Tag Archives: Bishop Auckland

County Durham and Northumberland

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I have always hated caravans.  I remember how horrible they were when I was a boy and we used to have family holidays in a tin box without any modern facilities but now, after a few modern caravan holidays I have become a real enthusiast, a zealot even, rather like someone who has gone through a rapid religious conversion and has become a serious pain in the arse and this time, after banging on about it I persuaded Kim to join me to a holiday park in Whitley Bay in Northumberland.

Northumberland Postcard Map

It was my birthday and we began the weekend by driving north late on a Thursday afternoon and staying at a Premier Inn Hotel in Bishop Auckland.  Premier Inn Hotels are my favourite and at £30 for a room for a night, that, in my book awarded them another couple of gold stars.

After a night out at a pub/restaurant we woke early the next day and drove straight to the town centre for a Wetherspoon breakfast.

The pub is called the Stanley Jefferson to commemorate the fact that Stanley Jefferson once lived in Bishop Auckland and attended the Grammar School there.  Stanley Who I hear you ask?  Well, Stanley Jefferson is better known to everyone as Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame.  There is a statue of him nearby on the site of a theatre that was once owned by his parents, long since gone of course.

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I remember Laurel and Hardy from Saturday Morning Pictures at the Granada Cinema in Rugby where I lived as a boy.  They were my favourites then and they remain my favourites now.  Surely there has never been a finer comedy double act in entertainment history?  In the UK there are a seriously talentless pair of chumps called Ant and Dec who for some reason known only to the morons that vote for them, regularly win comedy duo awards but take my word for it these are dwarfs in the land of comedy giants like Stan and Ollie!

After a brisk walk around the town centre we left Bishop Auckland and County Durham and made our way north to Tyneside.

It was rather overcast when we emerged from the northern exit of the Tyne Tunnel and paid our £1.70 toll and disappointed by this we made our way to the small town/village of Tynemouth.

At Kim’s insistence (to avoid car parking charges) we left the car in a residential area and I worried about being clamped and then walked along the promenade to the ruins of a Priory on a craggy and windswept headland where by all accounts the queens of Edward I (Eleanor of Castile) and Edward II (Isabella (the She Wolf) of France) stayed in the while their husbands were away campaigning in Scotland. King Edward III considered it to be one of the strongest fortresses in the Northern Marches but not much of it remains today following its abandonment during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII.

Tynemouth Priory

It remains in an imposing location however set on a headland separating two magnificent sandy beaches.  To the north, King Edward’s Bay and to the south Longsands, an expanse of fine sand which in 2013 was voted one of the best beaches in the country by users of the world’s largest travel site TripAdvisor.  

They voted the beach the UK’s fourth favourite beaten only by Rhossili Bay in Wales, Woolacombe Beach in North Devon and Porthminster Beach at St Ives, Cornwall. The beach was also voted the twelfth best in Europe.  I am not sure if all the people who voted have ever been to Europe however!

Beyond the Priory and commanding the attention of all shipping on the Tyne is the giant memorial to Lord Cuthbert Collingwood, Nelson’s second-in-command at Trafalgar, who completed the victory after Nelson was killed on board HMS Victory. Collingwood is largely forgotten in the wake of Nelson’s tsunami of hero worship but his column in Tynemouth stands equally as tall and as proud as that of his boss in Trafalgar Square.

Collingwood Monument

Travelling north the next village is Cullercoats where a crescent of caramel sand shaped like a Saracen’s sword was once a fishing village and a hundred years ago home to several impressionist artists but is now a rather run down day trippers magnet for people from the city.

Everywhere I go seems to have a story to tell.  The most interesting fact about the place is its association with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) because following disasters in the mid nineteenth century and loss of life at Cullercoats the Duke of Northumberland financed a competition for a standard design of a lifeboat.  The winner was a larger self-righting boat that had a narrow beam and was much longer with higher end-boxes containing the air-cases tested to self-right when capsized.

The sea was calm today and we sat on the sand outside the lifeboat station but no one was called into action in the hour or so that we spent there.

Further along the coast was Whitley Bay which has a fine beach and a funfair and entertainment centre called Spanish City which featured in the Dire Straits song Tunnel of Love but which is closed now and undergoing extensive renovation. We stopped for a while at St Mary’s Island, just long enough to kill some time until our caravan was ready for us at four o’clock, where there is a redundant lighthouse and rock pools where children fish for crabs with small nets just as I used to fifty years ago give or take a year or so.

We checked in and I have to confess that I was a little disappointed. I had been spoiled a couple of months previously in an especially fine caravan in Great Yarmouth but where that was a gold star van this was only bronze but I am told by my travelling pal Dai that caravan allocation on these sites is always a bit of a lottery!

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Journey To The North – Bishop Auckland

Witton Castle Durham

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.

Escombe Methodist Church 1963

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.

Escomb Church Bishp Aukland Durham

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?

Aukland Castle Bishop Aukland Durham