Bishop Auckland

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.

Auckland Castle chapel
Auckland Castle chapel. Photo © John Simpson

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 name ‘Auckland’ can be interpreted as ‘land of oaks’ it arose 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 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.

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.

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 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 onto 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 of St Peter dating to the 12th century and the time of Bishop Hugh Du Puiset (Pudsey).

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. 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: 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.

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. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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.

Kynren. Photo John Simpson

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 church and of course just to the south we have the wonderful former palace of the Prince Bishops of Durham at Bishop Auckland.

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 a mile to the west of Bishop Auckland.

Escomb Anglo-Saxon church.
Escomb Anglo-Saxon church. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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.

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 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.

 St Andrew Auckland and St Helen Auckland

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.

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.

St. Andrew Auckland at South Church
St. Andrew Auckland at South Church. Photo © David Simpson 2018

One notable place is the Bishop Auckland suburb 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 Tyne or 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.

West Auckland

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.

West Auckland Manor House
West Auckland Manor House. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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.

West Auckland Old Hall.
West Auckland Old Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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 defeated a team from Stuttgart 2-0 in the semi final and then defeated a side called Winterhur from Switzerland 2-0 in the final on April 12th 1909.

West Auckland World Cup
Sculpture commemorating West Auckland’s World Cup victory of 1909. It was unveiled by Sir John Hall, David Ticer Thomas and Tim Healy in 2013. Photo © David Simpson 2018

West Auckland returned to defend their title in 1911, defeating FC Zurich 2-0 in the semi-final and then retaining the trophy – ‘The Thomas Lipton Trophy’ for all time after defeating Italian giants Juventus 6-1 in the final. 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.

Cockfield Fell

Further west still along the Gaunless Valley from the Aucklands are 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 which lies outside the area of old coalfield.

View from Cockfield Fell.
View from Cockfield Fell. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Cockfield is very much part of the industrial and rural landscape of Durham with very ancient roots. Cockfield Fell surrounds the village on three sides and is a lowland fell that forms an ancient landscape that escaped the field enclosures that swept across other lowland areas in the 18th century.

Described as one of the largest ancient monuments in the country Cockfield Fell is one of Britain’s most important early industrial landscapes with traces of early medieval mining, medieval field boundaries as well as more ancient evidence of Iron Age farming settlements that date back 2000 years .

Fields and fell, Cockfield
Photo showing the contrast between Cockfield Fell and the enclosed landscape of neighbouring fields. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Coal mining traces can be seen on the fell that date back 600 years including medieval bell pits but the most recent traces of mining activity were associated with the Gordon House Colliery that closed in 1962. There are even traces of early 19th century colliery tramways – its course given away by an embankment where coal was transported in tubs.

Cockfield village
Cockfield village. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In addition to coal mining, quarrying was an important activity on Cockfield Fell as outcrops of whinstone – the tough dark volcanic rock familiar for forming the Farne Islands, the crags of Hadrian’s Wall, Lindisfarne Castle and the High Force waterfall in Teesdale are found here on Cockfield Fell. The quarrying has left lots of distinct fan-shaped spoil heaps across the fell.

The people of Cockfield enjoy commoners’s rights on the fell and many keep pigeon lofts (huts) here. Sheep and horses can also be seen grazing on the fell.

Pigeon lofts, grazing sheep and horses on Cockfield Fell
Pigeon lofts, grazing sheep and horses on Cockfield Fell. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Jeremiah Dixon – From Cockfield to Dixieland

Perhaps the unusual landscape of Cockfield was an inspiration for Cockfield’s most famous son, the astronomer and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon (1773-1779) born and lived most of his life here. His map making and astronomy skills caught the attention of The Royal Society who appointed him to record the Transits of Venus across the sun in the 1760s.

Dixon travelled with another astronomer, Charles Mason of Gloucestershire to Sumatra but during the journey their ship was attacked by a French frigate. The ship escaped and rescheduled the landing to Cape Town in South Africa where a successful observation of the transit of the planet was made.

The success set the two astronomers up for their next great task and adventure – surveying the border between two separate landowners in America – which separated Maryland and Pennsylvania. This line called the Mason-Dixon line was surveyed by the two men from 1763 to 1768 and would later become the demarcation between the northern and southern states in the American Civil War and ultimately gave its name to ‘Dixieland’ and its famous jazz.

In 1769 Dixon was sent to survey another transit of Venus – this time sent to Norway but the mission was not a success due to cloudy conditions though the transition was successfully recorded on Tahiti by the Cleveland-born Captain James Cook.

After his adventures Dixon returned to Cockfield and worked as a surveyor for Lord Barnard at Raby and for the Bishop of Durham at Auckland Castle. He died aged only 45 and received a Quaker burial at Staindrop.

Spennymoor | Brancepeth, Crook, Witton-le-Wear 

Weardale Darlington Aycliffe and Shildon

Barnard Castle | Gainford to Coniscliffe


North East England History and Culture