The train pulls into the station, the driver gets out of the cab and switches ends to take it back to Darlington. It’s only then that I realise we’ve been travelling on a single track railway. Bishop Auckland is the end of the line in so many ways.
This small town in the North of England was once a thriving place, built on the joint success of the railway and the mining industry. Rich seams of coal run deep under the land here, dark, cold and silent. But the industrialists of the 19th century are long gone, the profits have slumped, the mines have been abandoned and the railways are in decline.
From the train station, I approach one end of Bishop Auckland’s high street, a strip of road which acts as the man-made centre of gravity through the middle of this place. Small streets and lanes lead off from this main drag into uncertainty. I peer down each one as I go; an abandoned shopping trolley in an almost empty car park, kids kick a tired ball.
Whitewashed windows are a regular sight on the high street, interspersed with a charity shop, a vape shop and a pound shop. Beauty therapists file their own nails while they wait for clients. Two charity fundraisers sit forlornly at a Cancer Research stand, hoping to recruit supporters.
This town doesn’t have money. It barely even has passers-by. At least there seems to be healthy competition between local bakeries, each advertising themselves as more local and more competitively priced than the next. For one reason or another, many of the local businesses have been replaced by a large supermarket – its tills ring with the loose change once spent in local shops or donated to charity.
Bishop Auckland is not unattractive. As you pass along the main artery, look above the greyed windows and the adverts beckoning people to Bingo, you’ll notice clues as to how, generations ago, the architecture was planned with care and pride. Carved cornices, precise porticos and bold mottos are all architectural reminders suggesting a once prosperous era, now cased in well-feathered anti-pigeon netting.
This place was designed to thrive, but no longer feels like it’s fulfilling its brief. It’s as if the rest of the country forgot that this town, with its strange name, even existed.
The prince in his luxury castle (who lived there until just over a decade ago and now merely has his offices there) while the villagers, down below, loiter in serfdom. It feels like something straight out of a Disney movie, but instead of courtly romance and dutiful villagers there’s a bishop in a Mercedes, juxtaposed with final clearance sale notices and cut price e-cigarettes. While one is surrounded by architectural splendour and collections of priceless artworks, the others struggle on with their abandoned shops, their discount bakeries and their single-track railway.
And never the two shall meet. Until now, that is.
Banners have begun to appear on the high street proclaiming a new era for Bishop Auckland.
The Auckland Project has arrived, with the aim of transforming the town back into a vibrant commercial hub. This area has been thrown a lifeline. Millions of pounds of public and European money are being spent on invigorating it. The palace will be opened to the public as a tourist destination and the once private parkland will become accessible to all. Before long (the planners hope), Sunday trippers will descend on Bishop Auckland to enjoy the heady mix of charming landscape and heritage venues.
An art gallery has already opened, celebrating the work of local artists who formerly worked in the region’s mines, and it is hoped that other museums will open in the coming years.
Traditional cafés are set to be turned into restaurants. Bistros, even. Underused guesthouses will be reborn as boutique hotels. Much is promised. And with this comes the prospect of visitors, of jobs, of trade, of tourist money and of further investment. Maybe one day even dollars and yen. Someone has given considerable thought about how to reinvigorate this place, to celebrate what it already has and to make it a prosperous town once again.
The mood of the locals is one of cautious optimism. They are surprised by the attention and delighted by the investment. Perhaps they’re also cautious, too, about whether it will all work? They question whether a town like this, with problems that run deeper than a flagging high street, can be completely revitalised in a few years by commerce alone.
While the enthusiasm is infectious, I’m left wondering what the result of all this will be for Bishop Auckland. About whether this is real regeneration, or simply do-gooding by those in search of civic honours.
As I walk back to the station, past the girls in the empty nail bar and the lads playing in the unused car park, I wonder what the future looks like for them. When I return in a few years to see this town awash with day-tripping museum-going middle classes, clad in waterproofs and stroking their Labradors, will everyone think of Bishop Auckland as a success? Even those who’ve had their local bakery replaced by a gourmet bistro?
All images courtesy of Visit County Durham