FOR centuries, on a sun-soaked, south-facing steep slope, the Bishop of Durham grew the fruit, the veg and the flowers that fed his palace and impressed his guests.

And at a time when pineapples were so rare that they toured stately homes, acting as a status symbol on the dining tables of the wealthy before moving quickly on to their next venue, it must have been impressive to find hands of exotic bananas growing in south Durham.

Blooming impressive, because also on the terraces next to Auckland Castle, the bishops’ gardeners grew the dahlias and chrysanthemums that made the mid-Victorian Bishop Auckland flower festival so renowned.


However, for much of the 20th Century, the walled garden were leased out to market gardeners who tried to redesign the ancient terraces to fit their polytunnels.

Now a ten year project to restore the gardens is bearing fruit. Redesigned by renowned historic gardens expert Pip Morrison, the walled gardens opened to the public a couple of weeks ago and are now part of The Auckland Project’s wide-ranging attraction to visitors.

The upper walled garden at Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland today.
 Picture: DAVID WOOD

“The fact that they had been growing veg on that slope so close to the castle since the late 17th Century is pretty unusual,” Pip told Echo Memories. “Most walled gardens associated with country houses in the 18th and 19th centuries were moved away from the house because the fashion was that you shouldn’t see gardeners and everything should look pretty natural.

“At Auckland Castle, they could have afforded to move the garden elsewhere but they chose to keep it very close to the castle and that, I think, is because it has this fantastic south facing slope.

“You can go there in February and be too hot!

“It has its own microclimate. There is no one in else in Auckland like that, so they kept the gardens where they were most productive, so I have always felt that it was very important that they carried on being productive gardens for the castle and restaurants.”

A 1680 oil painting of Auckland Castle showing the thin walled garden catching the sun on the left as it tumbles down the slope behind the lodge

In earliest times, the palace’s garden seems to have been on the north side of the castle, facing the River Wear until, in 1642, the English Civil War broke out. It was a battle for power between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists which ended with Charles I losing his head in 1649. Oliver Cromwell appointed Sir Arthur Haselrigg the Governor of Newcastle, and in 1650, he bought Auckland Castle. Sir Arthur despised bishops and the old power that they represented. He moved into the lodge house at the castle gateway and began blowing up the bishops’ 350-year-old chapel.

To fuel his campaign of destruction, he needed to eat, and it seems that around his time, the garden on the south-facing slope behind his lodge became productive.

In 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne, and a new Bishop of Durham, John Cosin, was appointed. He took over the ruins of the castle – he said it had been “almost utterly destroyed by the ravenous sacrilege” of Haselrigg – but the lodge and the garden attached to it remained a separate property until Bishop Richard Trevor, who was in post from 1752 to 1771, bought it.

In his day, the garden was a slim strip running down the slope to the Gaunless, but his successor, Bishop John Egerton, doubled the garden’s size, building many of the walls that still stand to this day.

The walled garden tumbling down the slope is on the extreme left of this 1728 etching of Auckland Castle

“The top area of the garden was always used for more higher status things, and the bishop probably visited the top with his friends as there were steps coming down into it,” says Pip. “There was the vinery/pinery where they would grow tropical fruit, and this was partly a display garden as well as being productive.”

The glasshouses in the restored garden are on the site of the bishop's vinery/pinery

The sweet exotic taste of the pineapple was the fashionable flavour of the late 18th Century, and it looks as if the bishop adopted the latest techniques to grow his own. He planted pineapples in soil that contained oak bark from tanning pits. Horse manure triggered fermentation in the bark which heated the soil so the pineapple felt it was as warm as its native South America and so carried on growing.

“There was a very short period of time where it was thought you could successfully grow vines over the roof of a vinery/pinery and pineapples on shelves below them, but it was soon realized that these conditions didn’t suit either of them – there wasn’t enough light for the pineapples and it was too hot and steamy for the vines,” says Pip. “Auckland, though, had two of these vinery/pinerys.”

There were probably hot water pipes running through the soil and coal-burning furnaces inside the thick walls.

