THE transformation of a palace which was home to the Bishops of Durham for 800 years into a major tourist attraction can now begin thanks to a £1m grant.

The Auckland Castle Trust has received the initial funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to start a £17m project to turn the castle in Bishop Auckland into a major heritage site.

The £1m, which is expected to be the first instalment of a £9m grant from the HLF, will be used to hire staff for the project, research the site and find architects to develop the scheme.

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The project will see the restoration of the castle’s state rooms and chapel and the remodelling and extension of the Scotland Wing and other parts of the site to ensure it is capable of sustaining two permanent exhibitions of international stature, and to provide facilities for visitors.

It will transform the palace, now under the ownership of the Auckland Castle Trust after being saved by philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, into a major heritage site which is expected to attract 120,000 visitors in five years time.

Auckland Castle has now opened to the public with one of its main features being the collection of paintings of Jacob and his 12 sons by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán which have hung in the dining room for more than 250 years.

Rowena Hackwood, chief executive of the Auckland Castle Trust, said the project will create jobs at the castle and increase trade for the town as a whole.

She said: “We were over the moon to receive the news of our successful application to the HLF.

“The announcement has given us great confidence to pursue our vision for the Castle and the area, and we are looking forward to a close working relationship with the HLF as we turn our vision into reality.”

Ivor Crowther, Head of HLF North East, said: “Auckland Castle is one of County Durham’s most distinctive landmarks with over 800-years-worth of history to showcase.

“We were hugely impressed by a set of really imaginative plans to open up the site and applaud the generosity of local philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer which enabled the Castle and paintings to be put in trust last year."

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