Help archaeologists uncover eating habits of County Durham's Prince Bishops

Work in grounds of Auckland Castle reveal remains of hothouses where status-symbol pineapples were grown

Harry Beamish, historic environment, research and interpretatioin archaeologist at Auckland Castle by what is believed to be the blocked up entrance to the furnace room used to heat the pinery. Centuries old glasshouses used for growing pineapples have been found at the medieval Grade 1-listed fortress in Bishop Auckland, County Durham
Harry Beamish, historic environment, research and interpretatioin archaeologist at Auckland Castle

Durham's Prince Bishops once grew pineapples in the grounds of Auckland Castle to show off their wealth, archaeologists believe.

An archaeological survey of the 300-year-old walled garden of the medieval castle in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, has revealed traces of two 200-year-old glasshouses.

It is believed the hothouses, known as pineries and thought to be the oldest in the region, were once used to grow the exotic fruits.

At the time, pineapple growing was a luxury which is now comparable with owning a Lamborghini.

The derelict walled garden is due to undergo a major restoration and it’s hoped the two-acre site will yield other rare information about the diet of Prince Bishops who it appears had a taste for luxury.

Harry Beamish, a historic environment, research and interpretation archaeologist, is now looking for volunteers to help him dig up more clues after he identified the remains, standing one on top of the other, and found reference to “a fine pinery” at the castle in a letter dated 1757.

He said: “I can’t think of any existing pineries from that time anywhere in the North East, unless there are private examples still standing that I’m not aware of.

“While only the cut stone bases and back walls of the original glasshouses survive, even their existence is interesting and reflects the status of Auckland Castle and the wealth and aspirations of the bishops.

“It certainly puts the walled garden into the premier league for its time.”

Pineapples, said to have perked up English palates after Christopher Columbus discovered the exotic fruit in Brazil in 1493, were such a novelty that Charles II commissioned a portrait of himself being presented by the royal gardener with the first to be cultivated in England.

Known as the ‘king of fruits’, they were so rare and expensive in the 18th Century that a single one could sell for up to £5,000.

Owning a pinery would have been a real status symbol at the Grade l-listed castle - now a visitor attraction - which was the palace home to the Bishops of Durham for nearly 900 years.

The bishop - the North’s political and military leader - was considered the second most powerful man in the country after the monarch, having the right to raise taxes, mint coins and even hold his own parliament.

Mr Beamish said: “A lot of what was being produced, like the pineapples, would have been used for decoration as well as consumption.

“For the bishops it would have been the kudos of being able to successfully produce something way out of its normal climate zone that appealed.

“It’s the modern day equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses and showing off your wealth and status.”

A 1772 plan of Auckland Park showing part of the walled garden to the front of the castle.
A 1772 plan of Auckland Park showing part of the walled garden to the front of the castle. Centuries-old glasshouses used for growing pineapples have been found at the medieval Grade 1-listed fortress in Bishop Auckland, County Durham

Keen to find out more about what was clearly a productive garden, he said volunteers can help investigate and record its archaeological history, assist with survey work and explore old documents to set the historical context.

He added: “They’ll have the chance to work alongside myself, meet new people, learn new techniques and make new discoveries that could shed fresh light on to Bishop Auckland’s past.”

He’s already also found signs of dwarf banana cultivation, a separate walled orchard plus a vinery alongside the hothouses which probably created a canopy for pineapples growing beneath. Furnaces fed by coal from the bishops’ own pits would have solved the problem of growing tropical fruit in a variable English climate.

After 300 years of use, including as a market garden in latter years, commercial growing died out there in 2010.

Anyone interested in volunteer work can email Sam Fletcher at Samantha.fletcher@aucklandcastle.org or call 01388 743 750. No experience is necessary; just some time and enthusiasm.

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