“The flues go up diagonally through the wall at 15 metre intervals so there were multiple fires with chimneys sitting on top of the walls out of which the smoke eventually came – it must have looked pretty amazing,” says Pip. “It was certainly enough to keep the frost off.”

There are several springs that burst out of the steep slope and with the Gaunless at the bottom there was always a plentiful supply of water.

“The soil is quite clay-y and so still needs improving, but because it is on such a steep slope – it is one-in-three to one-in-five – as much as you put material on it tends to go downwards,” says Pip. “When we started the restoration, the bottom wall next to the river was buried beneath a metre-and-a-half of soil which had slipped down the hill, and the foundations of the top walls had become exposed.”

A guano advert from The Northern Echo in 1878

Manure from the castle’s stables would have helped improve the soil, and the bishop could have paid for seabird guano from Peru. As unlikely as it sounds, Victorian gardeners were mad about Peruvian seabird guano. There were several importers at Stockton’s docks who moved the guano around the region by rail.

So in these steep gardens, the bishop’s men grew grapes, peaches, apricots, plums, vines, lemons, oranges, tomatoes and strawberries.

On November 11, 1842, the Durham Advertiser reported, with autumnal astonishment, that two pears had been harvested in the bishop’s garden.

In February 1845, The Gardener’s Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette told how a Musa Cavendishii plant – a dwarf banana – in the bishop’s pinery had produced “120 fine fruit, the whole of which weighed from 2 to 3 stones”.

This was pioneering horticulture. This banana was named after William Cavendish, the Duke of Devonshire, who had only received the first plants from Mauritius at Chatsworth House in 1834 and yet here, a decade later, they were fruiting in south Durham.

Figs now grow in pots in the walled garden at Auckland Castle

The real star of the show, though, was a fig tree, reputedly planted by Bishop Shute Barrington when he was in the castle between 1791 and 1826. Its existence in the chilly northern county was regularly remarked upon in newspapers around the country.

For example, when Charles Longley became bishop in 1856, the Durham Advertiser said that he had “come into possession at Auckland Castle of one of the largest fig trees in the kingdom, so that the bishop may literally sit in the shadow of his own fig tree. For many years it has produced a large quantity of fruit greatly prized for its superior flavour. The tree grows in a large pine stove at Auckland Castle gardens, and always in the summer season attracts a large number of admirers.”

The 1859 flower show in Auckland Park, by John Wilson Carmichael. Auckland Castle is top right, the town is in the middle at the top, and the showground with its marquees and thousands of people is in the centre

The success of the gardens must have been part of the inspiration for the Bishop Auckland Floral and Horticultural Society, of which the bishop was president. It held its annual show, which was of regional significance, in Auckland Park. It was attended by thousands, and of course the bishop’s best produce was better than anyone else’s – in 1876, the Teesdale Mercury reported that his “zonal geraniums” were “unapproachable”.

This golden, and opulent, age of gardening came to an end with the First World War, and during the 20th Century, market gardeners tried to make the steep slope pay in a commercial age.

Beginning the restoration of the walled garden

Now, in the 21st Century, it has been restored so that it is supplying the castle restaurant, the Park Head Hotel and the local community while also acting as a tourist attraction and an educational resource.

“We are not slavishly reproducing what was there in the past, partly because it changed over time, particularly in the 20th Century, and partly because there are bigger, more formal walled gardens elsewhere in the North East,” says Pip. “Auckland is all about this steep slope, and we wanted to make that work again while tying it into its history.”

In the restored walled gardens of Auckland Castle

  • Admission to the gardens is included in the ticket to Auckland Castle. Every Saturday until July 13, there are Walks & Talks with knowledgeable volunteers showing people around the garden, and on July 31 a special event, The Walled Garden Reborn: In Conversation, is being held, featuring Jane Ruffer, from The Auckland Project, designer Pip Morrison and gardens curator Andy Nesbitt talking about the history of the gardens. The £10 tickets include a private after-hours tour. For more info and to book, go to