Category Archives: Days Out

Tourist Trap: £103 and a bag of nuts to see a waterfall

DAVID SIMPSON reveals how a bit of innocent chatter, a failed download, three rejected coins and a bag of nuts resulted in a £103 charge to see England’s best waterfall.

High Force
High Force waterfall, Teesdale. Photo David Simpson

A roaring awesome force of nature, High Force waterfall is one of the most beautiful and remarkable features of the North East landscape. People come from far and wide to enjoy this majestic ‘force’ pouring its foamy waters at roaring pace over the imposing slate-black rocks of the Great Whin Sill.  I wonder, though, how many people know that if they’re not too careful, they may end up paying more than a hundred pounds for the privilege?

I hadn’t been to the waterfall for a while so with some delightful sunny weather to enjoy I headed off to Teesdale, stopping at bonny Barnard Castle and the pretty village of Romaldkirk along the way. A little nearer to my destination I then called in at lovely Middleton-in-Teesdale to draw out some cash on my driving route to ‘feel the force’. Now ‘Fors’ is a Viking word meaning ‘waterfall’ by the way and has nothing to do with a force of power or the enforcement of fines for that matter – at least not as far as we know.

I haven’t been to High Force for about three years now – to my great shame, High Force should be at least an annual visit for anyone in the North East. Having been diverted at so many wonderful stops along the way I didn’t get to the High Force car park until just before 5pm. I’d never been there that late in the evening – though it’s hardly what you’d call ‘night time’ at the height of summer.  I then see a sign at the car park saying the fall closes at 5pm with the last admission at 4.30pm. Looks like I’m too late.

Low Force waterfall
Low Force waterfall, Teesdale. Photo © David Simpson 2018

I was a bit confused, did this mean that the entire pathway to get to the fall was closed or do they enclose the waterfall in some kind of iron cage to keep people out? In fact, as it turns out, the path doesn’t close at all, you can still stroll along the riverside to within a literal stone’s throw of the fall. The only limitation is that after hours you will find a locked gate near the fall beyond which you can go no further. Don’t worry though you’re still more than close enough to get a decent view or a photo.

If only I’d known all of this a bit sooner as I’d have saved myself £100 pounds but you see I have a problem; I’m a bit of a chatterbox. No sooner had I parked  the car then I got into a conversation with some friendly visitors and ramblers. Now when I say ramblers, I  mean walkers. Their conversation, I should say, was far from rambling and was pleasantly engaging, though as it turned out disastrously engaging. “Can I still get to the fal” I innocently asked, “or is the path closed?” I wanted to be sure. No point in paying a £3 car parking fee for nothing.

Soon there was a suggestion to walk back downstream to Low Force and cross a footbridge to reach the High Force from the other side of the river  (on what used to be the Yorkshire side – where unlike the Durham side they don’t charge you). There was also a suggestion from these helpful visitors that I take in Summerhill Force at Gibson’s Cave and see the Low Force as well. I should confess, that I hadn’t been to either for some time (again to my shame), at least not since I was a kid, so I wasn’t sure how long that walk would take.

As the conversation continued, I took little notice of the time. I can’t be sure but I suspect that by this time more than 10 minutes had already elapsed. Eventually another curious conversational visitor interjected and explained that I could in fact still get pretty close to the “big one” from the Durham side; certainly close enough for a photo and so I decided to commit to the parking, which was going to cost me a minimum of £3 which I could see from where I was standing and confirmed by the conversation.

£3 seemed reasonable enough, so I fished out my £10 note, fresh from the Middleton cash point, only to find that the machine wouldn’t take notes – unlike the nearby cameras which it seems take notes of your every move with a view to taking much more than a trusty tenner – but more on that in a moment. Also, there was no facility for accepting cards in the parking machine as you often find on remote car parks near Hadrian’s Wall.

I saw then that there was a parking ‘app’ that you can download to your phone. Great, I thought, I love a bit of simple technology – so I downloaded the application onto my phone, or at least I tried to. From what I remember it aborted on two or three goes, causing much frustration and taking much precious time before I eventually succeeded. Time was still ticking away.

Low Force waterfall, Teesdale.
Low Force waterfall, Teesdale.

