Shafto.

Bobby Shafto went to court
All in gold and silver wrought
Like a grandee as he ought

Bonny Bobby Shafto.
Bobby Shafto rode a race
Well I mind his bonny face
Won it in a tearing pace
Bonny Bobby Shafto.

Bobby Shafto throws his gold
Right and left like knights of old
Now he’s left out in the cold
Bonny Bobby Shafto.

Bobby Shafto’s gettin’ a bairn
For to dangle on his airm
In his airm and on his knee
Bonny Bobby Shafto.”

Bobby Shafto was in fact a County Durham M.P, who was elected in 1761, when the song was used as an election jingle. A sweetheart of Bobby Shafto, to whom the ballad is often attributed is believed to have lived at Brancepeth Castle across the River Wear, three miles north of Whitworth, near the outskirts of Durham City. She died of a broken heart.

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