Bishop Auckland, Co Durham

For the outsider, one of the most interesting facts about Bishop Auckland is that it was once the home of the well loved comic actor Stan Laurel, who with his partner Oliver Hardy went on to make some of the best loved comedy films ever. Stan was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson, and went to the local King James l Grammar School. His father was manager of the Eden Theatre, which once stood in Newgate Street. The connection between Stan and Bishop Auckland was renewed in December 2010 when a local businessman bought a letter written by Stan to a friend in Bishop Auckland from his home in Beverley Hills. Interestingly, another famous son of the town was Jeremiah Dixon, who went to America with Mason, to map the Mason-Dixon Line.

For those who live in Bishop Auckland, though, it’s a different matter. They live in a place with a long history dating back to Roman times. About a mile away, at Binnington, is the site of a large cavalry fort. The main thoroughfare, Newgate Street, follows the roman road known as Dere Street. The first record however, is when Bishop Auckland, as a bishop’s borough, was given to the church by Canute. It is likely that there was a village on the site before this, as there has probably a church on this site from Saxon times. There is a complete seventh century Saxon church at Escomb, too. A collegiate church was founded in that area in 1083, when monks were sent there from Durham Cathedral.

In medieval times the small manor house at Auckland was enlarged and became a residence where the Bishop of Durham would entertain his guests, who were there to hunt in the forest of Weardale. The banqueting hall was converted into a chapel in the 17th century, and it is the largest bishop’s chapel in Europe.

The medieval Prince Bishops were very powerful, both religiously and politically, and ruled an area that was in effect a buffer between England and Scotland, thus a place of bloody conflict for many centuries. In the 19th century however, Bishop van Mildert, the last of the Prince Bishops, gave up his rights, moved to Bishop Auckland, and gave the Bishop’s Palace in the City of Durham to be a university.

Coal mining and the railways proved to be beneficial to Bishop Auckland in the 19th century, and it thrived until the 1960s when the coal industry began to decline. The town kept its status as a Market Town, and provides shopping facilities and professional services for the surrounding areas.

Of course, the main attraction in Bishop Auckland is the Bishop’s Palace itself, with its 800 acres of beautiful parkland. In the Palace can be seen thirteen individual paintings of the biblical Patriarch Jacob, and his twelve sons. In fact, only twelve are by the famous Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbaran, as Bishop Trevor, who bought them in 1756, could not acquire the painting of Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin, and commissioned a painter to make a copy.

In the centre of the town is the Discovery Centre, an exhibition and events venue, along with the many shops. There are lots of cafes too, for a refreshing drink after your fascinating visit to Bishop Auckland!