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Charlie’s quest to lose a million pounds

DAVID SIMPSON speaks to former London marathon winner and Olympic medallist, Charlie Spedding about his big plan to tackle obesity and help the nation lose a million pounds in weight

Charlie Spedding
Charlie Spedding at home near Durham. Photo: David Simpson

A former North East Olympic marathon medallist has launched an ambitious online campaign to help thousands of people lose millions of pounds in weight.

Charlie Spedding, 64, is the owner of ‘Who Wants to Lose a Million Pounds’ a venture that hopes to tackle the nation’s escalating obesity problem, helping people become healthy without feeling hungry:

“I have this collective idea of a whole group of people losing a million pounds” says Charlie, one of the region’s most successful athletes, referring to losing the ‘lbs’ rather than the ‘£s’.

Born in Bishop Auckland and raised in Ferryhill, Charlie started running at school where cross country was compulsory:

“It was the first thing I was any good at” he recalls.

Charlie came second in the English School Championship for 1,500 metres in his final year at school and at 16, joined Gateshead Harriers, regularly taking a bus trip from Ferryhill to Gateshead just to train. Charlie proved not quite fast enough for the middle distances, but moved up to 5,000 and 10,000 metres before finally making his mark in the marathon.

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Winning the London Marathon in 1984

The pinnacle of his career came in 1984, when he won both the Houston and London marathons and claimed Bronze in the Los Angeles Olympics, narrowly missing out on silver to Irishman John Treacy by two seconds.

Considering the marathon’s central place in the Olympic story, Charlie can take particular pride in being the only Brit to have won an Olympic marathon medal in the last 52 years. Furthermore he is one of only six British athletes to have won the London Marathon since its inception in 1981 and is the third fastest British marathon runner of all time, after Steve Jones and Mo Farrah.

I met Charlie at his home in a village near Durham to talk about loseamillionpounds.com the website at the heart of his new business venture. First, though, I ask Charlie if he thinks he should be better remembered for his past achievements.

He’s somewhat philosophical and modestly recalls that there were some great gold medallists around at the time like Seb Coe and Daley Thompson but he proudly reflects on a prized photo of himself with Steve Cram and Mike Mcleod fresh on arrival back at Newcastle from Los Angeles in 1984.

By trade, Charlie is a pharmacist and has been for most of his life, training at Sunderland Polytechnic Pharmacy School, before starting his pharmacy career in Ferryhill. In more recent times he owned a pharmacy business in Wallsend and along with his athletics experience this gave him a sound knowledge of diet, nutrition and how the body works at the chemical and hormonal level.

In his work as a pharmacist he became acutely aware of the dietary problems that many people have: “I just noticed that most of the people I saw regularly had what you call metabolic diseases, not infections” he says “their internal metabolism had gone awry, it wasn’t working properly, they’d been taking medication for years and hardly any of them got any better”.

He concluded that medication was treating the symptom, not the cause of the problem and felt that it would do a lot more good to prevent the cause.

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Sugary, high carbohydrate food is a big cause of obesity according to Charlie

“A lot of metabolic diseases are caused by lifestyle and the most important bit of lifestyle is diet” he says. “I know a lot of people would expect me as an Olympic marathon runner to say exercise, and exercise is very important for mental and physical health” but he quotes the words of influential NHS cardiologist, Dr Aseem Malhotra, who says “you can’t outrun a bad diet”, a point on which Charlie agrees.

Charlie notes we are told that one third of the UK has a BMI (Body Mass Index) of over 25 and that another quarter has a BMI of over 30. “It’s not good, but how do you visualise that?” he asks.

As part of the argument Charlie assumes a BMI of over 25 is about 2 stone overweight and a BMI of over 30 is 5 stone overweight. With roughly 60 million people in the country one third of the population is 20 million and one quarter is 15 million. Charlie equates this to a UK population that is a staggering 2,000 million pounds overweight. On this basis, the North East, which has one of the highest levels of obesity within its 2.5 million people, is around 85 million pounds overweight. Charlie thinks that if he can gather together a group of people on his site to collectively lose a million pounds it would be a great start in beating obesity.

Charlie’s particular dietary approach to tackling the problem will have its critics. He is an advocate of a LCHF based diet (Low Carbohydrate, High Fat). There are a number of eminent supporters of this approach but in the UK there are some major heavyweight opponents such as the NHS who are broadly opposed or at least very cautious and the British Heart Foundation who are a significant opponent. High fat diets are often associated in some minds with heart disease but Charlie refutes this research.

He acknowledges that his approach does not fit in with official guidelines and his website makes this clear. His opinion has been informed from extensive research and he encourages people to make their own decisions with their own research.

In truth, major aspects of Charlie’s campaign are hard to deny. Reducing sugar, present in so many processed foods (a particular bugbear for Charlie) and sugary drinks is a key part of Charlie’s campaign and certainly a key factor in tackling obesity. Charlie is a great believer in what he calls ‘real foods’ as opposed to processed foods and advocates the importance of cooking as opposed to ready meals.

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‘Real foods’

Widespread processed foods, excessive carbohydrates and sugary drinks are a relatively recent feature of the human story and Charlie believes humans are not equipped to cope with this change. Foods with more fat content are in tune with the way we have evolved according to Charlie.

He feels the terminology of ‘fat’ is something of an issue. “The problem is we use the same word for dietary fat as being fat” he says. In fact scientists call the fats within our body ‘lipids’ but it is understandable that in the public mind it is hard not to associate ‘being fat’ with dietary fat.

“It’s carbohydrates that make you fat”, says Charlie.

He notes that fats of various kinds are an essential part of our body’s structure and that much of the body is made from fat. The brain for example is around 70% fat and our cells are encased in membranes made of fat while our nerves are encased in protective sheaths that are fat. Charlie notes that while the body is made up of proteins and fats, “no part of the body is made from carbohydrates” and advocates that fats are a perfectly good source of energy.

He argues that saturated fat as part of a diet became demonised, especially after 1977 when official US dietary guidelines encouraged a diet based on carbohydrates (bread, potatoes, pasta) and discouraged fats (butter, lard, cream, eggs, cheese). Much of the world followed suit, but Charlie highlights a graph on his website that shows a very sharp and continuing increase in obesity in the US since 1977 which he associates with the dietary changes.

Graph showing rise in obesity in the United States from Charlie's website
Graph showing rise in obesity in the United States from Charlie’s website

According to Charlie some researchers think a low fat diet and lack of correct nutrients increase health and mental health problems and he points to a theory that Alzheimer’s Disease may actually be type 3 diabetes.

It’s seemingly the excess glucose from carbohydrates that is the big problem. The liver turns extra glucose into fat and this makes you fat and the high levels of insulin that come from high blood sugar content prevent the burning of the fat.

Although LCHF diets have picked up a significant following in recent years there is a significant body of opinion that disagrees with Charlie’s approach. As with many issues in the modern world it is sometimes difficult to get to the truth.

Clearly, processed food manufacture is a multi-billion pound business and sugary drinks are amongst some of the world’s most powerful brands and Charlie is cautious of this: “Big business definitely affects some of the research” he says “when I see a scientific paper on nutrition, I always look to see who paid for it. In my opinion it’s nearly always funded by the sugar industry in some form or another”.

Charlie is clearly animated and excited by his new venture and is aiming for at least 20,000 subscribers in order to achieve the million pound weight loss. “I want people to join and learn more about what a healthy diet and lifestyle is” he says.

There are opportunities for family membership (£8.99 a month) so that families can work together for mutual support and individual membership is £5.99 a month. The site includes a personal page for each member to record their progress, calculating how much weight has been lost and plotting it on a chart. There are regular articles and updates on how to enjoy delicious foods that satisfy and nourish, video clips, recipes, meal suggestions, articles, ideas on exercise, information on childhood development and lots of regular blogs.

“I’m aware I’ve got an uphill struggle” says Charlie, using what might be seen as a runner’s metaphor but that seems unlikely to deter him given his proven track record for endurance.

Charlie Speding's wbesite at loseamillionpounds.com
Charlie Speding’s  site at loseamillionpounds.com

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Note: This article is not intended as an endorsement of loseamillionpounds.com or Charlie’s views by England’s North East or Truly Awesome Marketing Ltd. As with all diets, consult your doctor if you are not sure. The opinions  expressed on loseamillionpounds.com are based on intensive research however they are not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional.

