Review: We Stay at Bishop Auckland's New Park Head Hotel to Explore The Market Town
On a rainy day, we find refuge in Bishop Auckland's new Park Head Hotel
After parking up at Park Head Hotel (the latest addition to The Auckland Project), I make a quick dash through the downpour to reception where I’m greeted with welcoming smiles. Retreating to the hotel’s Oak Room Restaurant I take a seat by the bar with a drink while browsing the evening menu. The hotel’s bold colour-combo of blue and orange throughout brightens the grey day and I take a liking to the Quentin Blake wallpaper which covers the walls of the restaurant’s restroom (immediately recognising The Witches illustrations).
It’s not long before I’m joined by my partner and we check out our room – a bright and airy courtyard room with a garden on one side and a paved seating area on the other. After freshening up we head across the courtyard to the main hotel and the Oak Room for dinner. Taking a seat in the bar, I sip a refreshing glass of Durham Gin and lemonade while my partner opts for an ice cold pint of Coors. Dinner is served and I happily tuck into a wild mushroom and parmesan rigatoni with a mini garlic baguette, but can’t help but steal a few skinny fries from my partner’s plate as he enjoys his sirloin steak with roast tomato, flat mushroom, onion rings and garlic butter.
My gin has gone down a little too well so I order a small glass of South African sauvignon blanc too. Don’t underestimate the portions here – we’re feeling pretty full, but so as not to miss out on trying a dessert, we share the apple and wild berry crumble with ice cream before heading back to our room (with a borrowed brolly in hand) for a comfortable night’s sleep ahead of a day of pootling around Bishop Auckland.
We’re reluctant to leave our cloud-like bed the following morning but the award-winning breakfast is calling. I um and ah between eggs Florentine and eggs Benedict as my partner begins decorating our table with teas, coffees and cereals. He orders a full English and heads back to the continental counter. Thoroughly fuelled for the day, we head out along the Auckland Way (a lovely walkway through the trees opposite the hotel) and a half-hour stroll leads us to the heart of Bishop Auckland just before the rainclouds burst.
So begins our tour of The Auckland Project’s attractions. First stop – Auckland Tower. From its viewing platform we’re treated to 360-degree views across Auckland Park, the town and its surrounding rural landscape (and we also take a peek at the new Faith Museum which is opening in October). The wind’s starting to pick up so we head inside Auckland Castle (one of the best-preserved bishops’ palaces in the whole of Europe) and take a tour of its majestic rooms. We also take this chance to have another look around Sin: The Art of Transgression, the current exhibition in the castle’s Bishop Trevor Gallery. Playing tourist is tiring so we retreat to the castle’s cafe (the Bishop's Kitchen) for a bite to eat (I can recommend the lemon drizzle).
As we take a stroll past the walled gardens (where many of the ingredients for Park Head’s menus are sourced) the rainclouds become darker and we hear thunder, which just adds to Bishop Auckland’s dramatic atmosphere. We figure now would be the perfect time to head inside the Mining Art Gallery. This is the only Auckland Project venue I’m yet to visit and therefore the one I’m most excited about. Much of my family’s history is in and around Bishop Auckland and I have fond memories of visiting my great nana in nearby Binchester. I think she (like many of the volunteers we’ve met today) would be proud to see what the Auckland Project is doing to keep the town’s heritage alive. The exhibition currently on display in the Mining Art Gallery is Coal: Mining The Gemini Collection, showing artworks which document coal miners’ lives above and below ground. We take a particular liking to an oil on canvas painting of a boy in a pit by ex-miner Tom Lamb and we’re told this gallery is a permanent home for the Gemini Collection of Mining Art – more than 400 works by prominent local artists such as Tom McGuinness and Norman Cornish. We’ve time to fit in one more venue before they close and of course we head to our favourite – The Spanish Gallery (the UK’s first gallery dedicated to the art, history and culture of Spain).
We find just enough time to pop inside House of Smudge to buy some cards and to treat myself to a new candle from Tinkers Treasures. We’ve been dodging the rain all day but it’s really coming down now and the lovely stroll we had this morning isn’t looking so tempting. Luckily we find a bus that takes us from the town centre and stops right outside Park Head in time for dinner. This time I tuck into a flavour-packed garlic chicken with hand-cut chips, roast tomato, flat mushroom and onion rings while my partner enjoys his hearty Aberdeen Angus burger topped with pancetta and cheese with slaw and fries. Our Prosecco, and rum and coke, goes down a treat too. Having worked up an appetite, there’s no sharing of desserts this time: it’s a ginger and cinnamon pudding with toffee sauce and custard for me, and a rich milk chocolate torte with Baileys milkshake and ice cream for him.
Another relaxing night’s sleep is followed by another great breakfast. While my partner perfects his toast on the conveyor toaster, it’s my turn to decorate the table with tea, coffee, juice, muesli and yoghurt and a variety of pastries. I've had my eye on the pancakes since the previous morning, while my partner enjoyed his full English so much, he has another. The rain stays at bay for a few hours so we take this time to enjoy a coffee out in the pretty garden before saying our goodbyes. It’s worth noting that Park Head offers a generous two- and three-course Sunday lunch too, but we’re heading out to nearby Binchester Roman Fort (you never can have too much history in one weekend). Kynren hasn’t yet begun when we stay, and we hear the fort is hosting an event so this is our chance to see a smaller (but impressive) display of horsemanship. We also take this chance to take a tour and learn that the Binchester Ring which was discovered here will soon be on display within the Faith Museum – and that’s where you’ll catch us in the autumn.