Regenerating Culture in Durham: Barnard Castle, Auckland Castle and Headlam Hall

Mark Bibby Jackson visits Barnard Castle, The Auckland Project and High Force while staying at Headlam Hall Country Hotel & Spa, Durham.

Culture & History, Europe, Gastronomy, Luxury Travel, Outdoors

Mark Bibby Jackson visits Barnard Castle, The Auckland Project and High Force while staying at Headlam Hall Country Hotel & Spa, Durham.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a travel writer is when you discover an attraction which has the potential to rejuvenate an area that has fallen on hard times. The Auckland Project is precisely this.

The Auckland Project : Faith Museum

This charitable project is investing millions into transforming Bishop Auckland into a culture and heritage destination. Its latest venture, the first Faith Museum in the UK, opened in October 2023.

The museum traces the history of faith in these islands over the course of 6,000 years, culminating by asking the question of what faith means in today’s world. For me, out of the 250 pieces on display, the stand outs were a portrait of Charles I awaiting his execution painted by an unknown artist and the contemporary visual and musical installation Eidolon by Mat Collishaw, which involves a blue iris as a symbol of faith consumed by flames. Even for a strict atheist such as myself the Faith Museum makes for an interesting visit.

Faith Museum, photo courtesy of The Auckland Project
Faith Museum, photo courtesy of The Auckland Project

Auckland Castle

The museum is located in the Scotland Wing of Auckland Castle, a Grade I listed building. Built in the 12th century for Bishop Antony Bek, the castle used to house the Prince Bishops. These men were granted extraordinary powers including the raising of armies and levying taxes by the Norman kings in order to keep peace in the north of the country and prevent incursions from the Scots.

Inside is St Peter’s Chapel created by Bishop Cosin in 1665 from the medieval great hall. He died in 1671, his body lies under the chapel. Apparently, the organ which was built in 1688 is still working. The chapel itself was restored in the 1970s and is quite beautiful.

Auckland Castle has been restored as part of the Auckland Project. Part of which has involved curating individual rooms to tell particular stories through the ages set in the castle. These even have their own aromas – coffee, tobacco etc.

Auckland Project 1 - Long Dining Room Auckand Castle
Long Dining Room Auckand Castle, photo courtesy of The Auckland Project

The stand-out room is the Long Dining Room which includes The Zurburans collection of paintings of Jacob and his 12 sons by Francisco de Zurburán.

Spanish Gallery and Mining Art Gallery

More of the Spanish artist’s work can be found in the Spanish Gallery, a few minutes’ walk from Auckland Castle, also part of the Auckland Project. It is apparently the first UK gallery dedicated to Spanish art and culture in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Another room in the castle tells the story of the 1892 miners’ strike, with the faint whiff of coal. In 2017, the Auckland Project opened the first dedicated Mining Art Gallery, featuring 420 works by local artists such as Tom McGuiness, who was conscripted to the mines as a Bevin Boy in 1944. Like so many of the mining artists, he left school to go down the pits at the age of 14.

The gallery follows a miners route from home, walking down the road and to the pit in works such as Bait Time, which shows miners taking a short break down the mines. Upstairs, the focus is more on the communities which were built up around the pits and destroyed by Thatcher during the 1980s Miners’ Strike. Crowded Bar by Norman Cornish shows faceless miners huddled around pints, while McGuinness’ Women Waiting at the Pithead depicts spectral women waiting for the return of their menfolk following news of a disaster in the pit.

Auckland Project - Mining Art Gallery
Mining Art Gallery, photo courtesy of The Auckland Project

It is a haunting and sobering experience that demonstrates the damage caused by the Thatcher Government on mining communities in places such as Bishop Auckland. Communities which in many respects have never fully recovered, something which the Auckland Project is trying to redress. It is a wonderful project. All the museums are excellent in their own right, but together they exceed my most lofty expectations.

The hope is that this project will help to revitalise Bishop Auckland, which is pretty run down.

Barnard Castle Bowes Museum

It is appropriate that my short stay in Durham concludes at the Auckland Project, for two days earlier it commenced at another museum with ties to the county’s mining roots.

The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle is unusual as it was built for John Bowes and his wife Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevallier as a bespoke museum. The illegitimate son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, Bowes was the local MP and mine owner. Coffin-Chevallier was an actor and daughter of a clock maker, as well as a talented artist. They met in France while she was performing at the Théâtre des Variétés, which Bowes bought. Neither of them lived to see the museum completed.

Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle
Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle

However, the museum still bears their mark, including some 60 paintings by Coffin-Chevallier as well as some of their original furniture. The museum has the largest collection of Spanish paintings in the UK outside of London and Edinburgh as well as a very interesting collection of designs by Vivienne Westwood, which are on display until 4 February.

