Northern England’s BIG place in the world

DAVID SIMPSON considers the size and importance of Northern England and its place in the world and argues that the whole of the North should have a much bigger voice

Right let’s be clear, right from the very start, when it comes to people, the North of England is a pretty BIG place to be:

1north

Scotland’s population is around 5.3 million by the way.

Now, I’m not suggesting for one moment that the North of England – or any part of the North of England for that matter – should break away from the United Kingdom.

Heaven forbid!

I mean, for a start, we wouldn’t have won quite as many medals in the Olympics.

However, the three regions that make up the north – and not just the cities – do need a stronger and bigger voice that’s in keeping with their place in the world. In fact part of the problem is that they need to have a place in the world. Too often they’re seen as the fringes of England.

They’re more than that, in fact in many ways they are the real England.

Yet somehow, somewhere along the line, we’ve been conditioned to think small and the truth is we are very far from that. We have our own distinct history and a population that many nations in the world don’t come close too.

The North has a story all of its own – and it’s a big story and with deep roots.

2ancient

And we played no small part in what made our nation so powerful and successful in the past. In fact we played a major role in changing the world:

3industry

Even the North’s smallest region  could have a much bigger voice:

4regions

Whenever we think about the North, we need to remember to think big and ensure that we get our fair share of investment and a bigger say in our affairs.

Great Britain is not just all about London.

Without the North, it would be Not So Great Britain.

So, always speak up for the NORTH and let’s start by making sure that we are properly empowered to do so.

 

If you like this post you might like this follow up post  more maps:

A BIG populous region, that’s bigger than many nations

 

Find out more about David Simpson and our England’s North East bloggers here

So many reasons to get on yer bike

HELEN GILDERSLEEVE discovers the wide range of cycle-friendly cafés available across Newcastle and its surrounding areas.

The Cycle Hub, Newcastle
The Cycle Hub, Newcastle

What better way to enjoy the sun and our beautiful region than by having a tootle on a bike with some well-deserved cake at the end.

A decade or more ago, budding cyclists would struggle to find anywhere suitable for a mid-cycle pit stop. Now, the region’s cycle ways and popular routes are brimming with cafes full of lycra-clad riders and curious passers-by.

One of Newcastle’ s most central and well known cafés, The Cycle Hub has gone from strength to strength since it opened its doors a few years ago on Route 72 of Hadrian’s Cycleway.

With a large outdoor terrace and spectacular views of the Quayside, it isn’t hard to see why it’s so popular. As well as serving delicious locally sourced food and drinks, the Hub also boats a merchandise shop, bike hire, maintenance workshops, film nights and breakfast clubs. Regular social bike rides take place on a weekly basis and are suitable for those new to cycling right through to professional riders.

Another city centre bike café opened its doors in June 2015. Part-funded by the Government in a bid to revolutionise cycling in the region, The Journey, located next to the Laing Gallery in the city centre is proving just as popular. Developed by travel charity Sustrans, in partnership with Newcastle City Council, its aim is to put city cycling back on the map to improve health and wellbeing.

Its cafe is run by Colour Coffee, which runs Pink Lane Coffee, and Recyke y’Bike who sell second hand bikes and carry out repairs across the North East.

Newcastle had £10.6m pledged to it by the Government as part of their Cycle City Ambition Fund which will go on schemes in the city’s West End, the Ouseburn, Heaton and the Coast Road.

Some £5.7m handed over in an earlier round of funding will go towards the John Dobson Street upgrade, part of Cowgate roundabout and Elswick and Benwell cycle lanes.

Peddalling Squares
Peddalling Squares in Swalwell

Across the Tyne in Swalwell is another contender for best bike café in the region, and some would even argue the country. Pedalling Squares is a family owned coffee bar and shop selling affordable replica and retro team cycling apparel. Since opening in March 2014, Pedalling Squares was voted in the top five cycling cafés in the UK by the Financial Times for 2016 and was in the top ten cycling cafés in the UK by cycling website, Road.cc for 2015.

The café is located on the Coast to Coast route, close to Derwent Walk and Chopwell Woods. Cyclists, runners and visitors alike can enjoy a coffee, cake and burger in unique, retro surroundings. Even dogs are welcome too.

For riders wanting to enjoy a more rural setting away from it all, Parkhead Station , near Stanhope on the Coast to Coast route provides beautiful scenery from all angles of Stanhope Moor.

Park Head Station
Parkhead Station near Stanhope in County Durham

Named after the railway stations that existed along the original railway line to Consett, Parkhead Station offers a bed and breakfast service as well as a rustic and inviting café for cyclists passing by.

Owners, Terry and Lorraine Turnbull decided for their millennium project to do something very different and Parkhead certainly was that.

The project was to restore and rebuild the derelict Station Master’s house into a B&B and team rooms. It has been specifically designed with cyclists and walkers in mind, renowned within the cycling fraternity and certainly the place to be on the famous Coast to Coast. It is frequently and affectionately referred to as the sanctuary, haven and oasis to many a weary, distressed traveller.

