Win family tickets to the magical Christmas Experience at The Auckland Project
The heady spice of gingerbread fills the air as The Auckland Project hosts its first major Christmas event.
New life has been breathed spectacularly into the historically-rich Auckland Castle as part of multi-million pound The Auckland Project, which is transforming the heart of Bishop Auckland, County Durham.
Once home to the powerful Prince Bishops of Durham, the castle is the cornerstone of the project which reopened earlier this year after undergoing major conservation work that has transformed its state rooms to their original Georgian Gothic splendour, as designed by the renowned English architect James Wyatt.
Around the mighty castle, with its rich history that dates back to the 12th century, are the project’s other main buildings: Auckland Tower, The Spanish Gallery, El Castillo Restaurant, the new Faith Museum and The Mining Art Gallery, which are all boosting the visitor experience to this historic market town.
Now, the regeneration charity project is hosting its first major festive event: The Winter Experience.
Forget flashing Santas and Slade, this is a seasonal event aimed at celebrating traditional Christmas.
As such, Auckland Tower, a 29-metre purpose-built tower which stands proud in the town’s skyline, hosts O’Little Town of Bishop Auckland.
It’s a charming, and incredibly detailed, recreation of town buildings all made in gingerbread form – including a ginger train on Weardale Railway, a heritage railway which is also part of The Auckland Project.
An immersive experience which tickles the senses, the ticket also includes a hot spiced apple drink and gingerbread man to warm your cockles.
Over at the castle, there’s more traditions to uncover which date back centuries.
The Throne Room has been bedecked with 30,000 flowers picked and dried from the project’s walled garden, with the aroma of lavender, hydrangea, opium poppies amaranthus along with hops and ornamental grasses and more filling the grand room.
The inspiration for the garland came from historic records which mention James Wyatt working with Princess Charlotte in the early 1800s to create a flower garland for a ball at Frogmore House
Before Christmas trees became popular in the Victorian era, garlands were a main form of festive decor in the country and the impressive garland here, festooned with fabric that echoes the heavy drapes in the state room’s windows, represents a typical decoration of the Georgian period of the room.
Tickets also include a sneak peek of the first floor gallery of the new Faith Museum, a new structure linked to the castle which will open in its entirety in Autumn 2023 as the country’s only dedicated faith museum.
It hosts a real festive show-stopper: The Neapolitan Nativity. Measuring 11ft tall by 15ft wide, it’s a monumental nativity scene, created between 1760 and 1820, depicting the bawdy and bustling streets of Naples, which had been under Spanish rule for centuries, circling the Holy Family, wise men, angels and shepherds.
Purchased by Zurburán Trust from the Porcini family’s private collection, it’s an incredibly-detailed work, from the angels in diaphanous gowns which soar above the baby Jesus to the real pearls in the earrings of the street characters.
There’s 421 figures in total, made by Florentine and Venetian craftsmen, each with their own character, which can be viewed with a specially-commissioned soundtrack created with instruments depicted in the 18th-century Baroque créche.
If you’re feeling hungry after the festivities, there’s a number of dining options.
At the castle itself, there’s a Bishop’s Kitchen cafe or festive afternoon tea can be booked in the atmospheric Old Library.
For food in keeping with the Spanish theme of the project - inspired by the Spanish masterpieces by Francisco de Zurbarán depicting Jacob and his 12 sons which have hung in the castle since the 1750s – head to the project’s new El Castillo restaurant in the town’s Market Place.
It’s a great restaurant in its own right which really celebrates the rich flavours and kaleidoscopic variety of tapas that transports you to the heat of Spain – without leaving Durham.
With its vibrant Andalusian tiles and stylish seating it’s a classy place and, much like the rest of the project, no expense has been spared in bringing something new to the town.
As well as its regular tapas menu, it’s introduced a Sunday brunch offering which we sampled on our visit.
My Mallorcan tumbet baked eggs with Iberico black pudding and manchego was a moreish medley of Mediterranean flavour, perfect for mopping up with the accompanying sourdough.
Across the table, my dining partner tucked into a very substantial indeed Chorizo Y Patatas hash, which comes loaded with chunk after satisfying chunk of cubed potato with caramelised onions, bravas sauce and garlic aioli topped with a fried egg.
Make sure to try out the colourful cocktail menu with botanicals sourced from the castle’s walled garden – just another example of the major regeneration project making the most of what’s on its doorstep.
The Auckland Project Winter Experience runs until December 31, 2022.
Tickets include access to Auckland Castle, the Faith Gallery and Auckland Tower. Tickets cost £7 for children (under 5s free), £14 for adults, £21 for families with 1 adult and £35 for families with 2 adults.
Individual time-slotted tickets for The Auckland Project in gingerbread at Auckland Tower are available to purchase separately for £4 per person, which includes a hot spiced apple drink and gingerbread person.
Festive Afternoon Tea and other Christmas dining options should be booked in advance.
For full details and bookings, visit www.aucklandproject.org
We have two family tickets to give away for the Winter Experience at The Auckland Project on a day of your choosing, subject to availability.
For the chance to win, answer this question: what is the overall theme which flows through the project?
Email your answer, along with your name, address and contact details, to [email protected] by 9am on Wednesday, December 14, 2022.
Winners will be notified by email.