Useful links

 

 

Three brothers, four starring roles and one proud mum

DAVID SIMPSON speaks to the proud mother of three North East brothers who will be starring in four different musical productions this year

Siobhan Bales
Siobhan Bales

Show business talent often runs in families and for one Whitley Bay mum this is a particularly big reason to be proud. Siobhan Bales, 46, is Head of Marketing at Tradebox UK Ltd, a software company based at North Shields Fish Quay which she runs with husband, Stephen. Upbeat, positive, yet  humble, Siobhan clearly has a drive and ambition that she has seemingly passed on to her three talented sons.

In the coming months Siobhan’s three boys, Tom, Oli and Gabriel will appear in key roles in four separate musical productions, three of which are in the North East and one in London. The Bales brothers certainly sound like future talents to look out for.

Siobhan and Stephen don’t have any obvious stage connections: “There’s no performance history in our family” says Siobhan, “so I’m not sure where it comes from, though we do have singers and my mum used to dance”. Apart from that it seems the three brothers simply caught the performing bug, starting with eldest son, Tom, who displayed a natural talent for singing from the age of four.

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Tom Bales in Grease (2013)

Now 20, Tom is a student at Arts Educational Schools (ArtsEd) in Chiswick, west London, the esteemed performing arts school at which Andrew Lloyd Webber is president. It’s a major point in a performance progression for Tom which all started when, at four years old, he joined the Stagecoach performing arts school for children in Whitley Bay.

“He loved singing, dancing and dressing up” says Siobhan speaking of the four year old Tom,  “he could sing pitch perfect”.

By the age of 7, Tom appeared as Young Scrooge alongside Tommy Steele in Newcastle Theatre Royal’s production of ‘Scrooge’ and at 9 joined the chorus of urchins in ‘Oliver’ at Whitley Bay Playhouse. At 11 Tom attended a dance school in Newcastle, although by the age of 14  GCSE demands meant he had to make a choice and shift focus from dance to performing in more shows. Singing was a key talent for Tom as North Tyneside’s soloist of the year, aged 13 and at 16 an intensive six months of singing lessons culminated in top grades. By 17 he was playing the lead role in ‘Aspects of Love’ at Whitley Bay Playhouse.

Many young people dream of making it in performing arts and it’s an interesting insight into the work, drive, dedication, time and talent that’s needed to achieve such goals. In terms of his training and education Tom’s enrolment at ArtsEd is the present culmination of all this work and you have to be exceptionally talented and driven to get this far.

Siobhan explains that from around 3,000 auditions at ArtsEd only 45 actually get in. “It’s good to have a particular strength but you must have an all round talent for singing, acting and dancing that are all at a similar level” she says, adding that “musicals are very competitive” .

There isn’t any sense of a pushy parent or of young people with big egos from speaking to Siobhan as she describes her family. There’s more a sense of modesty, enthusiasm, dedication and drive. Siobhan is keen to note that ArtsEd certainly look for people who are driven, talented and grounded. “they are not looking for prima donnas” she reflects “they are looking for people who are humble, modest and open to learn.”

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Tom Bales playing the lead in Summer Holiday when he was 16 (2012)

The school certainly has a good reputation with an alumni that includes Martin Clunes, Julie Andrews, Darcey Bussell, Nigel Havers and Will Young. Typically, Tom might catch a glimpse of Colin Firth in the school corridor and has met with film director Trevor Nunn as well as being taught to act by the now retired head of acting Charlie Barker, daughter of the late comedian, Ronnie.

In such a competitive and talented environment Tom seems to have more than held his own and will be appearing in the ArtsEd production of ‘Titanic’ from Friday January 20th, 2016 in the Andrew Lloyd Webber Theatre at Chiswick for a run of 11 shows. Tom opens and closes the show with solos, playing a lead role as Titanic designer, Thomas Andrews, complete with a learned Ulster accent. Around fifty people, including friends, family and members of dramatic societies in North Tyneside are heading down to London from our region to give their support.

Meanwhile back in the North East brothers Oli and Gabriel are also preparing for their own starring roles, seemingly inspired by their elder brother’s talents. Sporty middle brother, Oli, aged 16 (there’s a four year gap between each of the brothers) is currently in his first year studying A’ Levels and has proved to be a bit of surprise to his family with his growing interest in theatre:

“Oli is a rugby player and into boxing, taking a different path to his brothers” says Siobhan but GCSE drama soon ignited the performing arts spark for brother number two.

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Oli Bales

Oli’s not a complete stranger to performance though. Siobhan mentions Oli has done busking, plays guitar and has a “rocky voice”. He’s now joined the annual musical at Whitley Bay High School, playing two roles as Prince Charming and also as The Wolf in a production of ‘Into the Woods’. “It shows his charming, satirical side as well as his dark, manipulative side” says Siobhan.

In a separate production Oli will also be playing Nathan, the son of the lead in ‘The Full Monty’ for Whitley Bay Operatic Society at the Playhouse where he has recently joined up. Recently he’s managed to squeeze in time as an extra in BBC children’s drama ‘The Dumping Ground’ which is filmed in Newcastle and as an extra in the filming of ‘Inspector George Gently’ around Durham. In addition he’s been learning dance at the Gillian Quinn School of Dance Theatre in Whitley Bay and hopes to follow in his older brother’s footsteps with an audition for ArtsEd at Chiswick in October.

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Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Bales on the set of Beowulf (2014)

Youngest son, Gabriel, who is 12, is not to be left to out. Siobhan describes him as very similar to Tom in character and “naturally good at dancing”. In May, Gabriel will be playing the principal role of Zach in Tynemouth Operatic Society’s production of ‘Goodnight Mister Tom’ with a number of solos to perform. Based on the novel by Michelle Magorian, some readers may recall the 1998 TV movie of the story, featuring John Thaw.

Gabriel’s other passion is making and editing films and has ambitions to be a film director. His current projects include parodies which he edits on his home computer and publishes on YouTube. For TV. Gabriel has appeared as an extra in the production of ‘Beowulf’ filming near Consett and Barnard Castle in the Durham Pennines.

In an age where ‘reality TV’, bis egos and sometimes outrageous behaviour are often seen as shortcuts to stardom, the hard work, passion, determination and dedication of Siobhan’s three sons is a refreshing and interesting insight into the actual reality of nurturing talent and achieving success in the challenging, competitive yet rewarding environment of performing arts. It is something for which Siobhan can be justifiably proud.

 

USEFUL LINKS

Stagecoach: Performing arts schools for children aged 14-18

Arts Educational Schools, London (ArtsEd)

Gillian Quinn School of Theatre Dance

Whitley Bay Playhouse

Whitley Bay Operatic Society

Tynemouth Operatic Society

North East England Amateur dramatic groups

Tradebox Uk Ltd

Rivers, becks, burns and linns : What’s in a (North East Place-)Name?

In this first blog exploring the curious and fascinating origins of North East place-names DAVID SIMPSON examines our rivers, streams and waterfalls and plots the great beck/burn divide

The River Tees at High Force waterfall. Photo: David Simpson
The River Tees at High Force waterfall. Photo: David Simpson

Alright please don’t ‘Pity Me’, but ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by place-names and especially those of the North East. I don’t know why precisely, but it’s certainly linked to my interest in history.

Across the region our place-names offer unique insights into our distant past and I find it fun to discover that a familiar place we take for granted is often not quite what it seems. Then of course we have all those strange and peculiar names: Pity Me, Witherwack, Wallish Walls, Snods Edge and Foggy Furze. How about Shiney Row, Seldom Seen, Success, Once Brewed or even No Place? These are the places that arouse much curiosity in our region  but even seemingly mundane place-names also hold unexpected secrets.

The first thing to know when studying place-names is that for a period of a little over a thousand years  – and that’s how old most of our place-names are – our language has changed an awful lot. This means spellings in old records can be notoriously inconsistent. So you can’t just look at a place-name today and guess what it means; you have to go back in time.

The North East has many fascinating and curious place-names
The North East has many fascinating and curious place-names

Place-name experts look for the earliest spellings, scouring ancient documents and interpreting the names according to the language of times past.

