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.
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 medieval English name ‘Auckland’ can be interpreted as ‘land of oaks’ this developed or was corrupted from an earlier name ‘Alclit’ that has Celtic origins, deriving from ‘Allt Clud’ and thought to allude to an older name for the Gaunless.
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 that encompassed much of the Wear Valley and Weardale and came to be known in later medieval times as Aucklandshire.
Curiously, ‘Allt Clud’ was also the old name, again meaning ‘cliff on the Clyde’, for the northern capital of the Britons at Dumbarton in what is now Scotland. Dumbarton ‘the fort or dun of the Britons’ was the capital of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, a kingdom that was also known as Cumbria from the Cumbric people who spoke a language related to Welsh.
By around the year 1000 ‘Alclit’ in the Wear Valley was in the hands of the Earl of Northumbria but became part of a grant of lands given to the Bishops of Durham in the reign of King Cnut. At the time of the Boldon Book in the twelfth century, Bishop Auckland was still called North Alclit.
Bishop Auckland : Market Place
A Gothic style gateway leads from the market place at the centre of the town into the Auckland Castle grounds. Replacing a succession of earlier gatehouses on the site, it was built in 1760 by Sir Thomas 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 at the western end, High Bondgate) while other old streets and lanes include Castle Chare, Wear Chare, Finkle Street, Saddler Street and Silver Street. The last two have their counterparts in Durham City.
Fore Bondgate is a particularly narrow street which gives away its medieval origins. Bishop Auckland was a borough by at least 1243 but the Bondgate area was the street of the Bondsmen and was regarded as separate from the Borough. This was not unusual as a similar situation existed at Bondgate in Darlington and the Bondgate in Alnwick.
The oldest thoroughfare in Bishop Auckland is however Newgate which predates the medieval 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. In Bishop Auckland Newgate forms a two mile long High Street which is the main shopping and commercial focus for the town.
One of the most prominent buildings in the market place is Bishop Auckland Town Hall (or sometimes BATH for short), a handsome French-Flemish Gothic style building dating to the 1860s and a venue for music events and exhibitions.
It replaced an earlier open octagonal building where butter, eggs and poultry were sold, presumably a structure similar to that found at Barnard Castle. In the northern arch of this building was situated a public ‘pant’ – a source of water or fountain for the use of the town folk.
Right next to the Town Hall is the church of St Anne, a Victorian church of 1848 by the architect Salvin on the site of the medieval church of Bishop Auckland borough. To the rear of the town hall in Bakehouse Hill are Bishop Cosin’s Almshouses. The almshouses were built in 1662, earlier than Bishop Cosin’s Almshouses of 1666 on Palace Green in Durham City. However the almshouses at Bishop Auckland were rebuilt (in almost identical style to the original) in 1845.
Bishop Auckland Market Place has seen some interesting developments in recent times. 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.
Bishop Auckland is approximately half way between the popular tourist towns of Durham City and Barnard Castle but in the past was often overlooked by visitors despite its beautiful castle, handsome parkland and historic town centre.
Recent investment in Bishop Auckland and its castle financed by philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, has seen a major revival in the town, that is revealing its charm 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.
The town’s superb new Spanish Gallery, officially opened in April 2022 by HRH Charles, Prince of Wales and Queen Letizia of Spain is a very special attraction in Bishop Auckland market place occupying the former nineteenth century Barrington School and neighbouring former Backhouse Bank. It includes works by Spanish artists El Greco and Murillo.
The gallery collection complements the famed Francisco De Zurbarán paintings ‘Jacob and His Twelve Sons’ in Auckland Castle, which have been part of the castle’s collection for over 250 years. Bishop Auckland is the home to the UK’s largest collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish art outside London. When we consider the equally spectacular nearby Bowes Museum’s established collection of art at Barnard Castle, we may consider south west Durham a focal point for European works of art of international importance.
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, also called Auckland Palace, began as a manor house belonging to Durham’s Prince Bishops and is situated on an 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.
The bishops’ castles included Durham Castle; Bishop Middleham Castle 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.
Auckland Castle (or Palace), however began as a manor house and the bishops are known to have owned other manor houses at 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 and for many years served as the principal seat of the bishop.
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 grander establishment by Bishop Anthony Bek in the 1300s.
Bek castellated the building and created an impressive chapel but the palatial manor house wasn’t referred to 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.
In the Civil War and its aftermath, the Bishop of Durham was ousted from the palace and it was sold by the Parliamentary Commissioners to Sir Arthur Haselrigg who demolished around half of the building for the construction of his own mansion. Among the buildings to go was Bishop Bek’s chapel.
After the restoration of the monarchy following the Civil War, renovations and reconstruction were undertaken in the later years of the seventeenth century by Bishop Cosin. Bishop Cosin converted the grand hall built by Bishop Pudsey into a chapel as a replacement for the chapel of Bishop Bek that had been destroyed by Haselrigg. A new hall was built for the castle by Bishop Cosin in the former Presence Chamber.
Auckland Castle is extensively, genuinely and stunningly medieval inside but much of the Gothic exterior that we see today dates to the period of Cosin and the eras of Bishops Trevor and Bishop Egerton in the eighteenth century, with further work undertaken for Bishop Barrington by the architect James Wyatt.
Entering the castle from the gateway that looks out onto the market place the first thing we notice are the arches of a Gothic screen wall built by James Wyatt in 1760 for Bishop Trevor along with an inner gateway.