Coast loving cyclists can enjoy a brew at the Cullercoats Bike & Kayak. This venue hires out bikes, kayaks and stand up paddleboards for those feeling particularly adventurous. The team there are specialists in tours, lessons and repairs.

Bike and Kayak Cafe, Cullercoats
Bike and Kayak Cafe, Cullercoats

Cullercoats Bike & Kayak is a perfect retreat for aching legs and has converted a loft space into a cosy, snug café where guests can enjoy some homemade cake and locally roasted coffee.

On yer bike, you say? Yes please!

thecyclehub.org/

pedallingsquarescafe.com/

thejourneynewcastle.co.uk/

www.parkheadstation.co.uk/

cullercoatsbikekayak.co.uk/

Toon tour of passion and pride

DAVID SIMPSON meets Newcastle tour guide, Alexander Iles, who talks about his popular city tours and his hopes for the region

I meet tour guide, Alexander Iles at Newcastle’s Journey Café to the rear of the the Laing Art Gallery. He’s very welcoming and offers me a coffee. My first impression is of an enthusiastic, engaging young man full of passion for Newcastle and very keen to share his knowledge of the city and region.

Alexander iles
Alexander Iles

He draws my attention to a nearby building that was home to Victorian architect, John Dobson and points out what looks like a plain pavement just outside the café. Alex explains that this is the controversial ‘Blue Carpet’, a worse for wear art installation of 250,000 glass tiles, completed in 1999 at a cost of £1.6 million. He’s clearly not impressed by its sorry state, but it’s great to have your eyes opened to something you might not have otherwise noticed and in this Alex excels.

Alex is the owner of Iles Tours,  a three and a half-year-old business providing popular walking tours that have become, in a very short space of time, a major tourist fixture in Newcastle. They are also a great treat for locals wanting to learn more about their city.

You’re left in no doubt that the success of the business  is down to Alex’s knowledge, determination and passion for Newcastle. We chat for more than an hour and I’m struck by his desire to share as much of what he knows about the city and the region as he possibly can. What he knows is exceptional. I learned much that I did not know and as a North East historian myself, I’d say my knowledge is certainly better than average.

Though only 25, Alex has soaked up facts, stories and insights spanning centuries and this all helps to make his energy and passion so much more infectious. In fact such is his passion that it’s sometimes hard to get a word in, but it’s endearing because what he has to say is so fascinating and inspiring. What’s more it’s all told with a conviction that Newcastle and the North East has an extraordinary story that just has to be told and that this is a city and region destined for great things.

“It all started in March 2012” says Alex, remembering the beginning of his entrepreneurial adventure fondly, “there was a blizzard on the day and I started asking people if they would like a tour of Newcastle.”

Alex had studied Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University and stayed on to follow up with a Masters in Innovation Creativity and Entrepreneurship. He believes his academic background helped him understand cultures and how to “take apart the method of idea generation.”

Post university and frustrated by his job searches, being told he was either overqualified or inexperienced, he opted for self employment.

“I didn’t want to do an office job and loved Newcastle” he reflects.

“When I was younger my family and I went to the Edinburgh Festival and I remembered the guides and thought, well, that is something I could do.”

Newcastle upon Tyne
Newcastle upon Tyne: photo courtesy of Iles Tours

As a student, Alex developed a great affection for Newcastle and in his preparation for business his passion for the city’s history was further ignited through absorbent research:

“I went into Newcastle Library and read every book I could get on Newcastle and wrote my first tour – the Historical Tour.

“From here I went out and started asking people if they wanted tours and contacting people about what I could offer them.”

In setting up the business Alex received guidance from PNE (Project North East) and Rise Up at Newcastle University who gave him a £400 grant to build a website and make the first flyers.

“It helped a lot, as I had a vision but not much finance to get off the ground.

“For research I went to York to learn about guiding and how the city of York structures things. I wanted to see how it was done in a place with lots of tourism so I could then see where Newcastle would and will be”

Alex is motivated when people get passionate about the region and start seeing it for what it is. He wants people to love the region and to fight for it too. I find him optimistic about the region’s future as well and he believes the North East is on the verge of another great period of prosperity.

His optimism is based on the belief that a new industry or technology will be found for the city. Let’s hope he’s right. Indeed, as part of his research into a new tour featuring the city’s historic entrepreneurs, Alex has learned much about modern technology developments and technology companies within the city and the region and this will feature in his latest themed tour.

I ask him what it is about Newcastle and the North East that he thinks is so special?

“This is the greatest region in England and has so much rich history that makes it so vibrant today” he says.

“The North East is a location with such a unique culture, it is English, but it’s not, it is communal, friendly, based on honesty and mutual respect with a huge sense of humour.

“The layers of history are near the surface with the ancient Hadrian’s Wall side by side with the modern parts of the region. It is also the durability of the location; it always picks itself up, has a bit of a laugh about it and gets on with the work needed”

Hadrian's Wall. Photo: David Simpson
Hadrian’s Wall. Photo: David Simpson

Typical customers on Alex’s tours are from all walks of life, ranging from school children on trips to students and professionals, to older people taking city breaks. He also undertakes corporate tours from time to time at the request of local businesses.

