County Durham - August 2016
County Durham – August 2016
Based in the North East, we at Travel Bureau Destinations love to shine a light on all the fantastic venues and attractions that this region has to offer. We recently took a trip over to Durham to visit Auckland Castle and Seaham Hall Hotel and this is what we discovered…
Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland
Our first glimpse of Auckland Castle’s beautiful façade was made even more special coming after the fantastic approach along the castle walls, and a suitably dramatic entrance through tall stone gates. Once we passed out from under the archway we were greeted by the cheerful sight of a large grassy courtyard filled with handsome old trees and delicate white flowers. The building and grounds of Auckland Castle are as impressive as befits the erstwhile seat of the Prince Bishops, who at one time held an extraordinary amount of power in England, second only to that of the King.
Our tour of the castle started in St Peter’s Chapel: originally used as a great hall in medieval times, the space was converted into this spectacular chapel in the mid-17th century. St Peter’s at Auckland Castle is now the largest private chapel in Europe and the final resting place of five bishops.
Next we moved on to the Gentlemen’s Hall which, leading up a grand staircase to the state rooms, is where the Prince Bishops would have welcomed important visitors to the castle, including kings and queens. This room, which has been decorated and redecorated by various bishops’ wives over the years, is set to be restored to its former Georgian splendour. The restoration of the Gentlemen’s Hall is just one part of a huge project of renovation about to take place at Auckland Castle. The venue will close for two years while the work is carried out and reopen in 2018.
As we walked up to the first floor, we stopped beside amazing high windows looking out over the glorious Durham countryside. The view over the surrounding area is a testament to Auckland Castle’s commanding position above the River Wear, which in turn is a reflection of the level of influence held by the Prince Bishops in their time. The view today includes the site of Kynren, an epic live action show which brings to life 2000 years of British history in a breath-taking, night-time performance with a cast of hundreds.
Through the grand throne room is the elegant Long Dining Room which is home to the historic Zurbarán paintings. This collection of thirteen portraits, entitled Jacob and his Twelve Sons, was installed in Auckland Castle by Bishop Richard Trevor over 250 years ago. The purchase of these Jewish paintings was a symbolic declaration of social, political and religious tolerance and an unprecedented act of solidarity with oppressed Jews living in England at the time. The paintings were recently saved from going into a private collection by Johnathan Ruffer, who purchased the collection and founded the Auckland Castle Trust. It is this continued spirit of humanity and unity that strikes me as the real jewel in Auckland Castle’s crown.
Ruffer, a financial investor who is also a keen collector of art and a noted philanthropist, has become a passionate advocate for, and asset to, the region. Having secured the paintings and the castle for the community, Ruffer set about implementing a massive project of investment and renovation to regenerate the Bishop Auckland area. The Eleven Arches charity, which he founded in addition to the Auckland Castle Trust, used volunteers from the local community to produce its spectacular show, Kynren. Many of the volunteers were children and young people from less-than-privileged backgrounds who were taught amazing skills such as horse-riding and archery, and given the opportunity to take part in a life-changing experience.
Auckland Castle is already a great community asset, providing services in its beautiful chapel and housing exhibitions which highlight the talent of local artists. When we visited we were lucky enough to see the Pitmen and Prelates exhibition which celebrates the achievements of County Durham’s artists as well as highlighting the political and social significance of their works in relation to the region’s religious and historical heritage.
Once the renovations are complete in 2018, Auckland Castle will continue to do even more for the region, serving as a centre to a wider network of attractions which will bring visitors to County Durham. There will be a brand new visitor centre, a faith gallery charting the role of religion in the region’s history, a beautiful walled garden complete with Eden Project-inspired greenhouses, and a world-leading gallery and academic facility dedicated to Spanish Art.
The versatility and quality of these plans will, when come to fruition, make Auckland Castle a remarkable visitor attraction which will showcase the fantastic history and heritage of the area, highlight the beauty of the landscape and most importantly, the passions of the community and its people. And as for us, the visitors, we have a brilliant day out to look forward to!
