Things are looking up again for historically important Bishop Auckland

PUBLISHED: 19:45 09 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:37 20 February 2013

Things are looking up again for historically important Bishop Auckland

Things are looking up again for historically important Bishop Auckland

Things are looking up again for the historically important North East town, as Chris Titley reports

Bishop Auckland has had its ups and downs. As the name suggests, the town has long held an important role in the Church it was given over to the religious authorities by King Canute in about 1020 but even this relationship has been shaken in recent times.

The grand Auckland Castle, still better known as the Bishops Palace, was owned by the diocese for 800 years, and was the official residence of the Bishops of Durham from 1832. Then last year the castle changed hands.

This followed the announcement by the Church Commissioners that they were planning to sell off the castles 20 million collection of portraits of Jacob and his sons by the 17th century Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarn. They line the walls of a room specifically designed and built for them.

This caused a storm of protest before a 15m donation by investment manager Jonathan Ruffer saved the paintings for Britain and Bishop Auckland. Last year the castle and the paintings were transferred to new charitable trusts.

The Auckland Castle Trust plans to work to turn the ancient building into a place worthy of its history. Its national importance will be reflected both in a permanent exhibition of the history of Christianity in Britain and a major restoration of the castle and grounds.

Yet it is not only Bishop Aucklands church heritage that has endured difficult times. The wider town too has been on something of a roller coaster.

Once a quiet market town, with home-grown weaving, tanning and shoemaking industries, it grew quickly with the coming of the railway in 1843. Suddenly the coal found nearby could be cheaply transported and Bishop Aucklands mining era began.

The coalfields are now gone, and the town had to reinvent itself once again. One person who has done more than most to chronicle Bishop Aucklands changing fortunes over the years is historian and writer Barbara Laurie. She was born in 1939 and describes her childhood as pleasant, nice and stable. The 40s and 50s were a difficult time for parents, but for children it was lovely.

Barbara grew up in a prosperous town. It had what was referred to as the Golden Mile it was really half a mile from the market place to the railway station where shops did very well.

It was the centre of a whole network of transport: seven railway lines converged on the town and there were a lot of buses, there were little mini bus stations dotted around the town.

People from the surrounding areas used to pour in at the weekend. The women went shopping and the men went to the football match. Of course, Bishop Auckland football team were the kings of amateur football. They won the cup ten times and had a tremendous reputation.

She blames the rise of the car for Bishop Aucklands decline. Once people started motoring to alternative centres, the public transport spiders web that drew people into the town began to break up, and so did the Bishop Auckland economy.

Barbara is hopeful that a new and better era may be on its way. Its going to be even more special when Jonathan Ruffer has brought his wonderful idea to fruition at the palace, she said. Hes got tremendous plans, I think its wonderful. Hes a philanthropist after my own heart. He is going to have the paintings as the centre-piece of a national museum really.

And the railway might rise again too. It was one of the very few triangular railway stations, said Barbara. So it didnt need the turning circle that some stations had. So we had trains going off in at least seven different directions. Then of course, after Beeching, it was reduced to just one platform. But now weve got the line opened at Weardale and tremendous plans for that.

She became interested in local history through her father, who would regale the family with stories each meal time. When a history club asked her to talk to the members she told them many of these stories which proved a hit.

Everything Ive done has been about writing down peoples memories. Thats the sort of grassroots history I think is so important.

Her latest book, Letters To Ilio From The Cafe de Luxe, tells the story of the correspondence between a Selkirk girl and the Italian prisoner of war who was also the father of her child. This couple are her husbands mother and father for many years her mother-in-law ran a little caf in Bishop Auckland called the Caf Marina.

The fact that there was a prisoner of war camp at Selkirk is only one of the surprises shes stumbled upon writing about the areas history. Another came in a book in which she delved into life on the home front in the Second World War.

Certainly one thing that came to light from that was what it was like working in a munitions factory at Aycliffe they bussed many in from Bishop Auckland, and people lost hands and all sorts through little explosions. But of course nobody knew about it at the time, it was bad publicity.

Bishop Auckland has also had its own town council for the past five years. And who was its first mayor? Barbara Laurie.

I was the first mayor of Bishop Auckland. Im rather proud of that, she said. Im very proud of my home town really.

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