The experts are skilled linguists and historians, with an exceptional knowledge of how language evolved. They come with a good grasp of old languages like Latin, Old Welsh, Indo-European, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Middle English and a knowledge of local dialect too. They also need a good understanding of local history and know about the local topography by familiarising themselves with the landscape. It might also help to know a few folk tales connected with the place-names they study. The experts are prepared to do much detective work to reach their final conclusions and even then they may not always be sure. In the end the fruits of their labour are often nothing more than a passing curiosity for most of us.

The fun part for me is exploring and interpreting this work and looking for patterns. I enjoy puzzling over baffling contradictions and being surprised that seemingly obvious explanations are not what I had expected. I also believe, well I’m certain of it in fact, that place-names and their local features have close links to local dialect. You see, place-names and dialect are living history and often a very old part of our heritage that we can easily overlook.

The Tyne at Newcastle Photo: David Simpson
The Tyne at Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

Since most place-names have evolved over long periods of time, it’s best to start at the beginning. If we glance at the map we find the  most ancient names are those of the rivers and larger streams. Names like Tyne, Tees, Team, Wear, Aln, Allen, Don, Derwent and Deerness go back thousands of years to the pre-Roman Celtic times or sometimes to the era when the inter-related Indo-European languages across Europe and parts of Asia were beginning to evolve.

The Tyne, for example has one such ancient name. Tyne derives from a root word ‘ti’ meaning ‘to flow’ and could simply be interpreted to mean ‘water’. One of its tributaries, the River Team, now partly culverted through Gateshead’s Team Valley has a similar root, related to river-names like the Thames in London or the Taff in Cardiff. Further east, the Don that joins the Tyne downstream at Jarrow comes from an Indo-European word ‘danu’ simply meaning ‘river’. The Don of Jarrow shares its roots with the Don at Doncaster and the Don in Russia, as well as the Danube of Austrian river fame.

The River Don entering the Tyne at Jarrow. Photo: David Simpson
The River Don entering the Tyne at Jarrow. It shares its name with a river in Russia Photo: David Simpson

The River Tees is thought to have a Celtic river-name though its roots may be earlier. It’s related to an Old Welsh word for ‘heat’ and means ‘boiling, surging river’ perhaps alluding to the waterfalls of upper Teesdale like High Force.

The name of the River Wear is thought to derive from ‘uis’, another Indo-European word for ‘flow’ but Uisiria and Uedra were later forms of the name. This was interpreted by Welsh speaking Celts (the Britons) to ‘Gweir’ which means ‘bending’. Look at a map and compare the whole course of the Wear from source to sea with the course of the Tyne or the Tees and you will see that ‘bending river’ is an apt description.

The River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
The River Wear at Sunderland – ‘the bending river’. Photo: David Simpson

Other river-names with ancient origins include the Derwent which forms part of the border between Northumberland and Durham. One of a number of rivers called Derwent in England, the name comes from Old Welsh and means the ‘oak tree river’. Further south, a smaller County Durham river, the Deerness combines the Welsh element ‘dwfr’ meaning river with an Indo-European element ‘nesta’ meaning , ‘roar, rush’ that is found in names such as Loch Ness and Inverness.

Some river-names came much later in Anglo-Saxon or Viking times, suggesting their earlier names were forgotten or replaced. In County Durham, for example, the little river called the Browney (occasionally called ‘the brune’) has a name dating to Anglo-Saxon times that comes from ‘brun-ea’ meaning ‘brown river’

Two little-known North Eas rivers, the Deerness and Browney merge at Langley Moor near Durham City. Photo: David Simpson
Two little-known North East rivers, the Deerness and Browney merge at Langley Moor near Durham City. Photo: David Simpson

In Northumberland the River Wansbeck at Morpeth and Ashington has a name from the same era and is thought to derive from ‘waegens-spic’, a bridge made from logs (a spic) that was crossed by wagons. The Wansbeck is not a ‘beck’ in the usual sense of the word though. The word ‘beck’ is usually from a Viking word meaning stream but that is not the case here.

For the Germanic Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria who arrived in Britain between 500 and 600 AD from southern Scandinavia and neighbouring areas of what is now the German coast ‘burn’ was one of the terms they used for a stream. As their territory extended north beyond Edinburgh into what is now Scotland the word was introduced there and has had a lasting legacy. Its roots however are Northumbrian rather than Scottish.

North East England or more particularly County Durham is the battleground between the ‘burns’ and their later Viking counterparts the ‘becks’. The Vikings arrived from across Scandinavia from around 866AD and in areas more intensely settled or shared out by the Norsemen the Viking word ‘beck’ replaced the older Anglo-Saxon word ‘burn’ in the names of streams although ‘burn’ often survives in the names of local places associated with those streams.

So we find places like Saltburn (salty stream) on the Cleveland coast and Sherburn (shiny stream) near Durham but the local streams from which they are named are now called becks on the map as well as by the locals too. The Bowburn Beck at Bowburn near Durham, for example, flows in the shape of a bow (as in bow and arrow) and was originally simply called ‘the Bow Burn’.

Many other places in the region include the word ‘Burn’ and the names of the streams from which they derive can often be self-explanatory. Take Fishburn and Seaburn for example, one would have been noted for its plentiful supply of fish, the other simply flowed into the sea.

Whitburn near Sunderland, named from a barn rather than a burn. Photo: David Simpson
Whitburn near Sunderland, named from a barn rather than a burn. Photo: David Simpson

It’s easy to be fooled though, as we find at Whitburn near Sunderland. Not a burn at all, this was originally the ‘white barn’, a white-painted barn or one built with white stone. Then we have Sockburn near Darlington  which was actually Socca’s burgh rather than a burn. It was the ‘burgh’ (a fortified place) belonging to someone called Socca. Even here further doubt is thrown on the explanation because the River Tees hereabouts quite clearly flows in a massive meander that forms the  very obvious shape of a sock offering a more popular ‘folk explanation’. The fact that Sockburn was for centuries the southernmost point of County Durham and thus at the limit of the ‘soke’ of the BIshops of Durham adds further to the confusion. Both Whitburn and Sockburn by the way have fascinating links to Lewis Carroll and his Jabberwocky poem and you can read about those links here.

So enough of the burns, what about the becks? Well, the word  ‘beck’ comes from the Old Norse ‘bekkr’ – ‘a stream’. It is the usual term for a stream in Viking settled Cumbria and Yorkshire but is missing from Northumberland where burn is used. In County Durham we get both becks and burns with burns in the north and becks in the south and the boundary between the two lies somewhere around Durham City and mid Weardale.

Durham City lies on the dividing line between becks and burns in the naming of streams across England. Photo: David Simpson
Durham City lies on the dividing line between becks and burns in the naming of streams across England. Photo: David Simpson

Streams north of Durham City are called burns all the way up to John O’ Groats in the far north of Scotland while south of the city they’re called becks all the way down to the Viking settled areas of the Norfolk coast. Meanwhile in much of southern England and even in Lancashire they prefer the later Dutch word ‘brook’ though burn in the form ‘bourne’ often occurs in place-names across the whole of England.

In Hamsterley Forest in Weardale we find a stream named from an Anglo-Saxon man called Bede (though probably not the famous Venerable Bede of Jarrow). It is called the Bedburn Beck. It seems superfluous when surely the name Bed Burn would suffice? It’s as if they couldn’t quite make up their mind whether to call it a beck or a burn.

To the south it’s remarkable to discover that every single stream that joins the River Tees directly is called a ‘beck’ while to the north every stream that joins the Tyne directly is a ‘burn’. Along the Wear it varies between beck and burn. In upper Weardale as far east as Wolsingham the word ‘burn’ is the choice but in the mid Wear valley around Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor where the river briefly sways towards the south, the preferred word is ‘beck’.

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Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland lies on the stretch of the River Wear where streams are called ‘becks’ rather than ‘burns’. Photo: David Simpson

In Durham City it changes again with the Mill Burn beneath the city’s shopping centre on the north side of the town marking the beginning of those burns again and it is the burns that continue to feed the river from Chester-le-Street all the way to the river’s end at Sunderland, or at least they do on the map. Over in East Durham locals use the term ‘beck’ and this may be the choice of word for some people in Sunderland too. It would be interesting to know.

