/Auckland Castle in Durham to open to public after £12.4m restoration

Auckland Castle in Durham to open to public after £12.4m restoration

A magnificent and historically important castle at the centrepiece of one of the UK’s most eye-catching cultural regeneration projects will open to the public next week after a three-year restoration project.

Auckland Castle was a palace for the prince bishops of Durham, surrogate kings who governed the north of England for more than 750 years.

It was bought from the Church of England in 2012 by the investment banker Jonathan Ruffer. The sale price included the castle’s contents, not least a spectacular series of paintings, Jacob and his 12 Sons, by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán.

The castle has become the heart of the Auckland Project, which is using art, faith, history and heritage to transform the quiet and – since the closure of the mines – rundown town of Bishop Auckland in to a leading tourist destination.

The castle’s restoration, with the help of £12.4m of National Lottery money, has focused on returning the castle to its Georgian gothic splendour.

David Madden, chief executive of the project, said the reopening on 2 November would be a huge day. “This is a very big moment for us. It puts us on the map and there is more to come.”

Visitors to the castle will learn about the various bishops who lived and entertained at Auckland Castle over the centuries.

The interior walls are more vibrantly coloured than some might imagine; lilac, pink, a cheery blue.

“It’s not what people would expect of Georgian interiors,” said Clare Baron, head of interpretation and exhibitions. “We think of Jane Austen and pale and restrained but actually the interiors were quite gaudy. When we read a description, blue and crimson curtains with pink walls, we thought: ‘will that work?’ But it does seem to.”

The long dining room with the Zurbaráns was to be painted red before a crucial receipt was found indicating the room would have been green.

The internationally important paintings have returned to Auckland Castle after a tour to the Meadows Museum in Dallas, the Frick Collection in New York and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where they have been seen by more than 390,000 people.

Among the surprises during the restoration was the discovery of a Tudor fireplace in a lift shaft and a whole wall of historic late 19th-century wallpaper in the morning room. The unusual pattern, of a brown and blue exotic plant, is entirely fictitious, botanic experts have decided.

Visitors are also told about the more recent, less authoritarian, bishops of Durham who have lived at the castle such as David Jenkins, a regular character on Spitting Image, dismissively called the “cuckoo in the establishment nest” by Margaret Thatcher.

A restored room in Auckland Castle, with the Zurbarán masterpieces on show.

A restored room in Auckland Castle, with the Zurbarán masterpieces on show. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

Ian Ramsey, a 1960s bishop, is shown in a Tyne Tees documentary visiting a trendy boutique and joking how his cassock is basically a maxi-skirt.

Other visitor offerings include a deer park, a viewing tower, a gallery for temporary art shows, and a nearby mining art gallery. Opposite are hoardings in front of a former bank and school proclaiming “Spanish art gallery opening soon”. There will also be a faith museum, a new shop, hotel and restaurant, and in time a revamped Roman fort destination.

Bishop Auckland is also home to the Ruffer-backed Kynren, which stages thrilling London Olympics-style live shows telling Britain’s history.

It all makes for a compelling if unusual offer for tourists, one which does not follow any known model. “We keep looking,” said Madden. “We are a young organisation and really keen to learn from others – we are very alert to that – but there is no single thing that we’ve come across that allows us to say: ‘that’s us and they’re years ahead and this is what we should do.’”

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