Country diary: the buck stops with me – momentarily

Bishop Auckland, County Durham: There was time enough for me to take in every detail: new antlers clothed in frayed velvet, eyes like polished jet, twitching ears and a rough coat

Anyone following me along this pavement near the marketplace might have thought I’d vanished into thin air. In fact, it was a narrow passage in the wall. I turned sharply into it and climbed the steep steps. As I rose, it felt like I was entering a portal into another world.

I emerged to find that I was being watched by a roe deer buck. We were both startled, but in those few seconds there was time enough for me to take in every detail: new antlers partially clothed in frayed velvet, eyes like polished jet, twitching ears and a rough winter coat that he was moulting into his summer pelage. Less impressed with me than I with him, he turned tail and cantered away among the trees.

The well-trodden footpath ahead, between the boundary wall of Auckland Park and a ploughed field, must have been made by the feet of countless generations. Uphill, past withered hazel catkins and fading snowdrops, freshly opened violets and cherry-plum flowers, to the Auckland Way, formerly a railway, lately a lockdown safety valve for walkers, joggers and cyclists.

The Deer House in Auckland Castle estate, Bishop Auckland.
The deer house on the Auckland Castle estate, Bishop Auckland. Photograph: Alamy

Then back into the park, beneath blue sky and scudding clouds, across acres of ancient wood pasture, managed over eight centuries for the pleasure of the prince bishops of Durham, but also the lungs of this town, where people can freely wander. A circling buzzard drifted overhead. Green and great spotted woodpeckers, a treecreeper and nuthatches crossed my path, which was littered by fat red catkins blown down from swaying crowns of poplars.

The path back took me past Bishop Trevor’s gothic revival deer house, with its tower and courtyard surrounded by arcades, built in 1760 as winter shelter for his domesticated fallow deer and for the amusement of guests. Finally, out past the bishops’ magnificent palace, undergoing restoration to its former glory. Both architectural gems will soon bring visitors flocking to this former mining town.But, especially in these anxious times, perhaps the most valuable legacy from their most reverend excellencies is their tranquil park, a place where you might suddenly find yourself eye to eye with wild deer, just a short walk from the town centre.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Phil Gates

The GuardianTramp

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