To be known as a hospitality hotspot, an area must claim wild and untainted landscapes, produce outstanding local cuisine, provide entertainment for all of the family, and exhibit world-class art and culture, or curate a rich and engaging heritage. You may expect an area which combines those assets to be on everyone’s travel bucket-list, and yet Bishop Auckland constituency is often not the first destination that springs to mind.
My constituency includes Shildon, the birthplace of the railway; Bishop Auckland, the historic seat of the Prince Bishops of Durham; Teesdale, part of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty; and Barnard Castle, a picturesque market town with an arts museum that punches above its weight.
As an area, Bishop Auckland constituency has started a journey to economic regeneration through tourism, building on our region’s heritage to produce a truly unique visitor experience.From 2011, the town of Bishop Auckland has been the focus of philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, who purchased Auckland Castle and its collection of Zurbaran paintings from the Church Commissioners. Mr Ruffer went on to set up the Auckland Castle Trust, which has since developed into The Auckland Project – a name reflecting far broader ambitions for the £150 million project.
Although centred around the 900-year-old castle, the scope of The Auckland Project spills out into the town’s marketplace and will include a Mining Art Gallery, a Spanish Gallery (which will link to the Prado in Madrid), a Faith Museum (celebrating faith of all kinds), a viewing tower, and a restored walled garden and restaurant. Those venues will be opened in stages over the next few years, creating 60 apprenticeships in the process. Once the destination is fully open for business, The Auckland Project hopes to draw in 250,000 visitors per year and breathe new life into the town’s retail and hospitality sectors.
A ten-minute trip down the road propels you from sixteenth-century splendour to the steam and steel of the 1800s in Shildon, the starting point for the first passenger railway. Locomotion is named after Stephenson’s Locomotion No.1 and is a sister site to York’s National Railway Museum, attracting around 200,000 visitors a year, and housing an impressive collection of nearly 70 iconic locomotives, carriages and wagons. Locomotion is a key partner in Historic England’s Stockton & Darlington Railway Heritage Action Zone, which aims to rejuvenate the 26 mile stretch of historic railway and help realise its potential to become a major visitor destination, in the build up to its 2025 bicentenary celebrations.
At the other end of my constituency, we have Teesdale, part of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and UNESCO Global Geopark – one of only seven in the UK. Here, the primary focus is our natural history, which is utilised to support sustainable economic development through responsible tourism. Located next to Low and High Force waterfalls, the Bowlees Visitor Centre is an excellent place to begin exploring the stunning woodland and unspoiled moors of Teesdale. The land here supports excellent biodiversity and is home to seventeen Sites of Special Scientific Interest. By day, watch and wait for a glimpse of curlew, lapwing, snipe, or black grouse, and by night the dark skies and clear air make for perfect stargazing conditions. Once nestled within a cosy holiday cottage in Teesdale with a steady supply of locally produced sheep’s cheese, it may seem unlikely that you are a stone’s throw from the finest collection of European paintings between London and Edinburgh – but this is not a cheese dream. The Bowes Museum, near Barnard Castle, holds an enchanting collection, including works by El Greco, Goya, and van Dyck; it also boasts a seventeenth-century silver swan automaton and a fashion and textile gallery which combines historic collections with contemporary design and innovative curation methods.
Those distinguished attractions – coupled with quality accommodation offerings such The Rose and Crown at Romaldkirk, Headlam Hall, and the Morritt Hotel – deliver all of the components of a major tourism hub. With the right investment and marketing, my constituency has all the potential to shine as a holiday destination. So, if you are planning to take the road less travelled, why not make it the A688 for a truly unique visitor experience?