THE "Pompeii of the North" has been saved for the public after a £2m sale to a philanthropist.

The Roman site at Binchester, near Bishop Auckland, has been sold to Jonathan Ruffer, who leads the trust which now owns neighbouring Auckland Castle.

Mr Ruffer's initial bid to buy the land from the Church Commissioners did not progress, leading to the start of a "Save Binchester" campaign last month, which quickly received more than 4,000 signatures online.

Binchester is regarded as one of the most important Roman sites in Britain – hence its nickname the "Pompeii of the North" – but it straddled two of the ten plots of land that the Church Commissioners put up for sale. This led to fears that the fort and surrounding village could end up in different hands, which could have jeopardised public access, research and, ultimately, its development as a heritage attraction.

Mr Ruffer found out today (Monday, September 22) that his bid has now been accepted.

He said: "The campaign has worked – the Church Commissioners have listened to it and acted upon it, so I am very grateful to them. I also want to say big hats in the air to The Northern Echo for its part in the campaign, to Dr Chris Ferguson at our end for organising it, and to all the people who supported it and signed up to it.

"Binchester is of immense importance and to have it in a stable, single ownership is vital."

Mr Ruffer is the Stokesley-born City financier who bought Auckland Castle, the former residence of the Bishop of Durham, and its famous collection of Zurbaran paintings from the Church Commissioners for £15m. He placed it in the ownership of a trust which is now turning it into a multi-million pound visitor attraction.

Dr Ferguson, the head curator at Auckland Castle, said: "Our first priorities are to secure the site for winter, work with Durham County Council and English Heritage to help shape Binchester's future and to start pulling together plans to ensure the Roman remains continue to be available for archaeologists and the public to enjoy for generations to come.

"We are also keen to see the fort developed sympathetically as a tourist destination for the benefit of Bishop Auckland and to add to the region's already rich visitor offering.

"The importance of Binchester cannot be over-stated and we look forward to thinking about how we will improve it to create a major heritage attraction for the North-East that will provide a significant economic boost to the local area."

A spokesperson for the Church Commissioners said: "We are pleased to confirm that the Auckland Castle Trust have been successful in their bid for Binchester Roman Fort.

"The bidding process for the sale of the Bishop Auckland Estate has been rigorously transparent and open with all bidders being treated without prejudice or preference.

"The bid from the Trust was considered to be the best offer when full considerations had been made as part of the sale process.

"That process now moves to the stage of completing the legal documentation with the sale remaining subject to contract and transaction agreements."