River-names of Viking origin in the North East are not so common but include the River Skerne (it flows from Trimdon to the Tees at Darlington) but its earlier Anglo-Saxon name was something like ‘Sherne’ (the shining river). It became Skerne under Norse influence.

Historic view of Darlington and the River Skerne
Historic view of Darlington and the River Skerne

Other river names that are pure Viking include the River Greta (griota – its name means stony) that joins the Tees at Greta Bridge downstream from Barnard Castle. Upstream from ‘Barney’ the Tees is joined by the River Balder – Balder is the name of a Norse God.

At Bishop Auckland the Wear is joined by the River Gaunless, yet another Viking name. Gaunless (like gormless) means useless, but why is uncertain. Perhaps it was too short of fish to feed the hungry Vikings or too sluggish to power the workings of a mill.

Waterfalls are a bit like burns and becks in that they change their names according to where in the region you look for them. High Force and Low Force in Teesdale derive from a Viking word ‘foss’ that literally means waterfall. Forces also occur in Cumbria and Yorkshire too.

In Weardale though waterfalls are called ‘Linns’ and they go by this name in Northumberland too where there are many impressive waterfalls to see. Linn was seemingly a word used by the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria but has Celtic roots deriving from ‘Hlynn’ a word for a pool – probably from the plunge pools found at the foot of a fall.

The River Tees, High Force Waterfall
The River Tees, High Force Waterfall

So we can see that ancient people of long ago and sometimes the slightly more recent settlers, the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings from Northern Europe have played an important part in the naming of our rivers and water features. It is those later peoples that also played a big part in the naming of our towns, villages, cities and topographical features as we will discover in the next What’s in a (North East Place-)Name?

Mary Ann Cotton : Victorian serial-killer

With ITV set to broadcast a two-part drama ‘Dark Angel’, featuring the story of Mary Ann Cotton at Halloween, DAVID SIMPSON recalls the tale of this notorious County Durham serial killer, who claimed the lives of at least 17 people

MARY ANN’S EARLY LIFE

Low Moorsley on the south western outskirts of Hetton-le-Hole was the birthplace on October 31, 1832 of Mary Ann Robson (later Mary Ann Cotton) , one of the most notorious figures in the history of murderous crime.

Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Cotton

During her 40 year life span she was responsible for the deaths, by poisoning, of 17 people, perhaps even more. Many of her victims were members of her own family including her own children. They were poisoned with arsenic though the victims would at first display signs of what was thought to be gastric fever. Her motives, if she really had any, are unknown, but she would often collect insurance money following the deaths of those closest to her.

Mary Ann’s childhood started out ordinarily enough in Low Moorsley. Her parents were staunch Methodists and her father, Michael Robson was a sinker involved in the horrible, itinerant and often dangerous, water-logged job of sinking shafts for new collieries. As an adult Mary too would live an itinerant lifestyle moving from place to place at regular intervals and this probably contributed to her being able to, quite literally, get away with murder.

A view across the countryside from High Moorsley not far from Mary Ann Robson's birthplace. Phot: David Simpson
A view across the countryside from High Moorsley not far from Mary Ann Robson’s birthplace, a little further down the hill. Photo: David Simpson

MARY ANN AT MURTON

Around 1839 when Mary Ann was six years old her family moved from Moorsley to the nearby pit village of Murton. With a population of 98 in 1831 that would rise rapidly into the thousands as the century progressed, Murton was one of many emerging colliery villages that came into being in eastern Durham following the establishment of Hetton Colliery in 1822. The colliery marked the beginning of the deep mining in east Durham and Wearside where the coal lay deep beneath the magnesian limestone escarpment.

Hetton Colliery changed history in East Durham
Hetton Colliery changed history in East Durham

Only a couple of years after the move to Murton, Mary Ann’s father tragically fell to his death down a colliery shaft.  He was only 30 years of age.

Whether this event affected Mary mentally in some profoundly damaging way is impossible to say but deaths in the mine were a common aspect of life that many families had to deal with.  In fact deaths within  families in the mining community were common all round as infant mortality was  particularly high during this period. All of these factors created a climate in which death was common place and death by murder might easily go unnoticed.

Mary Ann’s mother, Margaret, stayed in Murton following the death of her husband and kept lodgers that helped her support her daughter. At the age of 16, Mary Ann left home as it is thought that she did not get along with her mother’s new husband, a miner called George Scott.

Mary Ann went to work as a nurse for a local man at South Hetton and then returned to her mother’s house in Murton after three years, to train as a dressmaker.

THE MOVE TO CORNWALL AND THE DEATH OF HER FIRST CHILDREN

When Mary Ann was 20 years old she fell pregnant and married a colliery labourer called William Mowbray in Newcastle. The couple then moved to Cornwall residing  close to the River Tamar not far from Plymouth in the neighbouring county of Devon.

They resided with Irish navies, with Mowbray working on the railway as a shop steward. The work involved constant uprooting  from place to place as the railway advanced across Cornwall.

19th century map of Cornwall
19th century map of Cornwall

Why Mary ‘s husband had chosen to move to Cornwall for work was not certain. They may have learned of prospects there from one of their neighbouring Murton neighbours back in County Durham. Murton was noted for being home to a very significant number of Cornish miners who had settled there after there were unwittingly brought in to work as strike breakers.

During their time in Cornwall, Mary Ann gave birth to either “four or five children” (Mary Ann was not certain) of which only one, a girl named Margaret, seems to have survived beyond the first few days. Such early deaths in children at that time were not unusual and there is no implication that Mary Ann was involved in their deaths. In fact perhaps it was these events that damaged her psychologically.

Eventually, Mary Ann and William Mowbray were persuaded to return from Cornwall by Mary Ann’s mother where sadly their baby girl, Margaret succumbed to Scarlet Fever in 1860.

SUNDERLAND, SEAHAM AND MARY’S AFFAIR

On return to the North East, Mary Ann’s husband, William Mowbray, found work as a foreman at South Hetton Colliery and then went on to work as a stoker on a steam vessel.

The work brought William and Mary Ann to the rough and tough dockland area of Hendon and the East End in Sunderland, an area noted for its pubs, sailors and houses of ill-repute.

Here Mary and William would have two further children, both girls. The children were named Isabella and Margaret and both survived, for the time being at least. In the meantime with her husband frequently away from home, Mary Ann formed a relationship with a red-headed coal miner called Joseph Nattress of Seaham Harbour.

She fell pregnant – very likely to Nattress – and the infant, named John Mowbray, born at Hendon and baptised at South Hetton died a couple of days after baptism, apparently from ‘gastric fever’ in September, 1864.

It would only be around a year later that William Mowbray, Mary Ann’s first husband died – of Typhus . Interestingly, Mary Ann received insurance of £35 following his death. It was the equivalent to half a year’s wage.

Mary Ann moved to Seaham Harbour with her two daughters, one of whom, Margaret, died soon after. The remaining daughter, Isabella, went to live with Mary Ann’s mother.

Mary Ann’s relationship with Nattress may have continued for a while but he was engaged to someone else and following his marriage Mary Ann left Seaham and found work as a nurse in Sunderland.

Here, Mary Ann formed a relationship with a patient called George Ward who, like Mowbray, was a stoker. They married in August 1865 at Monkwearmouth. Ward subsequently became ill and died in 1866.

Once again, Mary Ann collected the insurance money.

A certificate gave cholera and typhoid as the cause of George Ward’s death although doctors had been confused by some of the symptoms he had displayed.

The Sunderland port area in the nineteenth century
The Sunderland port area in the nineteenth century

MARY ANN ROBINSON

Next, in December 1866, Mary Ann found work as a housekeeper after replying to a job advertisement posted by a recently widowed shipyard worker in the Pallion area of Sunderland called James Robinson.

Robinson was the father of five children and needed female assistance. Only a day after Mary Ann started working for him his recent baby, by his late wife, died of gastric fever.

During 1867 Mary Ann heard news that her 54 year old mother, who was still the guardian of Mary Ann’s daughter, Isabella, was feeling unwell. Mary Ann went to visit her mother at Seaham.

Her mother started to make a recovery but the recovery was soon accompanied by stomach pains and she lost her life only nine days after Mary Ann had come to visit. When Mary Ann left Seaham, her step-father, George Scott told her to take Isabella with her.