Around half of Alex’s customers are British, around a quarter are from Europe and the rest are from English speaking countries. He seems to get some great feedback from customers who are impressed by what they learn. This is certainly backed up by glowing reviews on Trip Advisor.

Alex clearly gets a great buzz from inspiring and educating people about the region. Even when they are local, he is keen to show that although they may ‘know’ their city there is always so much more to know.

I ask what kind of expectations or preconceptions visitors have about Newcastle on his tours and Alex has a view on this:

“I think many people think Newcastle will just be a party city. Geordie Shore has had a lot of influence on the way people view the city. Others think Newcastle is just flat caps, coal and ships – or the lack of all three! I like showing that there is so much more to the city than this.”

Alex has made many surprising discoveries about the city but one of the things that strikes him the most is how much the world owes day to day things to the city. He believes that the inventions and inventors who came from Newcastle and the region are often taken for granted despite the fact that they transformed the way the world works and I am inclined to agree.

Light bulbs, power stations, competitive rowing, cranes at docks are among the developments Alex mentions.

“Newcastle has been pivotal in how the world has worked” he says.

NewcastleQuayside
Newcastle Quayside, Photo: David Simpson

Alex is an entertaining teller of tales, but also a stickler for accuracy which is a good thing, but I want to know what are his favourite stories about the city?

“It depends on how people I am touring respond to it (the tour) as to which one is my favourite” he says.

“Currently on a personal level it is the story of Roger Thornton and Ralph Carr, entrepreneurial businessmen who were very influential in Newcastle during their day. I look to them as heroes in my own business. Both men started with some advantages but had to work hard on their business to succeed in Newcastle and grew to the level where they were two of the most influential people in the North East and able to protect and invest in the region through their finances.”

Alex undertakes a number of different kinds of walking tours in Newcastle, each with a different theme. There’s an historical tour, a cultural tour and a gory tour and, as mentioned, he is close to introducing the new tour focused on Newcastle’s entrepreneurs. He can also create bespoke tours for people on request.

His gory tour started this way after Newcastle Blood Bank wanted a medical tour of the city. Alex put together the tour for them and realised he enjoyed the material, so started adding and editing it.

Alex is of course not the only guide offering walking tours in Newcastle and the North East. There are many experienced, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides offering such services throughout the region,  so I want to know what he believes makes his tours different?

“I think it’s a combination of my passion for the region and wanting people to love the area as much as I do. Anyone can list off facts, but to create an engaging story you need to take the facts and make it relevant and comparable to the age in which we live. History is a lot of stories and you need to draw it out of the facts and help people feel it.”

So as the business begins to grow where does Alex go from here? Well, Alex is clear in his future ambitions:

“My dream is to expand Iles Tours across the North of England within the decade – from Glasgow and Scotland down to the south of Yorkshire and then to plan expansion into Scandinavia, northern Europe and eventually southern England.”

However, in the present he’s focused on our region and hopes to continue developing the educational arm of his business as part of a teaching group called Meet The Ancestors – where like minded businesses work to teach the past to schools and the region. Alex has also written a book that he’s hoping to get published entitled A Time Travellers Guide to the North East.

“It is a passion of mine to work in establishing festivals in the North East”, he says “and helping to get people passionate about their region” he adds, and it is in this, it seems to me, that Alex is a shining light.

For more information about how to book an Iles Tour visit the Iles Tour website at Ilestours.co.uk

Tour Duration

Typically a historical tour of Newcastle lasts 2 hours

A Gory or Cultural tour lasts around 1 hour 45 minutes

If people ask a lot of questions tours can be longer – though Alex says these are often the best tours!

Prices

£20 for an adult, £15 for a concession and £10 for a child.

 

The light at the end of the roadworks

Roadworks may be frustrating for motorists but PAUL WHITE advocates patience with these necessary improvements to our civilisation

I drove from Durham to the MetroCentre a couple of weeks ago.

In rush hour.

Before I knew it, I was there.

It was the second time I’d experienced this phenomenon in recent weeks.

Having spent many an hour, over the course of the last couple of years, negotiating queues and 30mph zones, this was something of a pleasure.

Does that make me a sad case? Probably not. I’m sure many others will have enjoyed the freedom of the newly expanded A1.

IMG_1360
Roadworks on the A690 in Durham. Photo: David Simpson

We had similar issues not so long back on the A19 when the New Tyne Crossing was being built. Ok, so there is more to come as connecting junctions of the A19 are to be upgraded, but when you consider that these are the remaining clogs in that part of our road network, then surely the long term benefits are going to be worth any short term roadworks.

I must confess that I come to this from the viewpoint of someone who appreciates civil engineering from having worked with organisations and businesses in that sector in the past. I think I perhaps have developed a greater tolerance to the work that goes towards improving civilisation in our region.

