Make the trip for …
A regeneration charity has used art to help transform the fortunes of this former mining town. The Auckland Project is a multi-venue art exhibition in the town centre, whose star attraction is the Spanish Gallery, which opened in 2021 and has a jaw-dropping collection of 16th- and 17th-century Spanish art by Velázquez, El Greco, Murillo and more, housed in a beautifully converted former bank and school.
By contrast, the Mining Art Gallery has a moving display of more than 400 works made by coalminers. Miners’ sketching societies were set up between the first and second world wars and some of the men left the pits to become professional artists, including Tom McGuinness and Norman Cornish.
Meanwhile, neo-gothic Auckland Castle, on the edge of town, displays in its opulent dining room “the Zurbaráns”, a series of 13 lifesize paintings depicting Jacob and his 12 sons by Francisco de Zurbarán, which have hung there since 1756. The castle’s Bishop Trevor Gallery has a collection including work by Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and George Stubbs, and also puts on temporary exhibitions.
The Bishop Auckland town hall has a contemporary art gallery, currently showing photographic portraits of 90 girls aged 10-12 (until 13 May, free). The 29-metre-high Auckland Tower has a platform with views across town, castle and countryside. A new addition to the Auckland Project, the Faith Museum, opens this autumn.
When to go
Kynren, a spectacular outdoor, live-action history show with a 1,000-strong cast, is staged in Bishop Auckland every Saturday from 29 July to 9 September.
The castle, tower and galleries all have gift shops that stock jewellery, ceramics and prints from local makers, and there’s even a new artist-designed Bishop Auckland tweed.
The 60-hectare Auckland Castle deer park was created more than 800 years ago by the Prince Bishops of Durham as a hunting ground. Today there are three walking routes (up to three miles) through parkland, oak and chestnut trees, and alongside the River Gaunless. Historic features include a Georgian gothic deer house and restored 17th-century walled gardens.
Drinks and dinner
Fifteas, a vintage tearoom on Market Place, has a live singer on Sunday afternoons. The Stanley Jefferson pub is named after comic legend Stan Laurel (born Jefferson), who spent some of his childhood in the town. El Castillo, a tapas restaurant with a northern English twist, opened next to the Spanish Gallery last year. It sources produce from the castle gardens for dishes such as beetroot, potato and courgette tortilla (£6.75).
The Gables Glamping Pods in Escomb, a village just outside the town, are set in pretty gardens and each have their own hot tub (from £130 for two, including continental breakfast). There is a pod spa, a horsebox bar and a dining tipi for breakfast, and woodfired pizzas at the weekend. Escomb’s seventh-century church is one of just four complete Anglo-Saxon churches in England. The recently refurbished Park Head Hotel, on the edge of Bishop Auckland, reopened last month with 38 en suite rooms (doubles from £85.50 room only).
Bishop Auckland is the nearest railway station, but a car is useful to explore the wider Vale of Durham.