At this time, around February 1867, Mary Ann, was already pregnant by James Robinson when she returned to the Robinson household in Sunderland with Isabella.

Within the space of four days in April 1867, another two children of James Robinson died – the six-year old James and eight year old Elizabeth. Another six days would pass and then on April 30, 1867 Mary Ann’s own daughter, Isabella Mowbray, by then aged around seven years old, would also die.

This must have been an exceptionally difficult time for Robinson but in August, to avoid illegitimacy of their forthcoming child, Mary Ann and James were married at Bishopwearmouth. Their child was born in November 1867 and was named Mary Isabella.

Sadly, little Mary Isabella became ill and died in March of the following year. In June 1869, a second child was born to the couple, a baby boy called George.

Robinson then discovered that Mary Ann was stealing from his bank account and that she was encouraging his surviving children to pawn his belongings to pay off her debts.

It is not known what Mary was spending the money on, as there was no sign that she had purchased anything around the house. It still remains a mystery why she needed the money so desperately and we can only speculate. Perhaps someone with knowledge of her murderous activities, was bribing her.

Robinson threw Mary Ann out of his house which was a very fortunate decision for him to make. He would be the only one of Mary’s husbands to outlive her.

Worryingly, Mary Ann took the baby, George with her, keeping him for a short while. She later handed George over to a friend while she went to ‘post a letter’ but Mary didn’t return. George was returned to his father who maintained in custody of the child.

BIGAMY : FREDERICK COTTON

For a while Mary Ann was destitute and it is not clear what she did with her life at this stage before making contact with an old friend called Margaret Cotton, a spinster in South Hetton.

Margaret told Mary Ann about her brother, Frederick Cotton, a recently widowed miner who lived at Walbottle near Newcastle. Frederick had suffered much tragedy having lost his wife and two of his children.

Mary Ann, presumably sensing that here was another potential victim wanted to meet him. Soon Mary Ann struck up a friendship with Frederick Cotton and after offering him comfort in her usual way moved in with him. Mary Ann then learned that Frederick would receive the sum of £60 upon the death of his sister Margaret – Mary Ann’s friend .

It was only within four weeks of Mary Ann moving in with the Cottons that the spinster Margaret Cotton, who was caring for her brother’s children, was dead.

A few more weeks passed and Mary Ann fell pregnant again this time with Frederick Cotton’s child. In September 1870 the two were married at St. Andrews church in Newcastle.

Of course, Frederick Cotton did not know that Mary Ann was already married.

St Andrew's church, Gallowgate was the venue for Mary Ann's bigamous marriage to Frederick Cotton
St Andrew’s church, Gallowgate was the venue for Mary Ann’s bigamous marriage to Frederick Cotton

THE MOVE TO WEST AUCKLAND

In 1871 the couple left Walbottle with their new baby boy, Robert along with Frederick’s two children – boys named Frederick (Junior) and Charles.

The  couple moved to West Auckland in south Durham which is said to have been Mary Ann’s choice. There they found themselves living in the same street as Mary Ann’s old flame, Joseph Nattress, with whom Mary Ann once again rekindled her affair.

In September 1871, Mary Ann’s husband, Frederick Cotton became ill  and died two weeks later. Did he ever learn that he had been in a bigamous marriage? We will never know.

Mary Ann was left to look after the three boys.

She received relief payment for two of the boys – Frederick Junior and Charles as they were not her children. Further financial help came in the form of a lodger – Joseph Nattress, who moved in with them. During his stay Nattress seemingly became committed in his relationship to Mary Ann as he was persuaded to alter his will in Mary Ann’s favour.

It was around this time that Mary Ann had started working as a nurse for an excise man called Mr Quick-Manning. There is some dispute about his name but he seems to have worked for a local brewery. He was recovering from small pox and she began nursing him back to health.

He was a much wealthier prospect than Joseph Nattress.

poison

FINALLY CAUGHT

In the spring of 1872, seven-year old Frederick Cotton, along with the new baby, Robert Cotton and the lodger Joseph Nattress all died within the space of twenty or so days. Of the three children in her care, only the seven year old boy, Charles Cotton, survived.

Mary had an insurance policy on Charles which she could claim if he died but in the meantime a parish official and local assistant coroner called Thomas Riley asked Mary Ann if she could nurse a woman who was suffering from small pox.

Strangely, Mary Ann complained that she would if Charles could be accommodated in the workhouse so that he was out of the way. It was explained that this would only be possible if she entered the workhouse with Charles. Her response to this was that Charles was sickly and would soon be dead. “I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like the rest of the Cottons” she said.

Five days later Charles was dead, it was yet another of the many tragic deaths that followed Mary Ann Cotton like a dark and sinister cloud. This time, however, things would be very different.

Riley was told the news of Charles’ death and immediately became suspicious. It had occurred to him that Charles had not appeared sickly and he alerted the police, persuading the doctor who was about to carry out a post mortem to delay issuing the ’cause of death’ certificate.

An inquest was then held in the Rose and Crown Inn on West Auckland’s Front Street next door to Mary Ann Cotton’s home but proved inconclusive. The Doctor however, had retained samples of Charles Cotton’s stomach after he was buried and upon examination discovered that it contained arsenic.

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THE TRIAL AND EXECUTION OF MARY ANN COTTON

Mary Ann was arrested on July 18, 1872 for the murder of Charles Cotton. She kept a wall of silence but investigations soon started to unravel some of the events of her life and suspicions rapidly grew regarding the scale of her evil activities.

The bodies of Nattress, and Charles Cotton, Frederick Cotton Junior and the baby Robert were all exhumed and found to contain arsenic.

Mary Ann’s trial was delayed due to her pregnancy and her child was born on January 7, 1873 and named Edith Quick Manning Cotton. This was an embarrassment for Mr Quick-Manning, who appears to have changed his name and fled. The baby itself was taken into care and its name was changed. It was the only one of her children to survive besides George Robinson.

In the meantime the press had covered every sensational aspect of Mary Ann’s life with a little help from the police who leaked many details.

Mary Ann had no chance whatsoever of a fair trial as the jury had no doubt studied all of these details. She was tried only for the murders that had taken place at West Auckland and was found conclusively guilty on the murder of the boy, Charles Cotton.

On March 24, 1873 she was hanged in the open at Durham Prison in front of an assembled crowd. The executioner, William Calcraft had not left a high enough drop and instead of dying instantly Mary Ann was strangled to death over several minutes.

Executioner, William Calcraft
Executioner, William Calcraft

Mary Ann Cotton’s name soon entered the folklore of the region’s history and as the decades past she was best remembered in a children’s skipping rhyme:

Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten,
Lying in bed with her eyes wide open.
Sing, sing, oh what should I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, she’s tied up with string.

Where, where? Up in the air.
Selling black puddings, a penny a pair.

Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and forgotten,
Lying in bed with her bones all rotten.
Sing, sing, what can I sing?
Mary Ann Cotton, tied up with string.

Above: a folk version of the Mary Ann Cotton song performed by Peg Powler

  • The first episode of Dark Angel, the new two-art drama about the story of Mary Ann Cotton will air on Monday October 31st at 9pm on  ITV It features Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt in the lead role and North East actor Alun Armstrong

 

Presidents, Prime Ministers, people of power (and their links to North East England)

As Hillary Clinton continues her campaign to become the next President of the United States, DAVID SIMPSON examines her family connections to the North East and our region’s historic links to people of power and influence.

Washington Old Hall has ancestral links to the first President of the United States. Photo: David Simpson
Washington Old Hall has ancestral links to the first President of the United States. Photo: David Simpson

Hillary Clinton’s North East Links

It was not until relatively recent times that Hillary Rodham developed a preference for publicly using her marital surname as she pursued her high-flying political career. Despite her marriage to the man who would one day be President, Hillary would often go by the name Hillary Rodham. Whether she was aware of it or not,  she was preserving a family name that has links to North East England going back perhaps more than a thousand years.

Hillary’s father, Hugh Rodham, was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1911 but his father, Hugh Simpson Rodham, came from a family of coal miners and was born in the County Durham mining village of Kyo, near Annfield Plain in the year 1879.

