As he celebrates three years as the Bishop of Durham, The Right Reverend Paul Butler talks to Peter Barron about his impressions of the county

ASKED to reflect on what has impressed him most about Durham since his arrival in the county, Bishop Paul doesn’t hesitate in putting “the warmth of the people” at the top of his long list.

“They are so warm, so proud of where they live, and great fun too,” says Bishop Paul, who was previously Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

Having earlier spent a couple of decades in London, he was well aware of the North-East’s reputation for friendliness and neither he nor his wife Rosemary have been disappointed. “That friendliness is certainly something we’ve both felt,” he says.

If there is any hint of criticism, it’s that the county hasn’t shouted loud enough about the riches Durham has to offer.

That is changing with the current “Durham, Place of Light” campaign which aims to showcase the county world-wide. With the theme of light evident in all corners of Durham, he is happy to support the initiative.

When he asked Rosemary what had struck her most about living in the county, her instinctive response came in two words ¬– “big skies”. Having lived in London and other cities, she loves the giant vistas Durham has to offer.

Indeed, the official “dark skies” status of the Durham Dales, which creates spectacular views of the Milky Way, was one of the reasons behind the “Place of Light” campaign. “It seems to me to be a very appropriate way to promote such a stunningly beautiful part of the world,” he says.

He has also been inspired by the “can do” attitude running through the county, with Durham County Council leading the way. He has regular meetings with council leader Simon Henig and chief executive Terry Collins and he has been impressed by their determination to “make things happen”.

“There is a genuine positivity there – they have never lost any sense that they are there to do what’s best for the county and its people,” he says. “They have an absolute commitment to work in partnership with the voluntary sector, including the Church, to move things forward and make the most of what we have.”

He loves Durham’s stark beauty but he’s keen not to simply focus on “the obvious attractions of Teesdale and Weardale”.

“They are stunning, of course, but we shouldn’t overlook the beauty of the Durham coastline,” he says.

When friends or relatives come to stay, Seaham is a place they are often taken because Bishop Paul sees it as a shining example of a place which has reinvented itself. It hasn’t forgotten its proud history but it has made the most of a dedicated regeneration programme, with a lovely harbour, a stunning heritage coastline and the magnificent statue of “Tommy” by local artist Ray Lonsdale commemorating the First World War.

The Bishop goes on to highlight Durham’s “world-class” attractions, including the Beamish open-air museum; Kynren, the UK’s most spectacular live action show since the London Olympics in 2012; Lumiere, the UK’s largest light festival; the Open Treasure exhibition showcasing Durham Cathedral and its priceless collection; and Auckland Castle, the principal seat of the Bishops of Durham since 1832.

The castle’s current transformation, thanks to a £9m Heritage Lottery grant, will see it turned into a centre of arts and culture which Bishop Paul insists will also be world-class.

He goes on to nominate “nationally renowned” attractions such at Bowes Museum, at Barnard Castle; Locomotion, the National Railway Museum at Shildon; and Raby Castle, near Staindrop.

The Bishop considers Crook Hall Gardens as one of Durham’s “hidden gems” and believes Durham City’s Gala Theatre is an important part of a thriving arts scene across the North-East.

A love for sport is also highlighted as a strength, with Durham County Cricket Club cited as an important part of the county’s identity, while Sedgefield is described as having a “lovely racecourse with real character”. The fact that Durham is at the heart of one of the world’s most passionate hotbeds of football, with Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough all within easy reach, is another plus factor.

But the Bishop is also keen to place grass roots sport in the spotlight, suggesting that Bishop Auckland Table Tennis Club is “the best in the country” while St Mary’s Junior Football Club at Bishop Auckland nurtures the talents of hundreds of youngsters.

Turning his attention to the economy, Bishop Paul is delighted to see the impact made by recent developments such as the Hitachi train-building factory at Newton Aycliffe, and the growing technology cluster at NETPark, near Sedgefield.

“There is so much that’s good about Durham, so many positives – we just need to shout about them a bit louder,” he says.

Three years into his tenure as Bishop, it’s clear that the Right Reverend Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, is very happy to call Durham his home.