Castle-buyer bids £2 million for Roman remains

05 September 2014

DAVID PETTS/DURHAM UNIVERSITY

JONATHAN RUFFER, the man who bought Auckland Castle, the former home of the Bishops of Durham, from the Church Commissioners, has bid for another plot of theirs, which contains important archaeological remains.

A petition to support Mr Ruffer's bid, which, he says, will protect the remains, attracted almost 1000 signatures in the first 24 hours. The Commissioners have dismissed Mr Ruffer's contention that the remains are under threat from development.

The site is Binchester, on the edge of Bishop Auckland, County Durham. It is a Roman fort, built on top of an earlier settlement. A recent find at the site was a third-century silver ring - possibly the earliest piece of evidence of Christianity in Britain.

The Commissioners' estate adjoins the Auckland Castle estate, which Mr Ruffer bought after initially showing interest in the Castle's Zurbarán paintings, and is now developing as a tourist attraction (Feature, 12 July 2013).

The estate has been split into ten lots, for sale by auction on 18 September. Mr Ruffer has bid the guide price, £2 million, for two plots: one that contains the exposed archaeological remains, and an adjoining plot, which contains Binchester Hall. This has planning permission for development, and Mr Ruffer fears that this will both damage any archaeological remains under the Hall and threaten access to the main site.

Last week, he attempted to get the Commissioners to agree the sale of the two plots to him before the auction, and has launched a public campaign to support his bid.

The Commissioners, however, resisted his pre-emptive move, and refuted his fears for the site. They accused the Auckland Castle Trust of creating a "scare story" in order to become a preferential bidder for the land.

A statement issued on Monday said: "Binchester Roman Fort is a Scheduled Ancient Monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. As such, there are strict statutory protections for the Fort which make it a criminal offence to carry out any works which would demolish, damage, remove, repair, add, or alter the monument without permission from the Secretary of State.

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"In addition, Durham County Council retains a Deed of Guardianship for the site which ensures public access. These statutory protections will continue to apply to any prospective purchaser of the land. . .

"We have informed parties that offers should be submitted by 18 September, and that no offers prior to that date would be considered. All other parties have accepted this process."

Mr Ruffer believes that the Commissioners divided up the lots without considering the preservation of the ancient site. He fears that they will look for a buyer for the whole site, which is valued at £9.5 million, who will then seek to develop it.

Mr Ruffer says that this is not an empire-building exercise. "If some other goon had come along and offered the £2 million to preserve the site, I'd have thrown my hat into the air."

The sale had come at an inconvenient time, he said; but he felt that, properly handled, Binchester had great potential as another attraction in the north-east.

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