Now I’m no technophobe, or at least I like to think that I’m not, but I couldn’t get this app to accept the input of letters from my number plate on my phone – something which, incidentally, the nearby cameras seem to have no problem reading. I decided the best course of action was to get some loose change, so I popped into the handy High Force Hotel right next to the car park and waited patiently for a thirsty couple in front of me, who were buying a not-to-quick round of early evening drinks for their numerous friends, to get served. Again, unbeknown to me, time was ticking away.

With the couple served, I decided to get myself a bag of nuts plus change from my tenner as it occurred to me that this hotel must get a constant stream of annoying people asking for change to feed into the coin-sucking parking machines nearby. At least, with the nuts, I had made a purchase that would benefit the hotel.

So you’d think I was sorted? Well, actually, no. For some reason  the parking machine didn’t like my coins at first or at least didn’t like my level of concentration or understanding of the payment process in that evening heat. No, it just wouldn’t accept those coins, coughing them out on several occasions without hesitation until eventually a new set of three pound coins was happily accepted and the parking ticket was finally there in my hands.

So with my three pounds paid and the said ticket placed on the dashboard, as instructed, it was time to explore. What I didn’t know, however, was that time had already ticked its final tock and taken its £100 toll. What I didn’t know was that despite the payment of £3, the camera had clocked my time of arrival with its number plate recognition technology and decided that I was a dreadful offender.  It was only when I’d paid that £3 fee that I was approached by one of the friendly visitors who I’d been talking to a few minutes earlier. Warily, if a little tardy in his thoughts, he asked rhetorically: “you have seen the ‘small print’ about the £100 fine after 10 minutes?”

Sadly, I had not, and for that matter nor had the talkative lady standing nearby. She confessed she hadn’t seen it either but was confident that she had paid for her ticket on time.  At this point you might have heard me exclaim “*$!~**#!”  or words to that effect. There it was: a little warning in amongst the usual T&Cs, about a £100 fine for anyone who fails to pay within ten minutes of arrival. Now rules are rules, but this seemed like a little case of extortion to me; a ridiculous sum for a silly error, perhaps even a case of bullying you might say.

Summerhill Force and Gibson's Cave.
Summerhill Force and Gibson’s Cave.

I had that sudden horrible feeling I’d been there much more than ten minutes but couldn’t be certain but thought it was a reasonable and honest mistake and as I’d paid my parking fee I thought perhaps things would be okay. On the other hand, perhaps I am just hopefully naïve.

So off I went on my stroll. It’s always a great feeling of anticipation as you approach ‘the High Force’ on the thickly wooded pathway and can hear it, though not at first see it, getting closer and closer until eventually it reveals itself in all its glory in a gap amongst the trees. I waited for a group of teens larking around at the locked gate – one of whom had unsafely climbed over the neighbouring fence towards the fall. Having made her way back across the fence and onto the path, the group departed for home, leaving me to take a few photos and admire the view from the gate, quite contently.

It had been sunny for several days so the High Force  in these dry conditions wasn’t in full spate but the powerful flow was still more than enough to impress. On the way back along the path leading to the fall I passed a couple of young blokes heading in the direction of the force clutching a veritable picnic of alcoholic drinks who were clearly intending to venture beyond the locked gate and have the after hours waterfall all to themselves for the rest of the evening. I hope they remembered to pay their parking fee.

Having paid £3 which covers a maximum of 3 hours I decided to get my money’s worth so acting on the advice of my recently found friendly band of car park advisers I tried out the walk heading downstream to take in Low Force on the Tees and the Summerhill Force at Gibson’s cave which is along the nearby Bowlees Beck. Within less than an hour I’d managed to fit in High Force and these other two falls (I’m a brisk walker) and I must say all the waterfalls are stupendous.

Low Force is every bit as good as the comparable Aysgarth Falls down in  Wensleydale – if not better – and is found in two close-by groups of falls that can be enjoyed from the neighbouring fields or from the wonderfully wobbly single-file pedestrian suspension bridge that crosses the Tees here. Gibson’s Cave and the Summerhill Force are wonderful too – reached along the beautiful wooded dene of the Bowlees Beck from Bowlees and even on this relatively dry day the sight of that lovely waterfall trickling over the cave is a pretty and picturesque sight to behold.

