Bishop Auckland - the town bidding to be the friendliest in the North East
PUBLISHED: 21:39 12 March 2012 | UPDATED: 21:09 20 February 2013
What Bishop Auckland lacks in visitor pulling power, it more than makes up for in the warmth of its people and understated attractions, as Andrew Smith discovers
Bishop Auckland exudes the air of a confident town where history and industrial prosperity once made influential bedfellows. Its castle and adjoining deer park, where successive Bishops of Durham used to hunt, stand just the flight of an archers arrow from the elegant, imposing Town Hall, built with no expense spared on the riches brought to the town by the railways and mining.
Thankfully, these twin edifices survive to command the elevated plateau they occupy above the River Wear, alongside the town that justifiably claims to be the gateway to the beautiful valley of Weardale.
In a strange meander, the Wear loops ten miles southwards from its upper reaches in Weardale to cast a hook around Bishop Auckland before flowing north again to encircle Durham City. Its a quirk of geography that entwines the historic seats of religious power as forcibly as their ecclesiastical traditions, for Auckland Castle remains the official residence of the Bishop of Durham.
Sadly, despite its impeccable pedigree, the decline of coal mining, some rather unsympathetic planning decisions over new developments and the drift of shoppers away from traditional town centres and marketplaces has resulted in Bishop Auckland struggling to find a new purpose in a changing world.
Nevertheless, despite too many For Sale and To Let signs along what were once thriving shopping streets, Bishop, as it is popularly known, is by no means down at heel.
Margaret Brown has lived in Bishop Auckland for all of her 83 years and describes the only home she has known as a lovely country town.
The people are very friendly and there is a sense of community here, she added. The castle and park are beautiful and we have a magnificent town hall in the most wonderful mellow stone, with St Annes Church next to it.
The only fault is that successive councillors feel like they have to meddle with things. A while ago they wanted to pull down the Town Hall but fortunately the move was blocked. Now, theyve placed huge, ugly concrete balls in front of it. They look out of place and serve no purpose whatsoever. I dont understand it.
In contrast to Margaret, Catholic priest Father Dennis Tindall is a newcomer, having taken over the parishes of St Wilfrids and St Marys in Bishop Auckland and St Paulinus in neighbouring St Helen Auckland last January.
People have made me extraordinarily welcome, he said. Its a long time since I have been called mate as often as I have here. Its a kind of warm colloquialism.
Bishop Auckland was an area of the diocese with which I was unfamiliar but Ive discovered that the spirit and resilience of the people are its driving force.
Theyre concerned about all the supermarkets being situated on the edge of the town and Marks and Spencer are also due to move out there, so while once the town centre hummed, with a great market and lots of shoppers, the buzz is no longer there. They feel like theyre losing something precious.
Jim and Lilly Arthurs have lived in Bishop Auckland since their marriage in 1957. Lilly used to work in the fondly-remembered Doggarts department store. It was a fine store and the owners were gentlemen. Nothing has been able to replace Doggarts so Id say the town hasnt changed for the better, said Lilly.
Bishop Auckland needs something worthwhile something to bring back the visitors and shoppers who used to come here. Its still a lovely place to live and has so much to offer.
Despite what some people feel about the changes taking place, there are sound reasons for optimism about Bishop Auckland. The pedestrianisation of the Market Place area and provision of seating (concrete balls included) creates an attractive area where people can meet and mingle in good weather. It has recently been announced that thanks to a further 50,000 grant from Durham County Council, the final phase of this redevelopment will be completed.
When the weather turns bad, the airy Newgate Centre, just off the Market Place, boasts a nice caf and leading High Street retailers.
The choice of shopping provided by large supermarkets on the fringe of the town centre and other dining and leisure outlets creates a draw that will attract local people and visitors alike.
And the jewel of Auckland Castle and its 800-acre deer park, both less than ten minutes walk from the Market Place, offer an attraction that few similar-sized towns in the North East can boast.
To coin an expression heard frequently by the incoming parish priest, what more could you ask for, mate?
What do you love most about Bishop Auckland? Send your thoughts on the town to firstname.lastname@example.org
Dates for your diary
Theatre, gallery, cinema, library and Tourist Information Centre, Bishop Auckland Town Hall,
Monday to Saturday. 01388 602610.
Spring wildlife walk in Bishop Auckland. Sunday,
March 4th. Six miles. Starts Newton Cap Picnic Area at 10am. 0191 327 9100
Wear Valley Writers. Meet every Wednesday during term time at Bishop Auckland Library from 7pm to 9.30pm. 01388 602610.
Auckland Castle. Open Sunday, Monday and Bank Holidays 2pm to 5pm. 01388 602576.
Auckland Castle Deer House, Auckland Park. Open from 10am until 4pm most days. Free admission.
Bishop Auckland Food Festival, Saturday April 21st, Auckland Castle. The largest food festival in the North East.