PAUL WHITE admits he’s not a museum fan but speaks in praise of the Oriental Museum, a hidden gem in Durham City
Some readers will call me a philistine, others may agree wholeheartedly, but I have a confession: it is a rare museum indeed that doesn’t have me wishing I could escape to the nearest pub.
I like culture and the arts, but not in the “shuffle along, item by item, trying to take in masses of information at a time” sense.
However, we have a gem of a museum hiding away in our region, to which I have voluntarily returned on more than one occasion. The Oriental Museum, in Durham, is full of great items for anyone who has an interest in the culture and history of the east.
Having visited China on a number of occasions and fallen in love with Japan on a trip that took in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, I find these cultures intriguing and a pleasure to learn about.
I dropped in to the Japan section of the Oriental Museum today – I’d recommend taking it in chunks – and from Manga to the Samurai and the mix of Bhuddist and Shinto religions, it’s full of items and information that I find far more exciting than the naval gazing minutiae we fill many, admittedly far from all, of our museums with.
I’m hugely proud of coming from Shildon, but it took me 20-odd years to return to the Timothy Hackworth Museum after being taken there as a child, and that was a work-related visit.
I would hasten to suggest that we are getting better, but I think I’ve been scarred from my childhood, and from being dragged to museums when I’m really not in the mood.
The Oriental Museum, alongside Beamish, show how museums can be great resources and are a massive credit to the North East. Both are done very differently, yet equally fire my imagination. On trips to the US and Canada, the museum elements of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, and the Johnny Cash Museum, were visits I made voluntarily, despite there being an abundance of bars and other amenities I could easily have opted to escape to.
Perhaps there is something niche in each of these examples that appeals directly to me.
In any case, if, like me, you were put off such visits as a child, maybe it’s time to think again and find a museum that holds a particular interest for you. The North East is a great place to start.
In preparation for a social media celebration of the North East coast PAUL WHITE explores the shores from Seaton Carew to South Shields
I don’t think it’s possible to live in the North East for so long that you know everywhere and everything about the region.
Personally, I’ve never lived outside of the North East in my 40 years. I was even fortunate enough to get on a degree course that was taught in Darlington.
I’m not someone who believes that there is nothing to be gained from venturing further afield, like some Shildonian version of Hale & Pace’s Yorkshire Airways pilots. I love traveling, but I am also increasingly aware that there is always somewhere new to discover here.
On Sunday, I decided to take my camera with me on a trip up the coast. It was inspired by a plan hatched at Northumbrian Water that this Friday, September 9th, we would like to try to get as many people Tweeting pictures of the North East coast at the same time.
Wouldn’t it be great if we can fill a small part of the vastness that is Twitter with imagery of our region’s stunning coastline, even for just a few minutes? Anyway, more on that and how you can get involved later.
I started at Seaton Carew, a place I visited recently for the first time since my childhood. What a lovely seaside destination we have there, just to the south of Hartlepool. No airs and graces, little in the way of over-the-top flashing lights, and an amazing gelato shop (Jo Jo’s), to stop and rest your feet, while taking on board one of a wonderful array of sundaes.
The sky was brooding, the southern backdrop industrial. Yes, it’s lovely to get a shot of the type of beach that goes on forever, with blue sky up above and the sun shining. But, if I’m honest, when I have my camera I’ll take a dramatic set of clouds any day. Not least because I burn like nobody’s business after 15 minutes in the sun.
Next, I headed North, Seaham-bound. Only, I never got there. A little sign for Crimdon Beach caught my eye and I made an unplanned right turn and discovered an incredibly beautiful beach that I never knew existed.
A mix of pebbles, pools and sand, it was a revelation. Sure, I’d heard the name Crimdon, but never once associated it with a beach I’ll be sure to return to again and again. Wonderfully sheltered by the rising hills, there is less of a breeze, zero flashing lights, and it’s really quiet, almost like a little secret I’d stumbled upon. Ok, no gelato bar, but you can’t win them all.
As the afternoon ticked on, I bypassed the lovely beaches of Seaham, Roker and Whitburn – and possibly one or two more gems I have yet to discover – and made my way to South Shields. This is another recent discovery (or, possibly, rediscovery) for me, I shamefully confess, but it’s got so much to offer for everyone.