Yes, improving civilisation. Think about it, this is what civil engineering does – it creates the world in which we live, from utilities to roads, bridges and buildings, flood defences and energy.

I’m not saying I’m a saint when sat in roadworks. I get tetchy, just like anyone. However, when I think about the end result, I tend to feel more tolerant. So long as I’m not in a rush, but hey, I know I should have given myself more time.

Earlier this year, proposed plans were revealed for a £290m upgrade of a 13 mile stretch of the A1 from Morpeth to Ellingham, that will hopefully slash journey times from Newcastle to Edinburgh.

We still have some way to go to the south of the region, with the A1 upgrades in North Yorkshire, but if a trip to Leeds becomes such a smooth ride, are we really going to complain (much)?

IMG_1326
Roadworks. Photo: David Simpson.

Putting the Band Back Together

Sunderland musician Ross Millard talks to RICHARD CALLAGHAN about his Edinburgh Fringe debut

Ross Millard is looking relaxed. Surprisingly relaxed, in fact, given that he’s one third (just about, more on that later) of one of more than three and a half thousand shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Guitarist for the Futureheads and Frankie & The Heartstrings, Ross is making his Fringe debut in a show about music, why people stop playing it, and why it’s great when they start again. I sat down with Ross, and asked him about the show, the relationship to the audience, and his first experience of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Ross Millard
Ross Millard

Putting The Band Back Together features Ross Millard, Maria Crocker and Alex Elliott. It is directed by Annie Rigby. Writer, Chloe Daykin.

RC: So, what’s Putting The Band Back Together about?

RM: Annie’s chosen to describe it as part gig, part poignant show about reconnecting with a one-time obsession in your life. In our case it’s music but it transfers to anything that you’ve had a passion for but which has dissipated.

The original inspiration for the story was Mark Lloyd who was a Northern Stage actor diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and with the rest of the time he had left the main thing he wanted to do was put his old band back together. And he did it, and they did gigs at Washington Arts Centre and places like that. Alex and Annie were very close with Mark and they wanted to sort of honour that story because it’s quite an important message in life, at the heart of it all what’s your passion? What do you want to do above everything else? But that story’s offset with some quite wild interpretative moments with other people’s experiences about music. And then there’s the House Band element as well.

RC: For those who haven’t seen the show yet, could you just explain the House Band?

RM: So every day at three o’clock at Summerhall we meet up with anybody who’s coming along to the show who plays any instrument, a little bit or a lot, and we’ve got a rehearsal room booked and we go off for three quarters of an hour and run through some tunes and then they get up and they’re part of the show. So far we’ve had quite a good variety, we’ve had a flautist, drummers, keyboard players, quite a few guitarists, singers, people are getting in touch constantly and the band’s different every day, which is great for us.

At the heart of the message it’s that it’s not about ability, it’s not about getting bogged down in the minutiae of being great, it’s just about doing it, and if that’s the message of the play we couldn’t really have that without the House Band.

As an audience member, perhaps even subconsciously, you’re willing them to do well. But there’s a fine line to walk, because people have paid their money and they want to see a quality show, I don’t want to do something where people come along and the theatre element is great but the music falls apart. It’s about trying to arrange it so that people can still contribute regardless of their ability, and so that the show remains strong.

Yesterday we had a guy who contacted us out of the blue, plays keys, he said “I’ve got tickets for the show with my wife, I play keyboards very occasionally, jazz, and it’s going to blow my wife’s mind if I just get up and become part of the House Band without her knowing about it.” So he told her he was at a meeting, and came along to the rehearsal, and her jaw just dropped when he stood up and joined the band. And it was a thrill, you know, for him to be part of that. A big deal to be up on stage, to perform, it’s easy to forget that not everyone does that on a regular basis. It’s a big deal.

RC: You’re used to performing, to playing in bands, but this must be a different experience.

RM: I’ve tried to treat the audience at our thing the way I’d treat the audience at a normal show, and I think you’ve got to hope there’s strength in the story or in the overall experience, and that people take something away at the end. Getting a theatre audience on side isn’t like getting a gig audience on side, it’s more difficult, because you’ve got less opportunity to engage with the audience.

RC: The Fringe is famously a fairly unrelenting experience, why have you chosen to do it?

RM: When I got approached to get involved it was completely out of the blue, but I really wanted to come and play music, and this is an opportunity to still write music, still play, and I couldn’t really say no. It’s flattering as well, somebody coming and saying ‘do you want to write the songs for this show’, too right, yeah.

I think you’ve got to accept that it’s a different experience to playing in a band, and I’m just trying to have my eyes as wide open as I can and take as much in as possible. I’ve enjoyed doing this work and it’s something I’d probably like to do more of, but if that’s going to happen I need to understand the machinations of it and the way that it works.

RC: The devising process for the show involved a lot of work in Sunderland with the Cultural Spring, how did you find that?

