AUCKLAND Castle has seen 900 years come and go. And down the centuries it has been changed and transformed, mirroring the historical and social movements of the times. Great medieval builders, Tudor fashions, the restoration, Georgian England… all of them have been integrated into the building.

It was once home to the powerful Prince Bishops of Durham, some of the country’s most influential figures, but in recent times it had lost some of its shine.

On November 2, it reopens to the public following a three-year conservation programme led by regeneration charity The Auckland Project and supported by a number of organisations and individuals, including a £12.4m grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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“During the restoration, we uncovered a whole host of historic features that we weren’t expecting,” says Head of Exhibitions and Interpretation Clare Baron. “Most notably this includes a Tudor servery dating back to the reign of Henry VII, when Richard Fox sat as Bishop of Durham. The servery, which would have been used to pass food from the kitchens, is inscribed with the date 1500 and the Latin motto ‘Est deo Gracia’, or ‘Thanks be to God’, which would have allowed servers to avoid saying Grace in the dining room.

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“Another key discovery was the survival of a whole wall of historic wallpaper in the Morning Room, dating to the second quarter of the 19th century. The block printed pattern, which represents an exotic flowering plant with brown leaves and blue flowers, would have been an expensive purchase for the castle at the time.”

For more than 900 years, Auckland Castle served as a private palace for some of the most powerful and influential men in British history – the Prince Bishops and subsequent Bishops of Durham. It was developed and altered by its various residents to reflect their power and authority and later to provide a home for them and their families.

When The Auckland Project’s founder Jonathan Ruffer bought the Castle in 2012, he saw an opportunity to open it up to the public and create a new destination that would not only draw in visitors but also tell the stories of Bishops in a way that had never been done before.

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The conservation work has concentrated on returning much of the building to its Georgian Gothic splendour, originally created in the 1790s by architect James Wyatt, on behalf of Bishop Barrington. It was largely informed by an historic inventory by Bishop Barrington’s secretary William Emm, as well as by surviving drawings and similar designs for Wyatt’s masterpiece at Fonthill Abbey.

Paint analysis was also conducted to help identify the original colours of the State Rooms, which progress from a neutral stone to pale blue, lilac and finally pink in the Throne Room, marking the end of the processional route. “As part of the conservation, we are also opening up the Bishops’ private apartments for the first time,” says Clare. “This is where they lived together with their families and wider household.”

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Each of the rooms will highlight episodes in the life of a particular Bishop, capturing a specific moment in time right up to the present day. In this way their unique characters will come to light, reminding visitors that whilst these men were powerful figures, they also had their own individual lives, impulses and quirks.

To enhance the visitor experience, a small shop has been added and the former medieval kitchen has been transformed into the Bishop’s Kitchen café.

“Soundscapes and audio-visual displays will work with the interior furnishings and objects on display to bring the stories of Auckland Castle to life,” says Clare. “I hope that will resonate with our visitors, while they also enjoy a thought-provoking day out at what is undoubtedly one of the best-preserved medieval Bishops' palaces that Europe has to offer.”

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ST PETER’S CHAPEL

St Peter’s Chapel is the scared heart of Auckland Castle and remains an active site of worship. It is thought to be one of the largest private chapels in Europe, outside of Rome. The Auckland Project are developing a long term conservation management plan for this part of the Castle in partnership with the Bishop’s office.

In the meantime visitors to Auckland Castle from November will be able to visit the Chapel, which was originally built as a medieval great hall, and take in its key features, including elaborately decorated, stained glass depicting the Northern saints, and coats of arms adorning the walls.

THE STATE ROOMS

The State Rooms were created between 1791 and 1795, when Bishop Barrington commissioned renowned architect James Wyatt to remodel Auckland Castle in the fashionable Gothic style, creating a grand new processional route. Wyatt was one of the most fashionable and prolific architects at the end of the Georgian era, building homes and altering interiors for the period’s most influential figures, including King George III.

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His series of State Rooms, including the ascent of an imposing staircase, created a physical delay for visitors as the moved through the Castle, heightening their anticipation at meeting the Bishop. They route runs from the State Entrance, through to the Gentlemen’s Hall and upstairs to the Ante Room, Throne Room and Long Dining Room.

THE PRIVATE APARTMENTS

Seven domestic spaces will be opened to the public for the first time, each set to a different time from the 1830s to the present day. One is the Jenkins Room, set to the 1980s with support and input from Bishop David Jenkins’ family who lived here at that time, and the Small Drawing Room, where conservation uncovered 11 layers of historic wallpapers hidden beneath the surface. Spanning 200 years from the 1790s to the 1990s, they are a fascinating record of the changing tastes of the bishops and their families.

To celebrate Auckland Castle re-opening its doors, The Auckland Project is hosting a special Community Day on Saturday, November 2. Entry to the Castle will be offered at the discounted rate of £5 per adult, £4 concessions and £1 per child for this day only. Tickets are only available in person at Auckland Tower, Bishop Auckland Market Place. General admission begins the following day. Tickets online (aucklandproject.org), by phone 01388-743797 or in person at Auckland Tower.