‘I think the man who took over Auckland Castle should take over Binchester too. It’s the obvious thing.’
So said my husband, when we went to see the latest excavations at the Roman site of Vinovia, and realised that its future was uncertain.
‘The man who took over Auckland Castle’ was Mr Jonathan Ruffer, a millionaire benefactor who some years ago set out to save the Zurbaran paintings in Auckland Castle, when the Church Commissioners were trying to sell them off. He ended up with the whole castle, and – through the Auckland Castle Trust – has already begun a transformation which makes the former Bishop’s Palace a real asset to the town, and a major tourist attraction.
Two days later there was a headline in the Northern Echo: ‘£2m bid to buy Roman site fails’. It wasn’t quite so clear cut as that sounds, but it seemed that Mr Ruffer had indeed been trying to do exactly what my husband suggested – only so far without success. Once again, he’s come up against the inevitable slowness of the Church Commissioners, who by law have to take account of many different factors when making decisions affecting the income of the Church of England.
But we do hope he won’t give up. He didn’t give up on Auckland Castle, and I think my husband’s right – with his expertise and enthusiasm to run Binchester as well, this spectacular site facing the castle across the valley will come to be one of twin jewels in Bishop Auckland’s crown. The town needs a boost like this, after years of depression, high unemployment and urban decay. It has so much potential.
More to the point, the archaeologists have barely scratched the surface of what lies hidden at Binchester. It’s probable that a whole Roman fort with surrounding village lies waiting under the green fields around the site, waiting to be revealed and opened to public display, if only funding can be found. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that Mr Ruffer’s trust will be successful and that these two magnificent historical sites can be linked and developed, to bring hope for the future to Bishop Auckland.