In 1752 Richard Trevor became the new Bishop of Durham. A perk of the post was two palaces: one in the city and a country seat at Auckland Castle, on the edge of the town of Bishop Auckland. In around 1760 he erected there this gorgeous gothic Deer House in the park at Auckland. As is so often the case with garden buildings, it combined the functional with the frivolous – as well as sheltering the herd it also provided a banqueting room with extensive views and served as an eye-catcher in the park.
The Deer House was built on high ground above the River Gaunless, a tributary of the Wear, which meanders in an extremely pretty manner through the park (genuinely useless fact – Gaunless is apparently old Norse for useless). Trevor’s predecessor had already begun to remodel the park, a project that the new incumbent was happy to continue. Bishop Trevor (1707-1771) was a great builder, having remodelled his family seat at Glynde in East Sussex, and built a new church there.
At Auckland Castle he commissioned plans for entrances and garden buildings from the gentlemen-architects Richard Bentley and Sir Thomas Robinson, but the designer of the Deer House is thought, on stylistic grounds, to be Thomas Wright (1711-1786), the polymath who was born and died in County Durham. The Reverend James Raine, in his A brief historical account of the episcopal castle, or palace, of Auckland, published in 1852, gives the date as 1760. Raine also wrote that the ‘winter shelter’ was said to have cost £379, but sadly he gives no information on the architect. Other sources give the date as 1767, which may be when the works were completed.
The Deer Shelter, high on an eminence in the park, was thought ‘well plac’d’ by a visitor in 1766, and the grand scale of the building (‘very commodious’) was noted by another tourist in 1775 . The historian of Durham, William Hutchinson, described it in 1794 as a ‘well-fancied erection, in form of a cloister’. Sadly no accounts of enjoying a repast in the tower, with a vista across to the castle, have been found.
But half a century later fashions had changed, and the building failed to impress one visitor who though it ‘a piece of bad taste […] a sham with no reasonable motive’. Raine also expressed some doubt about the Deer Shelter: he thought it had a good effect from a distance, but did not stand up to closer scrutiny by an ‘architectural eye’. The Folly Flâneuse is firmly with the 18th century admirers.
There had been deer in the park at Auckland for centuries. The keeping of a herd fell in and out of fashion over the years, and the park needed to be restocked on a number of occasions. Bishop Trevor was seeking to increase the herd soon after arriving in Durham, and his steward was tasked to find an estate with deer to spare. But in 1856 The Gateshead Observer reported that the ‘episcopal deer’ had been sold by the ‘economical Church Commissioners’, and that some of them had already been shot & sent off to the London market. The paper was saddened by this move, writing that ‘the romance of the Church is fast disappearing’. A century later the now redundant Deer Shelter was taken into the care of the state to ensure its future was safe.
Early this century the Church Commissioners were once more criticised when they announced plans to sell off a number of Bishop’s Palaces, stating that they were too expensive to maintain, and unfit for 21st century episcopal life. Auckland Castle was on the list, and there was very vocal opposition, but a saviour was on hand in the form of Jonathan Ruffer, a hedge-fund manager. In 2012 he bought the estate and established a trust to save the castle and park, and to help reinvigorate the town of Bishop Auckland. Since that date Heritage Lottery Funding has enabled The Auckland Project to develop new museums and attractions, creating jobs and attracting visitors to the town.
The deer park is currently open for local visitors only. The Auckland Project is scheduled to reopen in June and should definitely be on your list of things to look forward to https://www.aucklandproject.org
And whilst discussing the follies of County Durham there is the excellent news that the updated The Buildings of England (Pevsner) volume on the county is published this month (March 2021). Fully updated by Martin Roberts, this will be a real treasure trove of information. And the icing on the cake? County Durham’s extraordinary eyecatcher, the Penshaw Monument, is on the cover.
You can find out more about the book here https://yalebooks.co.uk/display.asp?k=9780300225044 And the Paul Mellon Centre is hosting a virtual launch, details here https://www.paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk/whats-on/forthcoming/pevsner-county-durham