Seaham Hall, Sunderland]
Located on Durham’s Heritage Coast, Seaham Hall is pure luxury with a modern vibrancy that sits surprisingly well in this historic location.
Built in 1791, Seaham Hall was the home of the wife of famous Romantic poet, Lord Byron. In fact, it was in this very building that the young couple were married and the room in which they said their vows is currently undergoing a dramatic conversion into a stunning new suite. The wedding-room suite is not going to be named after Lord Byron, or his wife Annabella, or with some reference to marriage, romance or love but is to be called the Ada Lovelace Suite. Ada was the only child of Byron and Anne Isabella; she went on to become a brilliant mathematician whose work was an essential part of the foundation for modern computing. Naming the new suite for her is entirely fitting for Seaham Hall which, much like Ada herself, is beautiful, rich and intelligent and, though part of an important historic tradition, is stoically untraditional and unexpected in the best ways possible.
We were given an exclusive sneak peek at the room, which is still under construction, but even half-finished it was impossible not to be impressed. A huge window looks out over the gardens and grounds at the back of Seaham Hall and a newly-built mezzanine platform, overlooking this wonderful view, is intended to hold the suite’s bedroom. When we visited, a beautiful free-standing, roll-top bath stood in the window and, even surrounded by dusty sheets and builders’ tools, the romance of this room was stirring. I have no doubt that when it is finished, it will be as beautifully decorated and furnished as the rest of the hotel – though not in the style you might expect…
Dating back to the late 18th century and being associated with Lord Byron, Seaham Hall has a wonderfully romantic heritage. Generally speaking, I like the sense of history and nostalgia that accompanies buildings like this: I like walking into a place and feeling like I’ve stepped into a period drama; I like the feeling of being transported to another time; I like old stuff. And as a general rule, I don’t hold with ‘modernising’ design – however, Seaham Hall has quite miraculously managed to win me over to the concept.
The suite we visited was nothing short of stunning. I was struck by the beauty of it instantly but there was something else. It was undeniably (dare I say it) cool. This is not an adjective that I use lightly but I stand by it: the décor of Seaham Hall’s suites is cool. Cool but not pretentious, a delicate balance that is rarely pulled off with such aplomb as it is here.
Although the suite did not have the air of a Georgian parlour it was definitely not completely absent an element of Byronic poetry. Byron and the other Romantic poets were practically worshipful in their treatment of nature and the prints and fabrics in the suite certainly paid homage (albeit in a more contemporary style) to the beauty therein. In fact, the design of Seaham Hall seemed to my eyes to recognise and reflect the best elements of its natural surroundings in more ways than this.
It began with the mesmerising ‘vortex’ water feature which greeted us as we approached the hotel entrance. The swirling whirlpool is captivating, even somewhat hypnotic, and reminded me that, although I couldn’t see the sea, it is inherently present in this place.
The coastal atmosphere continued upon entering the reception area although there was a shift from the cold blue of the North Sea to the warmer tones of the Mediterranean. The terracotta walls, sparsely decorated with arched alcoves and soft paintings, gave me the impression of having entered a grand villa on the southern coast of Italy or Spain, complete with the hazy aura of sunny heat.
As we made our way towards the spa, I was unprepared for the exquisite entrance that awaited us. Again, the sea was not forgotten: a tall and elegant silver spike, glistening with a flowing coat of softly falling water, drew us down to a small pool filled with koi carp. From there we went on through double doors to an indigo-lit corridor, where we stepped on wooden planks over a pathway of water.
Having come from the Durham coast, via a Mediterranean seaside villa, I had now arrived at the oceans of the Far East. I had a sense of having completed a journey which drew me further and further into the lap of luxury as I left the real world behind. And I can tell you, once I was enveloped in the luxury of Seaham Hall, I did not want to leave.