RM: The thing that totally terrified us was the workshop, participatory element, because I’ve never done any teaching before, never really had to get large groups of people to do something I want them to do, apart from in Hounds of Love. It’s not quite the same. So that was terrifying for me, really uncomfortable, but as the months have gone by we’ve got to know each other more and more, we’ve got a big band there, and I’ve grown to really enjoy doing it. We’ve got a good chemistry between us all, everybody’s really friendly, we know a lot about each other now, and it feels more like a normal band. Up here we’ve got 45 minutes to make that happen, so I’m really glad we’ve had all those months of preparation in Sunderland because it’s changed my approach here.

puttingtheband
Putting the Band Back Together

RC: If you could describe the show?

RM: It’s quite life affirming and fun, and that strikes me as important. That’s quite a political thing to say, I think, that now more than ever the most important thing is to say ‘what is it that you care about? Let’s go for that, let’s try and embrace that a bit more’.

Annie’s always made these kind of feelgood, life affirming positive shows, and in terms of her work it’s very much consistent with that, it’s an Unfolding Theatre show, she’s got an identity and an aesthetic and I think sometimes you come into a project and there need to be some parameters and some rules to follow, because otherwise you never get anywhere because it doesn’t know what it wants to be.

RC: And finally, what will you take away from this year’s Fringe?

RM: I think I’ll take a little bit more knowledge in terms of how live theatre works, how much of a connect or disconnect there can be with the audience. Personally, if I want to write more music or songs for shows, I know I’m not always going to be in them. I was quite surprised to end up in this. I didn’t really expect that in a million years, but it’s been a great experience, a really democratic process to be involved in, and I know that lots of people don’t work like that. But I think I’ve come away with a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t, how much more economical you have to be with what you’re saying and the way you’re saying it. In a gig you can give backstory, you can introduce things, you can do whatever you like. But in this you’ve not always got that opportunity, sometimes you have to sum up a scene in a short piece of music, or just a song. That context, that knowledge of how a show like this works, that’s really important.

Putting the Band Back Together is part of the Northern Stage programme at Summerhall, Edinburgh (Venue 26, 16:50) until August 27th (not 17, 24). The show will then return to the North East for performances at Arts Centre Washington 0191 561 3455 (September 22nd) and Newcastle’s Northern Stage Tel 0191 230 5151 (September 28, 29, 30).

 

Find out more about Richard Callaghan and our England’s North East bloggers here

Kielder: A jewel in the North East’s crown

PAUL WHITE cycles 26 miles round the shores of the beautiful Kielder Water and despite the ups and downs suggests the challenge is not solely for the enthusiast

Kielder Water
Kielder Water

It was only quite recently that I took my first ever trip to Kielder Forest & Water Park. Considering my global travels, to not have taken the 90-minute drive north seems like something to almost be ashamed of. Especially when you find it is so beautiful.

To the west, it’s a similar distance from home to the Lake District, a journey I’ve made many times. So, why not Kielder?

My wife had mentioned it on many occasions, but I’d simply never got around to it.

However, earlier this year, we got up early one Saturday when the sun was shining, I slung our bikes on the back of the car, and headed off up the A68.

Having recently started a contract with Northumbrian Water, which owns the park, I had decided I finally had to find out what all of the fuss is about.

To say it was a trip I had planned doesn’t mean “well-planned”. Yes, I had read that the Lakeside Way was just over 26 miles long. Surely, that was easily achievable. After all, the name “Lakeside Way” clearly represented a ride that would be flat? No.

Taking a break from Lakeside Way
Taking a break from Lakeside Way

We took it easy and, despite the many ups and downs, rode the distance from Tower Knowe to Tower Knowe in around four hours. It was the first time my wife had been on a bike ride in something like two years, so without being patronising, it is clearly a ride that isn’t solely for the enthusiast. It’s a ride that can be taken as lightly or as seriously as you wish.

There are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the wildlife and a stunning art and architecture collection and, around eight miles from the end, the Kielder Waterside Park (previously known as Leaplish) is a great resting stop, where you can enjoy a meal at the Boat Inn. Admittedly, my body wasn’t so happy after an hour’s rest and a nice meal when I decided to set off on those final few miles.

This trip simply scratched the surface of Kielder, where plans are underway to make it the “best in Britain”, with new luxury lodges being developed at the Waterside Park. With the history of Kielder Castle and the area’s thriving art collection, there is a trip to Kielder for all enthusiasms.

Kielder
Kielder

The Kielder Ospreys are a great example of species being reintroduced to our region and, with everything from the tiniest birds through to these beautiful creatures and even buzzards, it’s a place for wildlife lovers as well as adventurers, food fans, history lovers, or just people wanting a great break.

And to think it was all created to help supply water to parts of our region as distant as Teesside.

How long does it take there? (Google Map timings)

  • From Newcastle – 1hr 19m
  • From Durham – 1hr 38m
  • From Sunderland – 1hr 47m
  • From Middlesbrough – 2hr 12m
  • From Berwick – 1h 34m

Laughs a-plenty across the North East

With such a broad choice of comedy venues and lots of up-and-coming comic talent, HELEN GILDERSLEEVE finds much to laugh about in North East England

The North-East is fast becoming known as the hub of an eclectic and talented comedy scene.