Sadly, all these sights and sounds on this pleasant summer’s evening were more than a little overshadowed by the distinctly unpleasant and unexpected possibility of a £100 parking fine.

Nine days passed and I’d quite forgotten about my visit to the ‘forces’ when I received a midday Monday letter of shall I say ‘high enforcement’ from a Liverpool-based company with the rather intimidating name of Civil Enforcement Ltd. Their letter, issued on and presumably also posted on a Friday*,  was received  with the following demand: “Amount due within 28 days: £100″ and “Reduced amount due if paid within 14 days: £60″.  In fact the 14 days was now 11 and a half days notice due to the delay in receiving the letter.

Now although £60 still seems to me like a proverbial ‘day light robbery’, in the circumstances it’s much less to pay and much more palatable than paying £100. It was very tempting to pay this, caving in to a bit of ‘tactical’ bullying you might say. However, I feel I have been unlucky and not properly warned of the fine rather than dishonest, so I decided to stick to my guns and hold out for what I think is right.  Anyway, I’ve appealed, and if I fail in this appeal I will then have the option of using the independent ‘Parking on Private Land Appeals (POPLA)’ service. If your appeal with POPLA is still unsuccessful you must then pay the full £100, so it’s a risk – which of course the parking enforcers must presumably know only too well.

As a penance for my unwitting error I have offered to pay £7 (in addition to the £3 already paid) as I think that £10 is a reasonable sum for an honest mistake. It’s also a very decent sum for the car park considering the time I was there – whereas £60 is not. We’ll see what they say. Just don’t hold your breath.

I just think that this is all a bit of a sting that can make money out of the unwitting public for a lapse of ten minutes? That’s certainly not enough time to do anything useful or see any of the sites or reach the waterfall, but more than enough to catch one or two chatty or temporarily distracted people like me unawares.

All that it would take, in my view, to avoid this would be a prominent sign at the entrance to the car park saying that you must pay within ten minutes of entering or receive a fine – it’s the one thing that any visitor would certainly want to know above anything else. This could be done very easily to make absolutely sure that people are aware of the possible fine. The car park could also make it clearer about accessibility to the fall after 4.30pm as it was clarifying this ambiguity that cost me the time more than anything else.  What makes me cross is it’s not like I didn’t pay at all or do anything dishonest, I just wanted to confirm that I was going to be able to see what I had come to see before I paid the car park money and committed to stay. It is after all ‘The High Force Car Park’.

I’ve asked Civil Enforcement Ltd, the company which collects car parking revenue on behalf of the landowners to consider my appeal. I’ve also asked if they would provide me with some details of how much they receive in revenue from fines at this particular car park.  If they respond to this particular request of information, I’ll let you know what they say.

Raby Castle
Raby Castle. High Force  is on the lands of the Raby estate. © David Simpson 2018

Don’t let this put you off visiting High Force and its nearby waterfalls though. There’s still parking at the Bowlees Visitor Centre – where there’s a suggested parking donation. The walk from Bowlees to Summerhill and all the other waterfalls including High Force is very pleasing. If you do decide to park at the High Force Car Park, however, which is certainly more convenient for that particular waterfall then just make sure you pay within ten minutes of arrival or you might just end up feeling the force of a very hefty fine.

High Force Visitor information:

High Force is situated on the lands of the Raby estate: Raby Castle

Visit the High Force website at: Highforcewaterfall.co.uk

Opening Times: High Force is open daily 10am-5pm (4pm winter).

Last admission: Half an hour before closing.

Car parking: £3 for 3 hours or £6 for 6 hours

Pay within 10 minutes of arriving

Admission to falls: Adults: 16+ £1.50, Children 5-15: 50p.

Parking at the site is managed by  Civil Enforcement Limited

It’s back: Kynren captivates with its epic tale of 2,000 years

How do you tell the tale of 2,000 years of British history, with a North-East twist, in just 90 minutes? The answer is simple, County Durham’s spectacular outdoor pageant, Kynren. JONATHAN JONES enjoys Bishop Auckland’s summer spectacle.

Kyren: Burning bagpipes
Kynren: Burning bagpipes as the English and Scots face off in battle.

Having been lucky enough to see last year’s offering, taking place on a seven-acre site in the shadow of Auckland Castle, in Bishop Auckland, I did wonder what this year’s performance might offer that was different enough to justify paying members of the public forking out £50 for the best seats.

