JONATHAN RUFFER, the man behind the transformation of the former palace of the Bishop of Durham and the surrounding town of Bishop Auckland, has spoken of his ambition to turn the area into a world-class tourist destination.
The City financier, who comes originally from the north-east, first became involved in 2012 after the Church Commissioners tried to sell off 13 paintings by the Spanish artist Zurbarán, which had hung at Auckland Castle since 1756.
Amid a national outcry at their disposal, he stepped in to buy not only the artworks, but also the palace (News, 2 February 2012), and has since launched a multi-million-pound redevelopment of the site, and the market town at its gate, to help revive the region’s flagging economy.
Mr Ruffer was speaking at the launch of the second season of the historical pageant Kynren, which uses the backdrop of the castle and hundreds of local volunteers to tell the history of England in a spectacle of music, lights, and sound (Arts, 8 July 2016). “This year it is bigger, better, shinier, lovelier — terrific-er,” he said. “We are going to have 1500 community volunteers: 500 more than last season. . . Everything we do here is designed to be inclusive of the people here.”
Recent research suggests that a day-tripper spends an average £19 in Co. Durham, but an overnight stay generates £162; so Mr Ruffer’s aim is make Kynren and Auckland Castle the magnets that draw people in to stay. “I have always felt that the county of Durham had a number of terrific things to offer,” he said, “but each of them separately is not enough to bring people from Devon or Kent or Argyll. They needed a reason to come, and when they come here and see all the delights that we have, they will want to stay.”
He hopes to build on the success of Kynren’s inaugural show last year, when its 15 performances were a sell-out. This year, the part played by women in the nation’s history is emphasised, including a spectacular opening sequence in which Queen Boudicca, riding a white steed, challenges an invading Roman army.
In the mean time, his Auckland Castle Trust has been buying up vacant properties in Bishop Auckland’s faded Georgian marketplace to house a series of attractions. One will open in 2019 as a £4-million gallery run with the Prado in Madrid, displaying the Zurbaráns and other Spanish masters. Alongside it will be a fine-art research centre shared with Durham University.
Next year, a former bank will open as a gallery of north-east mining art, and, across the road, an empty 1960s supermarket now has “incubator pods” for new ceramics, metalwork, and jewellery ventures.
Two former pubs are being converted into a boutique hotel, and at the gates of Auckland Castle a “Welcome Building” is under construction, complete with a 15-metre tower.
Inside the castle will be a display telling the story of faith in Britain, and another on the lives of the once immensely powerful Prince Bishops of Durham. A glass restaurant will hang, apparently unsupported, inside the old walled garden.
The bill so far is about £35 million, of which £11 million has come from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“Everything we are planning won’t all be complete for another couple of years,” Mr Ruffer said. “Only then we will know the full effect. Our success will be judged by how many people come here. But believe me, they will come.”