Gone are the days when all showbiz talent was London based; the region now has proud ties, past and present to comedy legends like Ross Noble, Sarah Millican, Bobby Pattinson, Brendan Healy, Bobby Thompson and Chris Ramsey to name drop a few.

The late, much-loved Brendan Healy
The late, much-loved Brendan Healy

So what is it about the North-East that produces such comedy genius?

Some would argue it’s our laid back and sarcastic outlook on life. Others may argue that Northerners are naturally happier than their Southern counterparts thus making better jibes. Northerners aren’t known for being overly-stressed or possessing a stiff upper lip and this could be the crux of our hilarious observational comedy and often zany outlook on life.

One only has to hear everyone’s favourite randomist and nonsense-spouter Ross Noble go off on one of his famous tangents to appreciate the Geordie stance on life. Famed for his scarily quick freewheeling style and imaginative flights of fancy, a Noble show is always an unmissable event.

Ross Noble
Ross Noble

Many lesser known, up and coming North East comics are fast making waves across the comedy circuit and have the potential to become household names in the not too distant future. Born and bred Sunderland comic, Matt Reed, has an affable, cheeky style (and claims to look like a‘scruffy Jesus’) that has won him fans across the UK. In 2015 Reed took his debut show to the Edinburgh Fringe, retelling the four year ordeal of how he was stalked and cat-fished by an online admirer. The show won rave reviews from critics and audience alike and he now boasts sell out shows and a growing fan base.

Jarrow-born Carl Hutchinson is enjoying similar success. He’s been and done Edinburgh supporting fellow comic and school friend, Chris Ramsey. Hutchinson’s latest show, The Fixer, shows him hilariously squaring off against life’s petty annoyances. From giving ‘banter cards’ to people you get stuck with who have dull chat, to mocking overly cheery motivational quotes on social media.

Matt Reed

Other local acts showing great potential include Jason Cook, Patrick Monahan, Lauren Pattison, George Zacharopoulos and Mike Milligan.

As well as solo comics, the region’s improvisation acts are enjoying equal success. Newcastle based The Suggestibles have been enjoying national success for a decade now. Their team of comedy actors react at lightening speed to audience suggestions to create spontaneous scenes, skits, stories, sketches and songs. No show is ever the same and audiences must always expect the unexpected. The gang’s original venue and comedy home is at the Cumberland Arms in Newcastle’s Ouseburn and they’ve since frequented most comedy hot spots in the city.

Newer to the improv scene is Spontaneous Wrecks who perform a live two-hour improvised comedy show in the style of ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ each month. The team create sketches, scenes, and games based entirely on audience suggestions. Spontaneous Wrecks perform on the first Wednesday of each month at The Bridge Hotel in Newcastle.

Comedy venues across the region are becoming ever popular too. The Stand, The Gala Durham, The Tyne Theatre and Opera House, Sunderland Empire and Newcastle City Hall are just a selection of the venues that play host to a stream of laugh makers every month.

The Stand Comedy Club
The Stand Comedy Club

Those who can’t get to the Edinburgh Fringe this year still have the opportunity to see gigs at a variety of venues across the region including Newcastle’s new Bottle Shop Bar and Kitchen, The Stand, Punch-Drunk Comedy in Northumberland, Big Mouth Comedy Club in Teesside, Hilarity Bites Comedy Club in Darlington and The Venue in Northallerton.

It’s also pleasing to see that many North East town are now hosting their very own comedy festivals so locals can enjoy a mini Edinburgh Fringe on their doorstep.

This summer saw the success of the South Tyneside Comedy Festival, the Darlington Comedy Festival, Newcastle’s Jesterval, Sunderland Comedy Festival and Monkeyshine Comedy Festival in Middlesbrough.

Who was the fool who said it was grim up North?

For upcoming comedy events, visit www.chortle.co.uk

The Durham “Busk Factor” dilemma

PAUL WHITE presents his entertaining analysis of Durham’s busking auditions which aim to vet the quality of buskers in the city, but who decides?

An interesting item came up on my Facebook feed at the weekend. A couple of musician friends had both posted a link to a Change.org petition against a new way of regulating buskers that is being established by Durham Business Improvement District (BID).

Neither of my musician friends actually busk, but they were vehemently against the idea. I read the introduction to the petition, found that I, too, agreed, and duly signed up.

At the time of writing, it’s 22 names short of 1,000 signatories.

Busker Thomas Donnelly of Chester-le-Street in Durham’s Silver Street: Photo: David Simpson

The essence of the tale behind this petition is that Durham BID is bringing in auditions for people to secure six-month busking permit in Durham City. Currently, no such licence is required to do so.

Having read both the petition and reports in the Durham Times, it seems that local people attending these auditions, alongside representatives of local businesses, the police, etc, will get to vote on which buskers get a permit. It’s either a straight yes or no from the “judges”. How demoralising for someone who has a bad night, or is just starting out to face rejection like that.