It sets the scene for the castle’s overall eighteenth century Gothic style with significant portions of the castle dating to the 1600s and the former great hall now the beautiful chapel of St Peter dating to the twelfth century and the time of Bishop Hugh Du Puiset (Pudsey).
An exciting new development at the castle is the extension that will home 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 also 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 parkland grounds. The park was once the home to 300 deer and they were fattened in the winter for hunting outside the winter months.
In October 1346 the park hosted an army of some 16,000 men prior to the battle of Neville’s Cross fought against the Scots near Durham.
Anthony Bek (1284 – 1311), was a Bishop of Durham, who particularly favoured Auckland palace, rather than Durham Castle as a 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.
Toronto, Newton Cap and Kynren
Just across the River Wear north of Bishop Auckland we enter the most southerly loops and meanders of the River Wear. Here we find the colliery village of Toronto – named from its Canadian counterpart.
Toronto probably derives from a farmer’s field-name, an allusion to distance, but later became the site of a colliery village. It was once the home to the Newton Cap Colliery – also called Toronto Colliery – initially operated by the Stobarts and in production until 1967. Its pits included the Barrington Pit, named from Shute Barrington, one of the Bishops of Durham.
Nearby is the impressive prominent landmark of the former Newton Cap Railway Viaduct of 1857. It was a railway viaduct until its closure in the 1960s but 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 Newton Cap 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.
Newton Cap was recorded as Neowatun (the new farm) as far back as 1040 and was later owned by a family called Cappe, who were connected with the Northallerton area. Newton is recorded as Newtoncapp in Bishop Hatfield’s survey of his lands in 1382.
A nearby eastward facing loop of the river near Toronto and Newton Cap will be familiar to many as the stage-setting for the open air performances of the spectacular Kynren event which tells the 2,000 year story of England in epic style in the evenings during the summer months.
Even without Kyrnen, this area might be regarded as a special focal point in historical terms. Across the river loop to the east are the remains of the Roman fort of Vinovia at Binchester. Over the river to the west is the moving Anglo-Saxon church of Escomb and of course just to the south we have the wonderful former palace of the Prince Bishops of Durham at Bishop Auckland.
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 Fatfield. 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 and are now Bishop Auckland Golf Course on the north side of Bishop Auckland as well as land to the west of Bishop Auckland in the Etherley Moor area.
The name Pollard was associated with the Bishop Auckland area from at least as early as the 1180s when Pollardus owned land in North Auckland. In the 1240s a William Pollard held land at nearby Woodhouses. In medieval times ‘Pollard’s Lands’ were considered to be a separate manor.
Binchester fort and Escomb church
The Roman road of Dere Street passes through Bishop Auckland in a striking straight line under the names of Watling Road, Cockton Hill Road and Newgate Street. Dere Street 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 could well be Britain’s oldest church at Escomb to the south of the River Wear, a mile to the west of Bishop Auckland.
The church is a pretty and somewhat humble looking building of Anglo-Saxon origin that was 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’.
It has some similarities to the Anglo-Saxon church of Bede at Jarrow which is the oldest dated church but Escomb is thought to be older. The early history of Escomb and why it should have survived is a mystery. Other Anglo-Saxon or part Anglo-Saxon churches in the region include churches at Monkwearmouth, Hart Village near Hartlepool and Seaham.
About a mile west of Escomb is the village of Witton Park, with its links to the Stockton and Darlington railway. It was a one time site to an ironworks. Between Escomb and Witton Park are the settlements of High Escomb, California and Woodside.
Toft Hill and the Etherleys
South of Escomb and Witton Park and to the west of Bishop Auckland are four places called Etherley at the heart of a former mining and quarrying district. Nearest to Bishop Auckland is Etherley Dene, named from a wooded dene that joins the Wear here. Half a mile west through Etherley Moor a road leads south to the curiously named Wigdan Walls Farm and onward to a hamlet called Woodhouses.
Another road heads west from Etherley Moor through Etherley Grange where twentieth century houses line the road. A mile further west is Low Etherley where a stationary cable hauling engine was once situated on the Etherley Incline of the famed Stockton and Darlington railway not far to the south of its terminus at Witton Park.
Adjoining Low Etherley to the south is the village of High Etherley with a nineteenth century church dedicated to St Cuthbert. The name ‘Etherley’ is of uncertain origin but was originally Ederley and although ‘ley’ means ‘clearing’ the first part of the name is uncertain. It could be an Anglo-Saxon personal name such as Eadred or an old word meaning enclosure or fence. From High Etherley a road leads south and then across the River Gaunless to West Auckland.
Toft Hill, clustered along the roadside west of High Etherley has a name that derives from the Danish Viking word ‘toft’ meaning building plot or house sites, perhaps indicating the site of a lost settlement that was maybe situated a little further to the west.
In the sixteenth century the area was referred to as the ‘tofts of the Barony’ of Evenwood. The road south from Toft Hill heads about a mile south to Ramshaw in the Gaunless Valley which is just across the river from Evenwood.
Our River Gaunless page covers South Church and places in the Gaunless valley to the west of Bishop Auckland including West Auckland, Evenwood, Cockfield, Butterknowle, Copley, Woodland, Wham, Lynsesack and Softley.
Places to the east of Bishop Auckland including Coronation, the Coundons and Eldon are covered in our page featuring the Shildon and Aycliffe area.