Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Walk in the Bishop's Park

Today's Guardian Country Diary describes a visit to the Bishop of Durham's deer park at Bishop Auckland. The bishops have lived in Auckland Castle for over 800 years and for much of that time the park provided resources like venision and timber, but now it's simply a beautiful and tranquil place to visit at any time of the year, but especially so in autumn. It's just five minutes walk from the busy centre of the market town of Bishop Auckland.....and a much-loved natural resource for all who live in the area.
The River Gaunless flows through the park and would have been a source of fish for earlier generations of clergy who lived here, but now its home to kingfishers (that occasionally breed here) and dippers. When I first visited, 35 years ago, there were water voles here too, that I used to tempt out of their bank-side burrows with apple cores, but they are long gone, sadly.

Bishop Trevor's bridge spans the Gaunless and if you're lucky you can sometimes catch a glimpse here of a kingfisher flashing past underneath.

The park is famous for its mid-18th. century Gothic Revival deer house, where clerics could picnic...

...and where the deer herd was fed and could shelter from severe North-Eastern winters.
Originally the arcades around the outside would have been roofed over - you can see the sloping roof line on the end wall in this photograph.
The cloister arches provide a frame for some of the park's magnificent trees, including the beeches on the steep bank of the Gaunless, where landslips have pitched some trees into the river in recent years.
The ancient trees are one of the park's finest features. This is a magnificent sweet chestnut, whose stout bole seems to be melting into the soil under its own weight ...

... and this is one of several decaying sweet chestnuts that have been on their 'last legs' for the thirty-odd years that I've been coming here, and will probably still be producing new shoots long after I'm gone.

As Oliver Rackham, the noted authority on woodlands once observed, there's only one thing more useful than a live tree and that's a dead tree. Old beeches like this have been slowing crumbling away for decades as bracket fungi digest them, and provide a home for all sorts of beetles and sundry insects that in turn attract woodpeckers - of which there are many (green and greater-spotted) in the park.
I haven't identified these toadstools yet, but there was a perfect ring of them around an old hawthorn earlier this month and...

... these Russula atropurpurea appear every autumn under a magnificent Scots pine....
... while oyster mushrooms Pleurotus ostreatus favour the decaying beeches

With so many different trees here, the autumn colour is spectacular: this is hawthorn, with elm in the background ...

... and this is Scots pine and European larch, evergreen and deciduous conifers respectively.

From the highest point in the park the view over the tree canopies is magnificent and the view...
... across to the west takes in the Newton Cap viaduct, which once carried stream trains (what a magnificent sight that must have been!) but now carries a road. The River Wear flows underneath the arches.
These are the homes of the Bishop's other parishioners. There are well over 200 of these hemispherical meadow ant nests on the south facing slopes of the parkt - so many that this ant metropolis is easily visible on Google satellite maps. At a very conservative estimate, I'd say that somewhere around one million ants live here in summer and you can almost always find green woodpeckers visiting these mounds for a meal.

There has been alarming news recently that the Church Commissioners are contemplating the sale of Auckland Castle (the Bishop's palatial residence) and with it the park. Understandably, this has raised great public concern about future access to the park and the fate of its trees and wildlife. The idea of the palace and park being acquired by, perhaps, some hotel chain or multinational corporation that would restrict access and - God forbid - 'tidy-up' the park and its venerable trees is too depressing to contemplate.

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  1. I really thought this was going to be another great set of images and information........It is but the last paragraph altered my demeanour from joy to anger.
    The Church is a hugely wealthy organisation, anachronistic yes, greedy definitely and completely out of touch with anything but their self delusion of piety.
    About time they were told that they are custodians of this heritage and not the owners.
    I suppose they just have been.
    I was going to call in for a look round a few weeks ago after your recommendation but when I Googled it it said it was closed......maybe they were referring to the palace itself.

  2. I agree with Adrian here; a travesty if such a beautiful place were sold off. I do hope they see sense, and reverse the idea. It looks a most interesting place, and should be left that way for generations to enjoy.

  3. Thanks for a wonderful walk through a lovely park. I hope better sense will prevail and it will not be sold. In India too, this urge to sell heritage sites has started. But usually there is strong public outcry, which deters the sellers.

  4. Very much enjoyed your photos and history of the place; never had heard of a deer park before! This is a very special place. Adrian certainly hit the nail on the head with his comments!

  5. Lovely pictures, Phil. Maybe I should try to go before the change happens (if it does). It's well worth monitoring, Phil, and the public might just get on side against the proposal. Otterburn Hall was taken over by a multi-millionaire business woman and the banned locals walking in the grounds and have caused other problems locally. The Parish Council have stood up to them in many ways and seen to be succeeding.

  6. Looks a great place to visit Phil. Let's hope it stays that way. As you say the last thing it needs is tidying up!

  7. Hi Adrian, the palace isn't often open but the park is open during daylight hours all year round. If you are ever in the area there's a car park that's less than five minutes walk from the park entrance. The Roman baths at Binchester fort, just a mile down the road, is well a look too...

  8. Hi Keith, there's already a potential public outcry building up, so I think they'll have a lot of very bad PR to deal with if they do sell..

  9. I think many more people will visit the park now they realise that it's under threat, lotusleaf, and then they'll realise what they stand to lose..

  10. Hi Wilma, the only deer there now are wild roe deer but I think the Bishop would have had a herd of fallow deer, which are more ornamental...

  11. The Northern Echo is keeping a close watch on what's happening and it was that newspaper that alerted locals to what was going on...

  12. I not sure what the public rights of access are in the park Emma, but generations have enjoyed its delights..

  13. Couldn't agree more John, old rotting tree stumps have years of life ahead of them - there must be vast numbers of insects breeding in them..