County Durham

For the love of Brancepeth

I had not intended to share another castle with you today, in the midst of my castle trilogy of walks, but the owners of Brancepeth Castle touched me deeply.  How can such a monumental castle remain so unknown?  And how much more effort can a man and wife put into the preservation of their home?  Had it not been for the Heritage Open Day events, I should never have known this story.

Brancepeth is a tiny and delightful village, just 5 miles south-west of Durham City.  A Norman castle was built here, on a fine lookout point across the valley.  It was rebuilt by the Neville family in the late 14th century, then confiscated by the Crown, in 1569, for their involvement in the Rising of the North.  A succession of owners followed, the last major restoration at the hands of the architect Anthony Salvin in the mid-19th century.  The castle has never seen conflict, but in 1939 became the headquarters of the Durham Light Infantry.  They left in 1962.  And then the current poignant phase of the castle’s history began.

In 1978, Margaret Dobson, wife of publisher Dennis Dobson, bought the castle to store the company’s stock of books, the lease on their Notting Hill property having expired.  Her husband died before the move north, but she and her 7 children inhabited the castle.  Mrs. Dobson did much to restore fabric and interiors but, you can imagine, such a property is a money pit.  The lead roof had been stripped by a previous tenant.  The resourceful lady refurbished the main function rooms to generate income from craft fairs and auctions.  Shakespearean plays were staged in the courtyard, and rooms let to students at Durham University.  Since her death, aged 86, in October 2014, family have carried on the work as best they can.  Her daughter, who led the tour, explained that metal supports had been used in the most recent restoration.  The rusting of these necessitated rebuilding, at the cost of £86,000 for just one of the vital towers.

The building is astounding. Everything from the huge chapel to original medieval vaults below ground.  The contrast between the beauty I’ve shown you, and the incredible amount of work still to be done couldn’t be greater.  Ceilings and paintwork peel, draughty corridors and flights of stairs proliferate.  But the building is loved, and nurtured, by a couple no longer young, but dedicated.  I wish them well.  Please go and attend one of their events, if you can.

The cause must have its champions up and down the country, but none is more committed than Becky.  As another Heritage Open Day weekend begins, join her In the Pink, and then get yourself out and find something interesting in your area.

A Bishop Auckland Revival

There’s a new bustle to Bishop Auckland these days, and it’s not before time.  It’s been a sad little place for the last many years, but finally someone has taken pity on it and started to breath new life into the dejected streets.  There’s still an impoverished look to the shops, in common with many of our high streets, but change is afoot.  In the vanguard, No. 42 leads the way with it’s fiercely pointy roof.  Describing itself as a gateway to both past and future, upstairs the Pod provides studio space to encourage artistic creativity.  And look!  The yarn bombers are about.

It all began with Auckland Castle, and a vision to turn it into a faith, art and heritage destination on an international scale.  Jonathan Ruffer, Chairman of the Auckland Project, has never lacked for ambition, but what is being achieved in Bishop Auckland is remarkable.  Back in 2014 I took you on a walk through the beautiful castle and grounds, with their distinctive Deer House.  A highlight of the post was the story of the paintings by Spanish master, Francisco de Zurbaran.  Auctioned for in excess of 15 million pounds, they were bought by Ruffer and the Trust he set up, to enable them to stay in Bishop Auckland.  They are soon to feature in a state of the art Spanish Gallery, opposite the new Mining Museum, on Market Square.  The castle is closed to the public and the gardens a bit of a mess until they reopen in December this year.  Meantime Kynren, a spectacular action show, taking you through 2000 years of history, will enliven the grounds again this summer.  I need to book a ticket.

The town isn’t lacking in history, having strong links with the Prince Bishops of Durham.  Surrounded by the mining industry until its decline, the town was once a railway hub and has an enormous entry in Wikipedia, for those who might be interested.  I’ll leave you with that happy chappy, Stan Laurel, who lived in the town as a child.  “Another fine mess you’ve got me into”.

Speaking of which, I didn’t have my camera that day, and had to improvise with some shots taken on my phone.  Scratches head!  You’ll get a better look around, and a peep at the paintings, on my original Auckland Castle post.

That last snippet of Autumn

Through a fence, lengthening shadows and a last hint of colour

Through a fence, lengthening shadows and the last hint of colour

The jacket and me went walking again today.  Goodness it was cold, but glorious, once I was striding along.  The village of West Auckland in County Durham is one I have often driven through but never before stopped in.  Our walk leader was born and bred there so this bright, late Autumn day seemed a good time to take a closer look.

The village green, with its claim to footballing fame

The village green, with its claim to footballing fame

How strange that this quiet village should be a part of footballing history!  In 1909 West Auckland FC represented Great Britain in the inaugural World Cup competition in Torino, Italy.  A team largely made up of coal miners, they struggled to raise the finance for the trip.  Despite this they went on to beat Swiss team FC Winterthur 2-0 in the final, and even retained their title in 1911, beating Juventus 6-1!  Those were the days!

Me, I’m relishing any dry, bright days when I can get out and about.  Me and the warm jacket, that is!