Land of the Prince Bishops…
Bishop Auckland in the northern County of Durham has always sounded to me like a place I should visit because a place with two names always sounds intriguing to me like Kings Lynn, Saffron Waldron and Westwood Ho!
Westwood Ho! incidentally has the distinction of being the only place name in England with an exclamation mark and this would be very impressive indeed were it not eclipsed by a parish community in Quebec, Canada called Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! which has two!!
But I have never been and that is all the more surprising because this is Kim’s home town.
Kim of course has fond child hood memories of the place, now half a century away and like most of us she laments the passage of time and the erasure of childhood memories; from her description of modern day Bishop Auckland I was certain that I was going to be disappointed.
Kim, centre row, third from left (1963). No designer clothes or replica football shirts, hand knitted cardigans and home haircuts – those were the days!
We began at Witton Castle, a crenulated fifteenth century manor house which became the centre of a mining estate three hundred years later but by the 1960s had fallen into derelict disrepair where Kim would play amongst fallen statuary and in haunted rooms but more recently has been purchased, repaired and transformed into a holiday park and a restaurant which Kim doesn’t approve of at all.
All the way around she kept telling me how it used to look and I was reminded of the assessment of Henry Miller about the reconstruction of the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete – “There has been much controversy about the aesthetics of Sir Arthur Evans’s work of restoration. I find myself unable to come to any conclusion about it; I accepted it as a fact. However Knossos may have looked in the past, however it may look in the future, this one which Evans has created is the only one I shall ever know. I am grateful to him for what he did…”
There is no real castle at Witton Park anymore, but there is history and I could smell that in the breeze that brushed past my face as we walked around the adjacent gardens.
Next we went to the village of Escomb, once a pit village where Kim grew up and spent her early childhood. Her memories have been bulldozed away now in frenzied 1960s slum clearance housing improvement projects and the dismantling of the pit and anything associated with it but the main reason to visit Escomb is to see the seventh century Saxon Church, quite possibly the oldest and the finest example of its kind in the country although this claim is contested by Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, Barton in Northamptonshire and Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex.
I liked this place and even though the heart of the village had been brutally ripped out fifty years ago there was a genuine sense of community, after looking around the interior of the church on the way out we chanced upon a local resident who was coming to polish the pews or arrange the flowers or whatever and after only a short introduction Kim and this lady where exchanging memories and comparing a list of local acquaintances.
I have seen this happen before, in 2008 in Pula in Croatia in a chance breakfast encounter in a hotel Kim recognised the local Durham accent of a fellow traveller and within two minutes had established that they came not just from the same county or the same town but from the same village, knew the same people and used to go to the same school – it is sometimes a very small world!
As we drove away back towards Bishop Auckland through woodland and pasture it was hard to imagine that this was once a huge industrialised area with both open cast and deep shaft mining but also a massive ironworks with a mill, which was one mile long and half a mile wide all of which has been demolished with little trace.
And so we finished in the town of Bishop Auckland where Kim had painted a grim picture of decline and deprivation but I found a pleasant county town with an open market place and an especially fine Wetherspoon pub before moving on to the jewel in the Crown – Auckland Castle, the home of the Prince Bishop’s of Durham.
It turns out that until 2010 this was the official residence of the Bishop of Durham but strapped for cash the church decided to sell both the building and the collection of unique paintings inside until a local businessman stepped in and bought them both and now has grand plans to finance a proper restoration and make this place a major tourist attraction. I am not so sure about that and was pleased to see it today before the swarms of visitors arrive and even Kim was forced to grudgingly concede that this intervention represents progress.
I liked Bishop Auckland and as I left I was determined to return again quite soon.
Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by a visit somewhere?