Hillary’s grandfather was only a child when he left Durham for the United States along with his mother, Isabella Bell (a name that must surely have posed questions of amusement within the family). The young lad’s coal miner father, Jonathan Rodham originally of Wagtail Cottage, Holmside near Craghead had gone in search of new opportunities in the New World and with work secured there, he invited his spouse and child to join him.

Hillary Rodham’s paternal family tree and its associated branches show many links to coal mining in Durham and the North East, most notably around Tanfield and Chester-le-Street but also with links to Bishop Auckland and Wallsend. They were people of humble origin, although Hillary’s great-great-great grandfather, a Jonathan Rodham, married an Ann Parkinson at the fairly esteemed location of St Mary-le-Bow church, in the shadow of Durham Cathedral.

Hillary Clinton's Great-Great_Great grandparents were married in a church close to Durham Cathedral
Hillary Clinton’s Great-Great-Great grandparents were married in a church close to Durham Cathedral. Photo: David Simpson

Other County Durham family members in Hillary Clinton’s ancestry could well be descendants of Northumberland ‘Border Reiver’ stock with a smattering of Border Reiver surnames in the family tree that include Charltons, Bells and Grahams. There are no Armstrongs in this family, though, or at least as far as we can see. That would have been an interesting link as a descendant of that particular reiver family group have made their mark on American and world history in ways that take us well beyond our skies.

Many generations of the coal mining Rodhams in Hillary Clinton’s ancestry are linked to County Durham but their true roots are just to the north in the neighbouring county of Northumberland. Here, their very name stems from a place called Roddam (its name means ‘at the forest clearings’) and today it is the site of Roddam Hall. The name Roddam is the root of the Rodham surname, despite the slightly different spelling, and Rodhams and Roddams are thought to be the oldest family in Northumberland.

North East links in Hillary Clinton's family tree
North East links in Hillary Clinton’s family tree. Right click to open in new tab of window.

Roddam is near the tiny town of Wooler about eight miles – as the crow flies – from the border with Scotland though you’d have to cross the wild terrain of the Cheviot Hills to reach the border.

According to a Scot called John Major (now I’m sure I’ve heard that name before) writing some time in the 1500s, there was a man called Pole who was granted land at Roddam by King Æthelstan way back in Anglo-Saxon times. This man became the first member of the Roddam family, though over time some members of the family adopted the spelling Rodham.

It’s also interesting to note that among the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast are rocks called Roddam and Green, though it’s not clear how or if these might relate to the family name of Roddam or the place near Wooler.

Our region’s connections to George Washington

If Hillary Clinton is successful in her quest to become US president she will find herself in esteemed company in respect to her links to North East England as the distant roots of George Washington himself can be found within our region.

George Washington
George Washington

The historic village of Washington, once in County Durham – we could perhaps call it ‘Washington CD’ – is now surrounded by the modern town of Washington and is a part of the City of Sunderland. It is the place from which the entire Washington family, everywhere in the world, take their name.

The name De Wessyngton (meaning ‘from Washington’) as the family were initially called, reflected the earlier spelling of the place that they acquired and of which they became lords around 1180. The family was originally called De Hartburn as they came from Hartburn near Stockton-on-Tees in the south of our region.

They changed their name upon moving location after purchasing Washington (Wessyngton) from Hugh Pudsey (c1125-1195), the powerful Prince Bishop of Durham.

Perhaps coincidentally, their family crest consisted of stars and stripes. In the 1400s one member of their family became a Prior of Durham Cathedral, an important and powerful political post whose influence was felt across the region. Prior Washington was second only in power to the Bishop in the North East.

Pub sign Washington village
Pub sign Washington village

Descendants of the Durham Washingtons held land here in the North East until the 1600s but during the 1300s some members of the family had moved on to Lancashire and then ultimately to Sulgrave in Northamptonshire. Nevertheless, they kept their Washington name and it was from this branch of the family that the very first President of the United States was descended. Ultimately though, it is from Washington in Sunderland that George Washington, Washington DC and the US state of Washington all take their name.

People of Power in Our Region’s Past

Aside from presidential connections, Durham and Northumberland are certainly no strangers to people of power in our history. We lay claim to figures of immense political influence and sometimes radical ones too, going right back to the earliest of times.

In the Anglo-Saxon era North Easterners like King Oswald (604-642AD) and King Oswiu (990-1035AD) became ‘Bretwaldas’ or overkings of all England. In later times, King Cnut, Viking ruler of Britain is said to have established a base on the site of Raby Castle in south Durham.

Bamburgh Castle, where the Kings of Northumbria ruled. Photo David Simpson
Bamburgh Castle, where the Kings of Northumbria ruled. Photo David Simpson

In medieval times the Neville and Percy families along with the Prince Bishops virtually ruled the north as a separate entity from their bases in Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire. Just outside our region at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire was the primary home of both King Richard III and Warwick the Kingmaker (1428-1471), a Neville – whose name literally described the immensity of his power.

Our connections with royalty extend into modern times too. The present Queen’s ancestry has firm roots in County Durham through the Bowes family while, the Duchess of Cambridge along with her husband William and their children cement these links further through her family’s humble Durham mining connections that are not unlike those of Hillary Clinton.

PMs and  Political Giants of the North East

We have also had our notable share of Prime Ministers hailing from the region. Most recently, Tony Blair, though born in Scotland, was raised and schooled as a child in Durham and returned to represent the region in parliament. Under his influence the county of Durham became the only place in the UK outside London to be visited by President George W. Bush. The President dropped in on the home of Blair by helicopter before calling in for a meal at a local pub. Bush was the first US president to visit the region since Jimmy Carter came to  visit both Newcastle and our Washington here in the North East back in 1977.

Monument to Earl Grey, Newcastle. Photo: David Simpson
Monument to Earl Grey, Newcastle. Photo: David Simpson

In addition to Blair, earlier Prime Ministers who have have hailed from our region included Anthony Eden (1897-1977) of Windlestone, who came from a well-established Durham family and of course the great Northumberland-born reformer Charles the 2nd Earl Grey of Northumberland (1764-1845). Yes it is he of tea fame, who tops the monument at the very heart of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Much of Grey’s Great Reform Bill that brought about radical changes to British democracy was drafted with the assistance of his son-in-law John George ‘Radical Jack’ Lambton (1792-1840), the First Earl of Durham, a coal owner to whom Sunderland’s Penshaw Monument is dedicated. Lambton, a statesman who forged important international links, first as the Ambassador to Russia, would become Governor General and High Commissioner of British North America. He was the man who instigated the process of Canadian independence from Britain.

 Women of Power and Influence in the Region

The role of women may often be callously written out of  the history books but the influence of powerful females is ever present and no less so than in the North East of England.

There have been many notable female figures of power in the region going right back to Roman times when the first ever Northerner to be mentioned by name was in fact a woman, Cartimandua, who was. a formidable female opponent to the Romans in the North. When the Romans arrived she ruled over much of our region from her fort near Scotch Corner.

Then there was St Hilda, abbess of Hartlepool and Whitby in Saxon times, in her time one of the region’s most powerful figures, who shaped the religious course of Northern England in those early times and a woman by whom kings were guided.

Some of our region’s most powerful political campaigners have been females, notably Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), the one-time MP for Middlesbrough and MP for Jarrow who was so influential in the famed Jarrow Hunger March for jobs in 1936.

Ellen Wilkinson
Ellen Wilkinson

Then from earlier times we have Josephine Butler. Born Josephine Grey (1828-1906) at Milfield near Wooler not so many miles from the ancestral home of the Roddams, Butler was one of the most determined and influential ladies in Victorian Britain. Her campaigns against human trafficking and her work on behalf of female suffrage helped to change the lives and often appalling situations of women living in the Victorian era and beyond.

Josephine Butler
Josephine Butler

We could also mention Gertude Bell (1868-1926), the Tyne, Wear and Tees industrialist’s daughter born at Sunderland’s Washington ‘New Hall’ only metres away from the ‘Old Hall’ that was the ancestral home of the illustrious Washington family. Bell became a mountaineer, a political administrator, a spy and an archaeologist with a penchant for Middle Eastern culture and politics.

Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell

Her extraordinary life included her brave acts of diplomacy; meeting face to face with powerful members of often turbulent Arabian desert tribes in what was very much a male dominated culture and era, even compared to Britain of that time. Bell was of course also noted for her part in drawing up the borders of modern Iraq, working alongside T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and she was by all accounts a very formidable person.

So it can be seen that whether or not Hillary Clinton comes to be elected as the first President of the United States, North East England is likely to take its links to her family very much in its stride. As a region we are certainly no strangers to people in positions of power.

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

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.

 

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

 

Treasure the moment

Durham Cathedral’s much-anticipated Open Treasure exhibition finally opens its doors to the public this weekend. DAVID SIMPSON takes a sneak preview and is captivated by a wonderful collection of precious exhibits in extraordinarily beautiful spaces

Silver plate of Bishop Cosin, Open Treasure. Photo: David Simpson
Silver plate of Bishop Cosin, Open Treasure. Photo: David Simpson

When it comes to history, I must admit to having a particular passion for the Anglo-Saxon age and especially the part it played in the story of the North East. Yes, of course we have the Romans and the wonderful Hadrian’s Wall but for me our region’s identity truly emerges with the Golden Age of Northumbria and the flourishing Christian art and culture of the seventh century.

St. Cuthbert, the Venerable Bede and the Northumbrian king, Oswald, are the great figures of this age, whose remains all lie within Durham’s stupendous cathedral. They are still remembered affectionately across our region like old friends from a distant time. They are part of our folklore, our heritage. Even the dialect of our region has its roots in this age. Cuthbert would have understood that ‘to gan’ means ‘to go’ and as a monument to our region’s roots, beginnings and rich Christian heritage, Durham Cathedral is most certainly the place to go.

The Cathedral is of course Norman, but its story has Anglo-Saxon roots, brought about with a little help from the Vikings and the settlement of a community of monks carrying St Cuthbert’s coffin to Dunholm – or Durham as it became. Here they laid their saint to rest in a simple, specially-built church some 98 years before the building of the Norman cathedral began in 1093.

Viking artefacts
Viking artefacts. Photo: David Simpson

The cathedral provided a central focus for a monastic community whose influence stretched from Lindisfarne in the far north of Northumberland deep into North Yorkshire to the south. Today Durham Cathedral still carries this legacy as a focal point recalling the region’s earliest spiritual development and identity.

With the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund, £10.9 million has been invested in the creation of a new exhibition that utilises two particularly wonderful buildings of the cathedral’s former monastery along with a new interconnecting gallery space. Together they serve to fulfil the legacy of recalling the story of the region’s spiritual enlightenment. They will provide visitors with an experience to match the cathedral’s international, cultural and historic value and aim to transform the way visitors enjoy the Cathedral and gain inspiration from it.

Open Treasure begins in the wonderful Monks’ Dormitory, entered from the cathedral cloisters by a short stairway or a glass lift both of which reward you with the exhibition’s opening scene – a stunning view of the dormitory itself, a great medieval hall 194 feet long and 39 feet wide. It is the only intact monastic dormitory in England.

Once the sleeping quarters for Durham’s Bendictine monks, the Dormitory was commenced in 1398, in the era of Bishop Walter Skirlaw and we know the names of the medieval contractors who built it – John Middleton and Peter Dryng – but it is the work of a carpenter, Ellis Harpour that really grabs our attention for his spectacular oak beamed roof, the largest outside Westminster, and completed around 1404.

New light is shed on old stones, in a quite literal sense, as we enter the Dormitory and find ambient, atmospheric lighting illuminating the rich features of the structure, the roof and the details of its ancient artefacts. An impressive collection of sculptured stones of the Anglo-Saxon and Viking eras, for so long a perhaps unloved and poorly interpreted feature of display, now take on a new life of their own.

Hogback stones, Open Treasure
Hogback stones, Open Treasure. Photo: David Simpson

My particular favourites are the so-called Hogback stones of the Viking period from an era in which the Vikings were converting to Christianity. The era is reflected in the fusion or tension of conflicting Christian and pagan decorative styles. The sculptured stones come from across the region with a large number from the Vale of the Tees in south Durham and North Yorkshire.

Wandering around we are drawn to explore the stones of different eras in detail; the carving of bears heads clutching the hogback stone, the carved name of an Anglo-Saxon nun from a convent at Hartlepool and the huge awe-inspiring crosses that tower above the collection.

Much thought has been put into interpretation and information. Beautiful touch screens invite you to explore. Of special interest is a screen that shows the development and growth of the cathedral at different stages in its life. The stage that caught my eye was the cathedral in 1483 with the cathedral’s central tower at only half its present height. Since the tower’s later extension is currently in wraps as it undergoes repair it’s not too hard to imagine the cathedral in 1483 although back then the two western towers were twice their present height topped as they were by huge spires.

Close by a colourful interactive screen that will appeal to young and old alike highlights the different roles of monks within the Durham monastery of which the cathedral was an integral part.  You can pick a role to discover what their jobs involved.

My favourite feature of the Dormitory exhibition is, however, a cathedral timeline set out along an illustrated display bench complete with artefacts from different eras.

Cathedral timeline
Cathedral timeline. Photo: David Simpson

It is the great stone sculptures and crosses that dominate the scene in the Dormitory but special mention must be made of the grand bookcases that adorn the periphery of this hall, each uniquely crafted and containing books of many eras. In preparation for the exhibition they have been fitted with beautiful oak and brass screen doors each individually crafted by specialist carpenters to match the dimensions of each unique bookcase.

At the south west end of the Monks Dormitory an attended door leads through to the next stage of the exhibition,  where we enter the sudden coolness of the Collections Gallery where the atmosphere is closely monitored and sustained for the protection of exhibits. It is a surprisingly recent part of the cathedral, being nothing but an empty void until the 1950s when it was made into a linking passageway that later served as the Dormitory Library’s search room.

A case displays some of the interesting finds discovered within the monastic buildings including fish bones from the old cathedral priory kitchen and a broom or ‘besom’ discovered under the dormitory floor along with horse racing sweepstake tickets left by joiners in 1852.

Leaving the gallery, the next stage of the Open Treasure which will ultimately prove to be the highlight of the treasure is the spectacular octagonal kitchen (though it is square from outside) with its impressive and deceptively complex ribbed ceiling created by John Lewyn in 1366-74. Once surrounded by great fireplaces – their recesses can still be seen – it was here in the kitchen that the monks’ meals were prepared along with those of their guests. The building still served as a kitchen until the 1940s and more recently, up until 2011, it served as the cathedral bookshop.

Crucifix from the site of Battle of Nevilles Cross
Crucifix from the site of Battle of Nevilles Cross. Photo: David Simpson

Here, the highlight for me is a copper and enamel 13th century crucifix discovered on the site of the fourteenth century Battle of Neville’s Cross which took place in 1346 on the outskirts of Durham City. Unearthed in the grounds of a house called Western Lodge in the 19th century it passed through a family line to a Mrs Patricia Alvis of Bideford in Devon who donated the cross to the cathedral’s collection in May.

The main feature of the kitchen is the cathedral’s silver plate and particularly the impressive collection of Bishop John Cosin dating from the 1660s which is the centre piece of this grand building, for now at least. Next summer this central display area will become the permanent place of display for St Cuthbert’s 1,300 year old wooden coffin.

St Cuthbert's coffin will take centre stage in 2017
St Cuthbert’s coffin will take centre stage in 2017. Photo: David Simpson

It is important and only fair to note that the coffin and many of the most famous  cathedral’s treasures are not going to be on display in the Open Treasure just yet. If you are hoping to see the St. Cuthbert relics including the famous pectoral cross of circa 640-670 AD or medieval manuscripts of later periods you will have to wait for now.

This is for understandable reasons.

Conservators have to ensure that the cathedral’s most precious and delicate items are properly and very carefully acclimatised to their new surroundings. The impact of visitors in all kinds of weather conditions and numbers on the sensitive micro-climates of the display areas has to be assessed. It will be very closely monitored to ensure that the artefacts are protected and preserved for generations to come. This means that some of the best-known treasures of the cathedral will not make their debut in Open Treasure until the summer of 2017.

It is hoped that Open Treasure will attract 120,000 visitors a year and the admission price of £7.50 per adult and £2.50 per child to the exhibition is surely a worthwhile investment for the upkeep and conservation of one of the world’s most beautiful buildings.