It seems the business community isn’t happy with the noise and this is what has started all of this kerfuffle. (Note to certain elements of the business community, when you get a quiet moment in your shop, just listen to some of the rubbish being piped in on your speakers. Scorpio Shoes, where staff have excellent musical taste, are excluded from that last statement.)

Now, having seen who gets voted for on the X Factor, I’m horrified by this prospect. It always seems those talented artists who have worked their backsides off, busking away, playing to one man, his dog and a pool table in local pubs, and who have actually developed a skill set, far too often get voted off in favour of bland, manufactured music and “characters”.

Can you imagine Jedward or Wagner lasting five minutes if they tried busking on Gala day?

Interestingly, my England’s North East colleague, Dave Simpson, nipped down to the city centre and talked to some buskers.

Irish piper Neil Chambers told Dave he wasn’t really against the licence, but his main concern is for the increasing use of pre-recorded music by buskers and I have to agree.

Irish Piper, Neil Chambers of Newcastle on Durham's Framwellgate Bridge. Photo: David Simpson
Irish Piper, Neil Chambers of Newcastle on Framwellgate Bridge. Photo: David Simpson

Neil said: “They should do what Dublin did: ban backing tracks to take it back to what busking should be, creating a nice atmosphere instead of overloud pre-recorded music which a lot of people think is insulting.”

I can’t imagine the “X Factor” style voting panel would agree that backing tracks are a bad thing. You can just imagine Cheryl Fernandez-Versini (surname correct at time of writing – I genuinely had to Google it to check) saying: “Ok Reggie and Bollie, that’s very good, but I need you to play something called a guitar.”

Fair enough, if what this proposal does is eliminate that element of pre-packaged musical hell. Isn’t it better to put efforts into stopping those anti-social people who blast music out of their phones as they walk down the street, or as they travel on public transport? Perhaps they could legalise grabbing those phones from the offending individuals and smashing them into a million pieces. I digress.

What I like about unlicensed busking is that it is, by its nature, rather self-regulating. If buskers are good, they will earn money and return. If they are terrible, they will not, with the possible exception of a busker many of you may be familiar with, who camps himself at the Newcastle side of the Millennium Bridge and is charmingly entertaining in his own inimitable way.

It seems that the members of Durham’s business community who have created the issue by complaining about the noise must not be bothered by the actual noise itself, if the proposed resolution of the situation is for buskers to be licenced. Then it seems it may be a matter of taste and, surely, all these events are likely to do is change the style and, to some extent, quality of the performers. It’s swapping one noise for another and isn’t that just institutionalised discrimination?

Should the petition fail and this goes ahead, I urge all fans of live music, the ones who go down their local when there is a band on, the ones who go to local festivals and open mic nights, to get themselves along to these events en masse and vote for the real talent they think deserves a slot.

But then, if these acts can wow a real live crowd, do they not deserve something a little more than being sent to play outside in the Great British Weather?

*The first Live InDurham busking audition event will be held at Whisky River on Thursday, August 18, from 7pm. Details are available at www.durhambid.co.uk/live.

Views expressed by our bloggers do not necessarily reflect those of England’s North East or Truly Awesome Marketing Ltd

1916: No Turning Back

DAVID SIMPSON enlists for the 1916: No Turning Back experience at Durham’s Gala Theatre for a brief, moving experience of life in the trenches of World War One

1916: No Turning Back. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB
1916: No Turning Back. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, hundreds of thousands of men answered Lord Kitchener’s call and enthusiastically signed up to serve their country.

Patriotism and the mistaken belief that the conflict would be resolved in a matter of months meant that by the end of the year over a million men had signed up for the war. In Durham, young men, often close friends, left towns and villages in their masses to serve their country.

Few knew the horrors of what lay ahead in what would become one of the most dreadful wars the world has ever seen. The nightmare of this so-called Great War was most exemplified by the Battle of the Somme in 1916, which took place one-hundred years ago this summer. For many the Somme not only confirmed the undeniable reality that there was no turning back but it would also prove to be, quite literally, the point of no return.

Into battle. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB
Into battle. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB

In remembrance of the Somme, Durham’s Gala Theatre is hosting ‘1916: No Turning Back’, a visitor experience and theatre production created by Studio MB and directed by Neil Armstrong. It aims to recreate, through actors, the story of the Somme from the angle of local lads and their families.

It begins with the cheery eagerness of enlisting, then takes us through training before we find ourselves experiencing the terrible horror of the trenches. Ultimately it moves on to the devastating impact on families and survivors. It is a story tenderly told through the live performances of talented actors, accompanied in places by appropriate film footage.

As I stood in the queue along with my daughter and a small group of tourist ticket holders – mostly couples in their fifties and sixties – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Like the enlisting soldier whose life it portrays, this was a date of uncertain destiny. I knew that if it was going to be true to its tale then there would have to be some sadness and horror, yet I also knew with much certainty that the chances are I would get out alive, but would it be entertaining, educating and moving?