The most significant exhibit on display is the Silver Swan automaton, which forms part of the museum’s exhibition Movement: Celebrating the Magic of the Silver Swan (until 7 January 2024). This also features work by Turner Prize nominated Yinka Shonibare and local artist Martin Smith, who has an amazing automated tree in the forecourt outside the front of the museum.

The Swan, photo courtesy of the Bowes Museum
The Silver Swan, photo courtesy of the Bowes Museum

Created by John Joseph Merlin in the 18th century, The Silver Swan is a life-sized automaton of a swan sitting in a stream of glass rods in which silver fish swim, surrounded by silver leaves. When functional – sadly it was being repaired during my visit – the swan floats on the glass rods, to melodies from a music box. Bowes purchased the Silver Swan in 1872 from a Parisian jewellery.

The exhibition includes an interesting collection of automated machines new and old, including a rose lathe engine from 1768. You can even have a go at creating your own automaton, although I doubt that my penguin sitting on a globe will become any collector’s piece. The museum also has a pleasant café where I enjoyed an excellent seafood chowder from its seasonal menu before visiting the exhibitions.

Barnard Castle

The Bowes Museum is located in Barnard Castle, the town which shot to fame recently when Dominic Cummins used it as his eye test run for his drive to London during lockdown.

Mark at Castle Barnard
Mark at Castle Barnard

The castle is one of the largest in the north due to its strategic position over the river Tees. Both town and castle were planned together in 12th century by Bernard de Baliol. So, really it should be Bernard’s Castle. Perhaps Dominic should have gone to Specsavers after all.

Currently run by English Heritage, the castle was the setting for a stand-off between rebel forces and the Crown in 1569 during the Rising of the North when Sir George Bowes withheld 5,000 rebels for four days. Despite his ultimate surrender, the delay is considered largely responsible for the plot’s failure. Barnard Castle was dismantled in the 17th century to provide building materials for Raby Castle, which Sir Henry Vane chose as his main residence.

All that remains now are ruins, although you do get good views of the river where you can imagine a certain Dominic deliberating whether it was safe for him to drive back to London from its banks.

Headlam Hall

Headlam Hall
Headlam Hall

After a beautiful drive across the Yorkshire Dales and a cultural day in Barnard Castle, I am really looking forward to resting in my hotel. Fortunately, I have chosen well.

Set in the Durham Dales within its own farmland, Headlam Hall is a 17th-century country house that has been converted into a luxury hotel and spa, with nine-hole golf course.

I am not booked into the main house, but to self-catering accommodation in The Hideaway next to the farm. Initially as I check in at reception in the main house, I regret my decision. The wonderful staircase, beautiful period furniture and ornate paintings exude an opulence I presume extends to the rooms – perhaps I should have stayed here. But as I stride into my Hideaway apartment, I realise I have chosen wisely.

To say that I have lived in flats smaller than my accommodation is an understatement. If this were a London flat you would have to rob a bank to afford purchasing it.

The downstairs living area, with fully equipped kitchen facilities – Smeg fridge, hob and oven as well as Magimix coffee maker and Bosch microwave – sweep up the stairs to a mezzanine area where guests can relax – that is if they tire of downstairs. Tastefully decorated with posters of The Great Gatsby and Debby Harry in her Blondie days, the Hideaway has been designed both with an eye for detail and flair, with lots of earthen colours and natural materials.

The Hideaway at Headlam Hall
The Hideaway at Headlam Hall

But, the real treat lies outside, as not only does the Hideaway have a small enclosed private garden, but also a hot tub, which I am destined to maximise during my stay.

First though I have to do a recce of the spa, where I chat with local residents while enjoying the sauna before doing a few laps in the heated pool. All this becoming a bit much for me, I retire to my hot tub for a quick session before dinner, which is served in the dining room in the main building.

Settling into the bar for a quick pre-prandial pint, I am offered the menu to pre-order my dishes. The kitchen produces modern seasonal food reflecting the fabulous local produce, including ingredients from Headlam Hall’s own kitchen garden.

My meal lives up to the surroundings. Some excellent seared scallops are followed by a fillet of sea bass on a crispy rosti with pad choy and kim chi on top. The sauce is a sweet chilli which provides the dish with a wonderful mix of flavours. To conclude I try the selection of Yorkshire cheeses, before retiring to bed a happy man.

Headlam Hall Photo Gallery

High Force and Low Force
High Force waterfall
High Force waterfall

The following morning, I return to the dining room for breakfast, which includes the most excellent kippers – I do find them best in the northeast of the country.

Sufficiently fortified I set off for my short scenic drive across the Durham Dales to High Force waterfall.

My original plan was to take the short circular walk from High Force to Low Force, but I find myself running a bit late – I blame the hot tub. So, having collected my ticket and map from the High Force Hotel, which is an old coaching inn, I set off on the short walk down to High Force and then return to the hotel through some beautiful woodland. The walk takes around 45 minutes in total.

