CHRIS Lloyd takes a first peep at the panoramic view from the platform of the new Auckland Tower, which opens this weekend

The Northern Echo:

PANORAMIC VIEW: Andrew Ferrara, curator at the Auckland Project, on the viewing platform of the new tower

STANDING above the chimneypots of Bishop Auckland on the viewing

platform of the new Market Place tower, you can hear the sounds of change hammering away at your back as the stonesaws and the powertools transform an old Victorian bank into a new Spanish art gallery.

And arrayed at your feet, 15 metres below, are the results of ten centuries of change in Auckland Castle: the comings and goings of the prince bishops reflected in the remodelling, reshaping and rebuilding of their palace.

A slender boom arm of a giant crane, operating at the same height as the tower, lifts a hopper over the newly erected skeleton of the forthcoming faith gallery and lowers it into place beside the 16th Century Scotland Wing.

“In one excavation just about there,” says curator Andrew Ferrara, extending his arm out from the viewing platform and pointing so that he matches the shape of the crane, “we discovered two big Medieval drum tower bases and suddenly we were staring in the face something that would have been massive, a barbican, with arrowslits all over it and probably a portcullis – that was really exciting, trying to visualise it. Then you get to thinking about how much change has happened here over the centuries.”

The new tower, which opens on Saturday, is designed to be the starting point of a visit to Bishop Auckland, to give visitors a drone’s eye understanding of what they are about to see.

“The story telling on the site is from the Romans,” says Andrew, waving his arm in the direction of Binchester over the trees, “through to the 21st Century, so this gives a potted taste of the whole Auckland area and therefore how the castle and the bishops develop.

“The tower is designed to become the central orientation point of the whole Auckland project – not just a place to buy tickets but to understand the historical perspective of the landscape, of why the castle is here and therefore why you as a visitor are here.”

The tower itself is unconventional and therefore controversial.

It stands 29 metres tall, and has five wooden fingers splayed against the sky. It is meant to look like a siege engine – a portable tower that in time of war was pushed against the stone walls of a castle by enemies who were wanting to invade.

The main body of the tower is built in wood so that it feels like a temporary construction in comparison to the centuries-old stone all around.

Similarly the wooden groundfloor on the edge of the Market Place has shutters that open out to explain the town’s history when the visitor attractions are open. It is meant to feel like a temporary market stall that is packed away at the end of the day.

“The concept of having another tower within these walls is fitting as there are five towers on the site that we know of and a couple of half towers,” says Andrew. “Having a tower drawn up against the walls is within the historical mindset, and gives you the chance to peer into areas that were previously entirely restricted. It invites the visitor to break down the barriers.”

Across the broad sweep of the centuries, towers come and towers go. The towers Andrew witnessed earlier this summer as they were unearthed were the remains of a lost, and long forgotten, gatehouse. They were seven metres across, dated from about 1300, and had external staircases so that people could access the upper chamber to operate the portcullis or fire weapons at unwelcome guests.

This gatehouse disappeared after a couple of centuries as the castle expanded, their stone reworked or reused or just abandoned – the first floor of the new tower contains an exhibition of some of the important new archaeological discoveries, including a couple of wonderful dragons – and today the viewing platform looks down on a 1760 gatehouse.

“This gatehouse,” says Andrew pointing to the blue and gold clockface on top of the famous Robinson gate, “creates a block between the town and the castle, and it makes the castle seem foreboding, but this tower breaks it down – you can see into this previously restricted grand palace.

“One of the most fascinating things is that the castle is actively transformed all the way through the last 1,000 years. It never stands still, it is constantly being added to and changed – great medieval builders, Tudor fashions, the restoration, Georgian England, all of it integrated into the building.

“It is a joyful conundrum for the curator – which stories do we want to bring out?”

Standing on the platform above all of the centuries of stones, it is possible to feel the power of the prince bishops oozing out. In their heyday, they were second only to the king, in charge of justice and taxes from the Tees northwards and charged with keeping the rampaging Scots out.

“It’s hard to fathom how much power actually rested here,” says Andrew, surveying the scene. “The vast amount of intricate stonework we’ve found reflects their status as the king’s men, negotiating with emperors and popes, and people were brought to the castle from all over Europe to be impressed by the bishop’s power.

“I find it really exciting to take these fascinating stories from the past and share them with people through the artefacts and spaces that remain, and to show them how special Auckland really is.”

So the new tower is the gateway to Auckland’s past which in the near future, once the stonesaws have done their jobs and the hammering has ceased, will include the restored castle plus the art galleries, the walled garden, the deerpark and, of course, the Kynren nightshow in the green vale which is just visible from the viewing platform.

“The tower is a herald for the castle and the Spanish gallery opening up next year,” says Andrew. “It’s arriving, this is the beginning – and there’s more coming.”

Towering facts

  • There are 23,609 metres of wood in the tower – more than 14 miles if laid out, which would stretch from Bishop Auckland Market Place to Durham Cathedral
  • There are 219 pieces of timber in the tower’s frame
  • The tower is 29.8 metres high, and the viewing platform is 15.04 metres high
  • The viewing platform is accessed by 89 steps
  • There are 77 panes of glass in the tower, and 2,325 encaustic tiles from Turkey are laid on the floor
  • Saturday’s opening event is 10am to 3pm when admission to the tower is free. It will then be open daily from 10am to 4pm, with admission £3 for adults and £1 for children, although access will be free with tickets to any of the Auckland Project’s other attractions, including the mining gallery.