This is an experience told through actors, but it is not a traditional theatre production. Over the course of around 40 minutes, the actors interact with the visitors who are carefully ushered on a short walk-through of different stage sets that tell the story. Thankfully, there is enough balance between audience interaction and the sometimes deeply emotive stories of the actors to keep the visitor feeling comfortable and engaged.

If the aim is to get you to imagine the experience of the soldiers of the Somme then it succeeds in this well.

You are escorted through a series of stage sets partly recreated within the auditorium – though you won’t realise this – where seats have been removed. At the recruitment stage you hear the hearty banter of Second Lieutenant Simon Taylor as he has his photograph taken – in this case by my daughter – along with his Durham pals before you are moved on to the setting of Cocken Hall (now demolished, it was near Finchale Abbey) for our military drilling.

Here, some ladies and gentlemen in the front row of our group are subjected to a fierce verbal dressing down by the drill sergeant, Jack Cotton. One of our group was then given the opportunity to take a stab at the enemy – in the form of a sack – using a bayonet rifle (of the blunted, retractable kind you will be glad to know).

Drill Sergeant, Jack Cotton. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB
Drill Sergeant, Jack Cotton. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB

The best bit for me though, was the experience of sitting in the dark bunker deep inside the trenches of the Somme.

For a few moments you will hear the constant realistically loud, thunderous pounding of shells above and around you as the nerve-shattered lamp-carrying Tommy recalls the horrific loss of his colleagues.  With all the noise and sudden intrusion of theatre-effect smoke you will begin, during these few almost claustrophobic moments, to imagine the sheer terror that the trench-bound soldiers constantly endured for many months and years.

Yes, it is an understatement to say you can only begin to imagine, but it is enough to make you think how fortunate you are not to have been there.

Finally you are told it is time to go “over the top” in the terrifying though no less absurd sense of the phrase as it was used in the days of the First World War. For a moment I wonder if this could turn out to be “over the top” in some farcical  ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ moment as I picture a sudden, chaotic rush of tourists running across a staged battlefield but it is nothing of the kind.

Instead the sombre emotion of the Somme’s story is appropriately maintained. So, as we alight from the trench onto the battle stage we are greeted with a veiled screen at which we stand, in line, briefly, watching black and white movie footage of the battle events. It creates a slightly dream-like out of body sequence that was perhaps not unlike that experienced by many on the battlefield.

Post battle, our particular fates unknown, we move on to a field hospital room where we are greeted by a triage nurse, Sister Bailey and three beds with a kit of antiquated operating instruments lying upon one.  In a kindly but matter of fact, battle-hardened way the nurse explains her role and experience in caring for the wounded and dying of the frontline. We are are confronted by the sad reality of death and survival in this awful war.

Sister Bailey. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB
Sister Bailey. Photo: Yvonne Zhang Studio MB

Other stages then take us on to a family home where news from the trenches arrives and then we head inside the home of a traumatised ‘lucky’ survivor whose story is told through the tender anxiety of his loving sister. Finally we learn the fate of Simon and his comrades and we are moved by the terrible futility of it all.

So was I entertained? In places, certainly. Educated? Just enough. Moved? Undoubtedly.

If I’m honest I’m not always a big fan of actors working in heritage attractions as the result can often seem fake or in your face, or even embarrassing. This is NOT the case here but in fairness it is not a museum or heritage centre but a theatre production with a difference where the audience is taken from stage to stage as a story is movingly told by experienced North East actors who effectively and professionally maintain just the right mood to move you.

I would recommend it.

Some kids will enjoy it too, though in truth, my daughter, who is eleven and not a history fan, wasn’t particularly keen. She was a little on her guard from the beginning of the production/tour when the usher explained that there would be loud noises so perhaps she didn’t focus on the event.

She was the only youngster there too – though I know this is not always the case – but this may not have helped. The actors included her in the experience and I’m certain lots of kids will enjoy the battle bunker and the banter, or seeing a parent getting some much-needed discipline at the training camp, so don’t let that put you off.

All in all it is an unusual, interesting and moving commemoration of an important yet tragic event in our nation’s history.

Go see it.

 

1916: No Turning Back runs until Sunday, August 28 at the Gala Theatre, Durham City

There are multiple performances each day with the production featuring two teams of North East actors: Luke Maddison, Samantha Neale, Lawrence Neale and Anna Nicholson who perform in rotation.

Tickets: £7.50 concessions £6.50 (family ticket £22)

For times contact the Gala Theatre box office: 03000-266600 or visit the website at: galadurham.co.uk

Twitter @GalaDurham

1916: No Turning Back is one of a series of events and exhibitions  to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in July 2016. For more details of other events visit:

www.durham.gov.uk/durhamremembers

 

World War One History Links

“Defending the Tyne” : recalls the life of a WW1 gunner at Trow Rocks Battery in South Shields:  Defending the Tyne

First World War Centenary at Newcastle University: First World War Centenary

North East War Memorials Project

Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project

Zeppelin raids on the North East in WW1 Zeppelin raids from a site focusing primarily on World War Two.

Durham Remembers  www.durham.gov.uk/durhamremembers