Ten years ago this month, Bishop Auckland was in uproar as the Church Commissioners tried to sell the town’s treasures. Then a multi-millionaire philanthropist stepped in…

“WHAT I saw was that Bishop Auckland, which I didn’t really know even though I was brought up 30 miles away, had an extraordinary legacy,” says Jonathan Ruffer, via the wonders of Zoom.

“You’ve got Emperor Constantine at Binchester – he was in York in 306, so there are chances that he was regularly at Binchester, and we’re now searching for a pair of pyjamas with his initials on.

“That set of Zurbarans is the best set of pictures that he did, and they are in the cradle of Christianity.

“The end of the Stockton & Darlington Railway is near, you’ve also got Stan Laurel, and you’ve got authenticity.”

Zoom is able to connect us virtually across the ether, but if it could teleport us back ten years to the start of 2011, it would reveal Bishop Auckland in turmoil. The Church Commissioners had been stymied in their secretive attempts to auction the paintings by Francisco de Zurbaran which lie at the heart of Auckland Castle, and there was huge debate among local people and politicians about what should happen next.

But it wasn’t just a debate about the fate of 13 paintings from the 1640s showing Jacob and his 12 sons. It was a debate about the future of the whole town.

The MP, Helen Goodman, released sensitive documents to The Northern Echo which whipped up a storm and provoked a howl of outrage in the paper’s letters column; there were public meetings, there were behind-the-scenes meetings; your humble correspondent harangued the First Commissioner in the snow outside the Bishop of Jarrow’s house, and in London, the Stokesley-born financier Ruffer was weighing up a £15m bid for the Spanish paintings, which he hadn’t yet seen which he hoped might somehow be used to revive the town’s ailing fortunes.

“In March 2010, after 15 or 16 years running an investment company, I’d decided I wanted to come up to the North-East to make a difference, I didn’t know how, but that didn’t worry me as I thought I had two years to work it out,” he says.

But then in late 2010, the Church Commissioners seized on the departure of Bishop Tom Wright and tried to liquidate the valuable paintings. It felt as if they were trying to sell the family silver while everyone had popped off on holiday.

So shortly before Christmas 2010, Mr Ruffer made his first bid of £15m. “They conferred for about one minute 45 seconds and turned it down,” he says, “even though we all knew that was the price that was being asked. I think they smelt a fish, although there wasn’t one.”

In early 2011, it seemed as if Auckland Castle, the 900-year-old home of the Bishop of Durham, might also be on the table.

“This was a very different kettle of fish,” says Mr Ruffer. “I was born in the 1950s and my generation saw the visceral grief of being the head of a family who left the house that had been in their occupation for hundreds of years. It taught me to be frightened of these old buildings as they are implacable in their demands.”

But the merest hint, the vaguest outline of a nascent idea was beginning to come together around the rather odd paintings, the old buildings and the £15m.

“I’m very Goddy and one of the features of having a strong sense of the core is that it makes one appear to any onlooker rather random and possibly even reckless,” he says. “I spent my whole life doing things which careful people didn’t do – I was a very bad barrister so I had time on my hands and I wrote a book about Edwardian shooting parties.

“But if you are doing things that no one else has done, no one knows what’s the best thing to do. How many people walk in off the street and buy paintings or a castle? Is there a right way of proceeding?

“But it was clear from the beginning that it had to be built around a visitor attraction.”

And that was because of the legacy that the past had left to Bishop Auckland, reaching right back to when Constantine was crowned Roman emperor at York in 306AD, running through the rise and fall of the Prince Bishops, taking in the industrial era of railways and mines and even sprinkling on top the comic genius of Stan Laurel, who spent much of his first decade in the town.

“When I started, I knew nothing, but I could see that we had a silk purse in Bishop Auckland, not a sow’s ear, and to begin with I acquired buildings and opportunities rather like the early stages of a game of Monopoly,” he says. “Whatever was available I went for it, and like a game of Monopoly, you don’t know what are going to be the strategic sites, so you need to get as much as you can in the early stages and then try and work out what it is afterwards.”

But he had seen there were two types of visitor attraction: there was a Disneyfied one where stories are dressed up as themepark entertainments, and there was the authentic one where the bricks and mortar spoke of the history they had eyewitnessed.

“I wanted Bishop Auckland to have both,” says Mr Ruffer, and one of the first fruits of his labours was the opening in 2016 of the Kynren nightshow, a riotous romp through 2,000 years performed by 1,000 volunteers on an open air stage. “You are playing with the authenticity at Kynren, where you look up and see the chapel.”

Ten years on from the first roll of the dice in the great game of Monopoly, Mr Ruffer has amassed a great range of attractions on the square marked Bishop Auckland. These range from the Spanish gallery, which he believes will bring in a small but internationally important audience, and the mining art gallery, which represents the local heritage. Kynren, already seen by a quarter-of-a-million people, is balanced by the castle which reopened after three years of restoration a couple of months before the pandemic. It will soon be joined by a faith museum.

There’s Roman Binchester which is to be surrounded by an eco-farm; there’s the walled castle gardens to capitalise on the popularity of gardening and as a reminder that in Victorian times, Auckland Castle had the biggest flower show in the country, and there’s a growing foodie experience.

“Fun for all the family is a 1950s slogan but at its heart, that is what it is,” says Mr Ruffer.

Plus, every 1950s schoolboy’s steam dream, there’s the Weardale Railway.

“We need now local and national government to give us the infrastructure support,” he says. “If this place is going to become full of people from outside we’ve got to have the movement about the town revolutionised. People who come by car must be able to park, and wouldn’t it be nice if you could start from Darlington and go up the dale on a heritage line in a steam train – but we need proper money to create the infrastructure.”

From having his first bid slapped back to the point where, today, the Auckland Project is straining at the leash to open itself fully to the visiting public when the pandemic lifts, has been a ten year odyssey which he has undertaken with his wife, Jane, by his side.

“No, I haven’t enjoyed this journey,” he says. “It is wholly positive and energising, but it is not enjoyable. My dad was in the Russian convoys in the war and he helped sink the Bismarck – he lived to be 98 and by the time he died, I got the impression he had sunk the Bismarck single handedly – and he clearly felt looking back on a long life that he was most alive during the war, but did he enjoy it?

“I don’t mean people should feel sorry for me because it is not a sacrifice, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

“It has made my life. It is what I was made for, what Jane is made for. I had no idea that she would find self-fulfilment in Bishop Auckland as well.”

While other town centres will struggle for years to find a future once the restrictions ease, Bishop Auckland may have hit rock bottom a decade ago and now it has a vision of where it is going by drawing on all the things leftover by its past.