So, as the Anglo-Saxons might say “gan and-langes” (go along) and soak up almost 2,000 years of culture and beauty. St Cuthbert would surely approve.

Open Treasure opens its doors to the public on Saturday July 23, 2016.

To find out more about the Open Treasure Exhibition visit the Durham Cathedral website

Kynren is truly epic

DAVID SIMPSON attends the opening night of the much-lauded Kynren and is astounded by its truly epic scale

The Saturday evening sunlight softly illuminates the glorious Gothic splendour of Auckland Castle as it awaits the unfolding of a great event from its lofty vantage point amidst the neatly manicured trees of the ancient bishops’ park. Close by, the ornate spire of the Franco-Flemish town hall peers above the treeline adding another beautiful backdrop to the verdant setting of an almost fairytale landscape.

Auckland Castle : Photo, John Simpson
Auckland Castle chapel : Photo, John Simpson

Only the occasional chill of a July evening  breeze sweeping across thousands of knees and the stark outline of a 1970s office block high above the valley (far enough away not to intrude) keep you grounded with a sense of reality in the present time and place. Yet even the office block seems like some extravagant addition to this extraordinary setting in which an epic two-thousand year tale of England is to be told.

Welcome to Kynren – an epic tale of England.

We wait, not quite sure what to expect, comfortable in the back row of the tribune. It’s the grand name for an auditorium of some 8,000 people but this is after all a daringly grand event.  The wooden facade looms like some grand medieval citadel as you walk the winding yellow road to reach the setting, leaving your car behind, at the bottom of the hill  – in Toronto. It’s just the beginning of a wonderfully implausible adventure.

It’s nearly 9.30pm. The moment approaches and an announcement is made: there will be a delay of ten minutes. A rumble of polite laughter rolls across the crowd. They know that this is the very first night for the volunteer performers, drawn from across the local community, children and adults alike. The expectant crowd is prepared, perhaps, to forgive the occasional glitch. They need not worry for despite the delay we soon see that the show, the spectacle, whatever we may call it, is in very safe hands.

“What’s this thing called again?” my eleven-year-old daughter asks, in slightly half-hearted fashion before it begins. She was looking forward to a friend’s birthday the following morning so this “history thing” had received little interest up until now. “KYNREN” I say, spelling it out not once but twice as she texts friends to explain where she is with a rather puzzled look on her face.

Kynren is Anglo-Saxon for ‘generation’, kindred, family’ and this epic show is designed to tell the story of generations of England’s history over two millennia, with much local flavour thrown in to taste. It’s an extraordinary challenge if ever there was one but we would not be disappointed.

And so the dream commences and a dream it surely is. The Kynren concept had all begun with the visionary dream of a City of London investor and philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer, now the owner of Auckland castle, whose plan was to recreate the spectacular French outdoor shows of Puy du Fou, right here in the North East of England.

Ruffer, born in Stokesley in North Yorkshire, just a little outside Middlesbrough, hopes to bring regeneration and a new sense of pride to Bishop Auckland and the surrounding area and in this he will surely succeed.  ‘Bishop’ as it is affectionately known, is the focal point for much of what was once the coalfield of south west Durham and was a place much affected by the rise and fall of coal mining. It is also a place with much potential and like many  towns across the region, has seen something of a rebirth.

It is a town with quite obvious medieval roots just like its medieval neighbours at Durham and Barnard Castle and it lies in beautiful surroundings too with a history stretching back to Roman times. Sadly, it is too often overlooked by visitors who mistakenly believe it to be just another mining town as they head out towards Bishop’s historic neighbours. With millions of pounds invested, this is Bishop’s chance to shine.

In both the execution and storyline, Kynren is something of a dream in itself. Perhaps it is even a dream within a dream – a spectacular stream of multicoloured consciousness, where the amazing events of twenty centuries, both local and national, flow swiftly from one into another at a captivating chronological pace. Let’s be clear, though, this is no history lesson, it’s much more magical than that.

Surprisingly, the River Wear is the setting for much of the story and in often unexpected ways. It serves as the sea in several  scenes and when it comes to technical effects has a major starring role in the show. It’s a role that it comfortably fulfils along with the grand castle that overlooks its river banks. It’s not the real river, though, but a  magical man-made lake and it’s not the real castle either. Yet dreamily, the whole of the Kynren site is set within a broad loop of the real-life River Wear itself overlooked by the real-life castle. Don’t be confused and you won’t be. As I said, this is virtually a dream within a dream.

Kynren. Photo: John Simpson
Kynren: Photo, John Simpson

When the show finally kicks off, in football fashion, the audience is instantly captivated. I’m delighted to see my daughter immediately relates. She is enthralled. It’s a story told through the dream of a young Bishop Auckland boy, a miner’s son during the inter war years of the last century. Befriended by Hensley Henson, the Bishop of Durham, after accidentally breaking the window of the bishop’s lodge, the boy’s fascination for history is quickly kindled by the bishop’s passionate knowledge. The boy’s name is Arthur, the first hint that Kynren is to be as much a tale of legend, mystery and magic as it is a one of history.

As a historian and father to a girl who says she finds history disappointingly dull, I am rather relieved. There’s no need for me to constantly assess the accuracy of the facts – though most prove to be broadly true – and I don’t feel I have to inspire, or bore, with my insights or quiet narration as events unfold. This is a dream after all. It is theatre not a lecture. And yet the questions fall one by one: “who’s going to win this battle?” or more often “who are the bad guys? who are the good ones?” I explain, pragmatically that it’s usually the good ones that win or so history often tells us.

So how much should I reveal about this truly wonderful spectacle? Well, firstly you simply must go and see it for yourself and hope that it does not rain – though it would take much to dampen the spirit of Kynren. What I can say though is that you should expect the unexpected and also expect, with so much happening, to miss almost as much as you will see. In fact you may want to watch it all over again. There will be bangs and the flashes of fireworks too, so you’ve been warned.

Romans, Angles, Vikings, Normans, Tudors and a whole assortment of kings, queens and common people of many different eras will come and go in scene after scene as whole epochs flash past your very eyes.  Scores upon scores of colourful, costumed characters, children, armies, live goats, sheep, geese,  slaves, soldiers, peasants, knights, show-stealing horses, carriages, carts, ships and even a steam train will  appear and disappear from nowhere and into nowhere as you count down the years and move closer to the present.

Kynren: Photo John Simpson
Kynren: Photo, John Simpson

Distracted by colourful events in one corner of this splendid seven and a half acre stage, you may turn to see that you have missed the appearance of a whole building in another corner or perhaps a ship or an army. It is really quite something, like an epic Hollywood movie set, with a wonderful technicolor cast of some 1,000 souls.

You will see live battles, fabulous fireworks, water effects, magnificent creative lighting of a kind with which Durham is now so familiar and you will soon take for granted the magic of people walking on water – Dynamo style – or a whole ship emerging from the water complete with its Norman crew. “How did they do that?” you will wonder and you will surely ask yourself “am I really in Bishop Auckland?” Often you will utter to yourself “this is just plain mad”.

The amplified stories of the past are spoken by actors of all ages but this story as it is told is almost incidental to the whole visual effect and the accompanying, specially composed music. It is unashamedly and rousingly patriotic in places but never in a jingoistic way. It will leave you feeling good and is perhaps just the tonic if you wish to escape from the weary world of present day politics.

If you love the costume character magic of Beamish, or the lighting effects of Durham’s Lumiere, or the atmosphere of open air theatre and especially if you enjoyed the wonderful absurdity of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, then you are in for a very special treat here. It’s not just me that thought this though. The standing ovation that brought the show to a close is a great testament to the many months of planning and work that have gone into this magnificent event.

As we drove back home towards the midnight hour, my daughter confessed with brutal honesty that history was her most boring subject at school and apparently even the way I explain it is rather boring too. “This was amazing though”, she declared, “it made history so exciting and so real” she then continued listing her favourite parts of the show one by one by one in yet another stream of flowing dreamy consciousness. For such inspiration, Kynren,  I am eternally grateful.

 

This year there are a total of fourteen performances of Kynren – An epic tale of England on selected weekend days from July 2 to September 17. For booking and more details, contact the organisers, Eleven Arches at elevenarches.org