I “found” it again – it’s another place I was probably brought as a child – when a friend’s band were playing on the sea front a while ago, in a beautiful outdoor auditorium.
This was my first walk along the pier, however, and it provides a wonderful, fresh perspective on the mouth of the Tyne, with Tynemouth across the water and the Tyne heading inland, ferries setting off on their journeys and fishermen of all ages landing mackerel.
It was a whistle stop tour of three from countless wonderful places on our coastline and, while I will return to all three again, I will certainly be making a few trips to places I have never been, so that I never stop discovering the North East and its coast.
If you’d like to get involved with the plan to flood a small part of Twitter with beautiful images, Tweet your pics, using the #NECoast hashtag, on Friday, September 9, at around 4pm. Let’s show the world what they’re missing.
Find out more about Paul White and our England’s North East bloggers here
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.
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.”
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”
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.
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
PAUL WHITE cycles 26 miles round the shores of the beautiful Kielder Water and despite the ups and downs suggests the challenge is not solely for the enthusiast
It was only quite recently that I took my first ever trip to Kielder Forest & Water Park. Considering my global travels, to not have taken the 90-minute drive north seems like something to almost be ashamed of. Especially when you find it is so beautiful.
To the west, it’s a similar distance from home to the Lake District, a journey I’ve made many times. So, why not Kielder?
My wife had mentioned it on many occasions, but I’d simply never got around to it.
However, earlier this year, we got up early one Saturday when the sun was shining, I slung our bikes on the back of the car, and headed off up the A68.
Having recently started a contract with Northumbrian Water, which owns the park, I had decided I finally had to find out what all of the fuss is about.
To say it was a trip I had planned doesn’t mean “well-planned”. Yes, I had read that the Lakeside Way was just over 26 miles long. Surely, that was easily achievable. After all, the name “Lakeside Way” clearly represented a ride that would be flat? No.
We took it easy and, despite the many ups and downs, rode the distance from Tower Knowe to Tower Knowe in around four hours. It was the first time my wife had been on a bike ride in something like two years, so without being patronising, it is clearly a ride that isn’t solely for the enthusiast. It’s a ride that can be taken as lightly or as seriously as you wish.
There are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the wildlife and a stunning art and architecture collection and, around eight miles from the end, the Kielder Waterside Park (previously known as Leaplish) is a great resting stop, where you can enjoy a meal at the Boat Inn. Admittedly, my body wasn’t so happy after an hour’s rest and a nice meal when I decided to set off on those final few miles.
This trip simply scratched the surface of Kielder, where plans are underway to make it the “best in Britain”, with new luxury lodges being developed at the Waterside Park. With the history of Kielder Castle and the area’s thriving art collection, there is a trip to Kielder for all enthusiasms.
The Kielder Ospreys are a great example of species being reintroduced to our region and, with everything from the tiniest birds through to these beautiful creatures and even buzzards, it’s a place for wildlife lovers as well as adventurers, food fans, history lovers, or just people wanting a great break.
And to think it was all created to help supply water to parts of our region as distant as Teesside.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
HELEN GILDERSLEEVE soaks up the rays at one of our region’s unspoiled beaches and discovers how tranquillity turned the tide for one of our rarest seabirds.
Crimdon is situated at the southern end of Durham’s Heritage Coast between Hartlepool and Blackhall Rocks. Once a thriving holiday destination for mining families during the 1920’s, Crimdon is now a destination for a rare seabird, the Little Tern, which beach dwellers can hear chattering delightfully. The Little Tern visits Crimdon to breed each year from West Africa. They usually return to Africa with their young at the end of summer.
The importance of these birds means they are well protected by wardens and volunteers, who are always available during the bird breeding season to talk to the public about the colony. An extensive, fenced breeding area has been set up for the birds away from people to ensure the Terns aren’t disturbed and to protect their eggs and chicks from predators.
Little Terns are the smallest species of tern in the UK, nesting exclusively on the coast in well-camouflaged shallow scrapes on beaches, spits or inshore islets. They do not forage far from their breeding site, which dictates a necessity for breeding close to shallow, sheltered feeding areas where they can easily locate the variety of small fish and invertebrates that make up their diet.