A few days’ earlier, I had been impressed by Garside Scar in the Yorkshire Dales, but that is like a small trickle compared with High Force, a mightily impressive waterfall.

Force is a corruption of the Old Norse ‘foss’ which means waterfall or force depending on the sign you read. At High Force the river Tees descends 21 metres over the Whin Still to much clamour.

It is amazing to sit and listen to the water cascading over the rocks just as they have long before humans discovered them. The rocks were formed 330 million years ago at which time High Force was somewhere around the Equator. The sound of the water as it crashes down into the pool at the bottom of the rocks is deafening.

Low Force
Low Force

Returning to the hotel, the helpful Ashleigh gives me directions for the walk to Low Force, which starts just across the road along a public footpath. Whereas my walk to High Force was through woodland, this one follows the banks of the river with the most glorious views, at least on a sunny early autumnal day as the green of the trees begin to yield to yellow and orange.

Crossing the river, I turn left immediately to follow the Pennine Way. After half an hour I reach Low Force. While High Force is a single spectacular fall, Low Force has a series of cascades, much like a miniature Iguazu Falls.

With time slipping through my fingers, I decide against following the circular route across a field and via the town of Bowles back to High Force, and instead backtrack my route along the Pennine Way. The route is easy and well-marked. I never mind backtracking as I invariably find a 180-degree turn provides you with a totally fresh perspective on a walk, and so this proves as I focus more on the hills in the distance than the river before me.

Back at the hotel I reacquaint myself with Ashleigh who serves me an excellent leak and potato soup with some crab on a bruschetta. The restaurant has seasonal menus with locally sourced produce including free range eggs from High Beverly Farm, a few miles away.

Raby Castle

Raby Castle
Raby Castle

In the afternoon I retrace my route towards Headlam Hall, to visit Raby Castle. The former home of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III, the castle was one of the finest fortresses in northern England. It was also at the heart of the Rising of the North against Elizabeth I.

Unfortunately, the castle itself is closed so I have to content myself with a stroll around the deer park. The flipside of this is I have more time to spend relaxing in my hot tub before dinner.

Rose & Crown 

For this I drive to the Rose & Crown, an award-winning 18th century coaching inn, which is the sister property to Headlam Hall hotel.

The kitchen prides itself on using local produce to create great dishes that reflect the pub’s rural surroundings, with a contemporary twist.

Certainly, the open fire that welcomes me creates the feel of a country pub. The mackerel paté starter with shrimps on top is arguably the best fish paté I have ever tasted.

The view from Barnard castle behind bars - Mr Cummins?
The view from Barnard Castle behind bars – Mr Cummins?

This is followed by a stone bass roasted to perfection. Succulent and full of flavour, it comes with hazelnuts which provide a wonderful crunchiness, seasonal pumpkin and a tempura prawn. Whisper it carefully but the kitchen might even be the equal of Headlam Hall’s.

The following morning, I reluctantly take leave of both my Hideaway and hot tub – just one more bathe – before taking the short drive to Bishop Auckland. It is here that while enjoying some tasty tapas at El Castillo next to the Spanish Gallery, with vegetables from the castle’s walled garden, that I reflect upon my brief visit to Durham.

Apart from its breathtaking countryside, Durham has excellent restaurants using local produce, at least one brilliant spa hotel, and cultural attractions that benefit local communities through the regeneration of the past. Surely, this is the path for other tourist destinations to follow.

More Information on Things To Do in Durham

For more ideas on what to do in Durham, visit:

Headlam Hall Country Hotel & Spa

If you would like to stay at Headlam Hall or have more information about this amazing country hotel, please visit:

All photos unless stated by Mark Bibby Jackson. Cover image of Auckland Castle courtesy of The Auckland Project.

Mark Bibby Jackson

Mark Bibby Jackson

Before setting up Travel Begins at 40, Mark was the publisher of AsiaLIFE Cambodia and a freelance travel writer. When he is not packing and unpacking his travelling bag, Mark writes novels, including To Cook A Spider and Peppered Justice. He loves walking, eating, tasting beer, isolation and arthouse movies, as well as talking to strangers on planes, buses and trains whenever possible. Most at home when not at home.

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2 thoughts on “Regenerating Culture in Durham: Barnard Castle, Auckland Castle and Headlam Hall

  1. I am so pleased to have come across your article about the gems Co Durham has to offer. I hope it inspires others to come to visit. We are much in favour with TV travellers at the moment but I find reading something allows imagination. Having spent nearly all my life here your tour included the places of my memories and a reminder to visit new cultural opportunities. As a child I put an old penny into the silver swan to make it work and as an adult I have just contributed to its restoration fund (but the little mouse is still my favourite)

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