Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 11.49.08The man who is set to revolutionise tourism in the North East will talk about his £100 million vision for the future when he gives a free talk at the University of Sunderland.

Jonathan Ruffer will present the final in a series of open talks on Wednesday, April 29 when he discusses, ‘Castles in the Air’.

His talk at the Murray Library Lecture Theatre on Chester Road, Sunderland, is part of the University of Sunderland’s free Discover Series – doors open at 6pm and all are welcome. Free parking is available on campus from 5.30pm.

Jonathan Ruffer was born in Stokesley near Middlesbrough, and as the founder and chairman of Ruffer LLP, is one of the City’s most successful fund managers. In 2011 he donated £15m to save the Zurbarán paintings from being bought up and leaving Auckland Castle, in Bishop Auckland. Mr Ruffer is funding the restoration of Auckland Castle with plans to open new exhibitions, a major new museum experience ‘Faith’, and a new Gallery and Institute for the presentation and study of Spanish Art. He has longer ambitions for a multi-million pound historical leisure park in the shadow of the castle, which Mr Ruffer hopes will attract up to 800,000 visitors per year.

“I was brought up in Stokesley, and my mother in law is from Sunderland, but I spent most of my working life in London. It’s really Auckland Castle that drew me back north, to try to help clean the place up.”

Auckland Castle is one of the UK’s most important historical buildings. Since the days of the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century, Auckland Castle has been a seat of power. For almost 900 years, it has been the palace of the Prince Bishops of Durham.

“It’s an odd thing that a Bishop’s Palace, which is a stronghold of the Church of England, should have within it counter-Reformation, very Roman Catholic pictures of thirteen Jews. Usually when you find something surprising like that there’s an interesting story behind it, and I think that is what caught my attention.”

The paintings by Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán, have hung in Auckland Castle for over 250 years. Painted between 1640 and 1644 they depict Jacob and his Twelve Sons from the Book of Genesis and represent the moment of Jacob’s death-bed ‘blessings’ to his sons. Each son would go on to be a founder of the Twelve Tribes of Israel which, essentially, represents the start of the Jewish faith. The story also has significance to Christians and Muslims.

“My plan was to work in the North East to tackle deprivation, but what I really wanted to do is to be someone who helps encourage and unify the region, and I felt that these very valuable pictures were part of the legacy of the North East.  It was really quite a discouraging and disuniting thing to have these beautiful pictures sold to a private buyer in Russia, and be lost from the region’s heritage.  I thought that by buying them, and then giving them back to the people of the North East I would raise a flag of what my intentions were.

“Once we‘d secured the pictures the question became, should I do anything about the building in which they resided, Auckland Castle. It was a question of whether I was making a symbolic move by buying the pictures, or whether I was going to make the centre of my work a heritage based activity using Auckland Castle as a resource.

“If the Zurbarán paintings are a symbol of the value of North East heritage, then Auckland Castle is a national heritage resource.

“Like all Medieval places it’s quite small, you’re immediately aware that it’s no York Minster or Durham Cathedral, but in the religious history of the region, and indeed the western world, Auckland Castle is a very significant place.”

In 2014 Mr Ruffer announced his long term ambition to open an historical leisure park in the shadow of the castle which he hopes will attract up to 800,000 visitors per year. The first £20m phase of the Eleven Arches project will be 30 performances of a spectacular night show during 2016 to crowds of up to 6,000 people. The £80m second phase is a historical theme park intended to generate 300 full-time jobs, and create a nationally significant exhibition of religion in Britain.

“If our plans comes off it will be truly spectacular, bigger than the 2012 London Olympic launch. The historical leisure park will tell the history of the North and England, and will involve the people of Bishop Auckland. That is why my real interest lies, it will really bring the people of Bishop Auckland, particularly the young people of Bishop Auckland, together to do something really exciting.

“We all remember the excitement of the Olympics Games, and the central role the Games Makers made in that, and that’s what we’re aiming to recreate in Bishop Auckland.

“We’ll certainly succeed; the question is what constitutes success when setting out to create a visitor attraction. Of course we hope there’ll be lots of visitors, but you never quite know in what way this project will have an effect on people.

“A conventional triumph would be coming back to Bishop Auckland in ten years time and finding it has become a genteel place, with everyone sipping lattes and cappuccinos – is that what success is?

“What I really want is to give people in Bishop Auckland – and more generally in the region – a real sense of having a worth. And it’s very hard to define if you have achieved that or not.”

Jonathan Ruffer will present the final talk in the University of Sunderland’s 2015 Discover series, onWednesday April 29. Tickets are free. To book your place go to: www.sunderland.ac.uk/discoverseries

For more information email: events@sunderland.ac.uk, or call (0191) 515 3169.