Colonies are predominantly found around much of the coastline where the species’ preference for beaches also favoured by people makes it vulnerable to disturbance. Their vulnerable nesting sites and a decline in Europe make it an Amber List species on the RSPB’s Conservation Concern list.
Luckily for the Crimdon Terns, their breeding ground remains tranquil and passers-by may even be able to witness a mating display. Courtship involves an aerial display with the male calling and carrying a fish to attract a mate in the colony.
The beach itself is now a much quieter haven than it once was, having lost many visitors in the 1970s and 80s due to the growing popularity of foreign travel. However, this is all part of its appeal.
From the Tyne to the Tees many North East beaches, although beautiful, can often be crowded and noisy. Crimdon, in comparison, has stretches of endless golden sands and rarely gets more than a handful of visitors at any one time. It’s enjoyable for families as well as bird-watchers, with its endless rock pools and rolling dunes. It also boasts free car parking and a regular ice cream van.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
HELEN GILDERSLEEVE finds out how a popular urban-based farm hopes to achieve self-sufficiency as it faces major cuts in funding
Based under Byker Bridge, the Ouseburn Farm in Newcastle is a rustic green oasis in the heart of the city.
Sadly, the popular farm may face closure after a key backer was forced to withdraw support, leaving a significant funding shortfall.
Established as a charity in 1973, the farm is owned by Newcastle City Council, though for the last eight years Tyne Housing Association (THA) have paid £100,00 towards annual running costs. Cuts in funding mean the housing provider can no longer support the farm beyond April 2017.
The free-to-enter farm is a much-loved feature of the Ouseburn townscape and is home to cows, pigs, sheep, goats and ducks. It gives an opportunity for city people to get close to farm animals and provides farm-based and environmental education for over 4,000 school children and students in term-time.
Workshops teach agricultural, horticultural and environmental skills to vulnerable adults and members of the public and are provided by a staff of six full-time and two part-time employees supported by up to 20 volunteers.
Closure of the farm would be a major loss to Ouseburn but things are looking hopeful, as the charity is making steps towards becoming financially self-sustaining. The Board of the Tyne Housing Association has transferred a carpentry workshop and two furniture shops in Wilfred Street, Byker to the farm charity to help generate the much-needed funds.
Further funds come from Ouseburn Farm Shop on Heaton Park Road which opened its doors at the end of June. The shop sells upcycled furniture that has been restored and recycled at the Wilfred Street workshop which in turn reduces a cost to the environment by helping reduce landfill waste.
In addition, the shop sells homemade bakery items and preserves produced at the farm. It is very a positive step forward for the farm in its aim to become self-sufficient
The farm itself in Ouseburn Valley also generates income from its newly refurbished coffee shop and educational classrooms. Workshops are available which aim to teach school children, students, vulnerable adults, volunteers and members of the public about agricultural, horticultural and environmental projects.
A spokesperson from Ouseburn Farm, said:
“We’d like to give a massive thank you to Tyne Housing Association who have funded the farm for the last eight years and we remain positive that the farm, treasured by all the community – near and far – will get backing in the near future.
“If anyone would like to do their bit to help us then they are more than welcome to donate as much or as little as they can afford.”
Councillor Stephen Powers, Cabinet Member for Policy and Communication, said:
“The Council has had a long involvement with the farm and was instrumental in saving it ten years ago when it was discovered that the old City Farm was situated on land that was heavily contaminated from its historic use as the site of an iron works.
“Because it was recognised as an important and much-loved attraction in Ouseburn, which also had great potential, in 2006 the Council oversaw a major project to clear the contamination and replace the old buildings with a new environmentally friendly building.
“An innovative agreement with Tyne Housing Association for them to take over and develop the Farm has been very successful and I am very keen to see the Farm’s future secured. Both the Council and Tyne Housing face serious financial pressures in a time of austerity and so it is essential to find an alternative external funding source so the Farm can continue its excellent work with schools, volunteers and vulnerable adults.
“It is one of the key visitor attractions within the Ouseburn Valley alongside Seven Stories, the Victoria Tunnel and the various galleries, pubs and cafes and is integral to the emergence of the Valley as a unique and vibrant area of the city.
“The Council will work alongside THA to find a way of securing the future of the Farm after April 2017 and would be happy to talk to anyone who is interested in becoming involved with such a fantastic place.”
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.
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.
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.
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