And I can happily say there’s enough new and extended scenes to make Kynren worth a return visit. Boosted by an increased number of participants (or archers as they are known), more than 1,400 volunteers in total, the show seemed to have more in terms of excitement, and, perhaps most importantly, it just seemed to flow better.

Kynren: Performers from the cast of 1,400
Kynren: Performers from the cast of 1,400

This view may also have been aided by the fact that this year I had a slightly more elevated position in the stands, rather than the ringside seat I took last year. This enabled me to see more of the action as it enfolded, for example, being among the first to see the burning bagpipe playing Scots army of Robert the Bruce, come face to face with the burning club juggling English army.

Something I hadn’t noticed so much last year, and perhaps this is due to the more enhanced staging of this year’s offering, is just how violent the last 2,000 years of British history have been.

The first 30-45 minutes of the show seemed to focus on one bloody skirmish after another, from the stallion riding Iceni queen, Boudicca, storming the stage accompanied by her daughters, battling with their Roman oppressors on the banks of a lake, from which scenes rise and fall, through the monk slaughtering attacks of the Vikings, to the death of Harold Hadrada, clutching an arrow in his eye, at the hands of the invading William the Conqueror.

Great fun for those watching, particularly the younger members of the audience, who particularly enjoyed the sight of a Roman Centurion being thrown from his horse, then dragged along behind it.

Kynren features plenty of action scenes
Kynren features plenty of fast moving action scenes

There was a slightly more sedate section, featuring Shakespeare and Good Queen Bess, which included the Queen entering the stage on a fabulous royal barge, while Shakespeare himself could be seen on the balcony of his home. But this was soon to be replaced by the skirmishes of the English Civil War featuring Cavalier cavalry facing off against Roundhead armour.

The show owes a lot of its continued success to the generosity of investment banker Jonathan Ruffer, the man spearheading the £100 million redevelopment of Bishop Auckland, which included buying Auckland Castle and saving paintings by the 17th century Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán.

After an initial £35million investment in the Kynren site, funded entirely from charitable donations, each subsequent year is funded from the previous year’s proceeds, with profits from tickets and merchandise sales reinvested in the show and keeping it at its best, continually increasing the skill level for volunteers to make this show the success.

Kyrnen: A wonderful spectacle
Kynren: A wonderful spectacle

Designed to emulate the success of France’s Puy du Fou, which helped to revitalise the Vendee area of Western France, Mr Ruffer is hopeful that Kynren will help to do the same for Bishop Auckland.

He joked, as he launched this year’s event, that he hoped Kynren would last for the next 50 years, and to ask him again then, at the age of 117, what he thought was the secret of its success.

He added: “We are not like Trooping the Colour where you see some wonderful things but the only thing that changes year after year is the name of the person who falls off the horse.

“We are not like a Premiership football match where every moment of every game is different but ultimately it’s just 24 blokes running around a lawn.

“We are more like Star Wars, or Harry Potter, which you can come back to year after year and see, in one sense, the same thing and same characters, but in another sense something different and unique because every performance is unique.”

Kynren is on target to attract more than 500,000 visitors to the North East by 2020, boosting the economy by almost £5million a year.

If the reaction of the gathered press and guests (mostly friends and family of the participants) is anything to go by, with a standing ovation at the end of the show, and numerous bouts of spontaneous applause throughout, County Durham has a hit on its hands.

If, as promised, production company Eleven Arches continues to upgrade the show each year, then I’ll be happy to make an annual visit.

Kyrnen, Auckland Castle
Kynren: A grand stage set to the wonderful backdrop of Auckland Castle

However, I must add that my enjoyment of this year’s offering was perhaps improved by my choice of a slightly more elevated seat, rather than my choice of a front row one last year.

This more elevated position gave me chance to see more of the early action as it happened, in particular items that were happening to the far left or right of the stage area.

Under the watchful eye of US-born artistic director Steve Boyd, who choreographed Olympic opening ceremonies in London and Rio, revised and extra scenes have been added to this year’s offering. These include a completely new English Civil War section, and the marking of two special moments in history, commemorating 100 years since the end of the First World War, a moment laced with poppies and poignancy, and the successful struggle of the Suffragette movement, which led to women being given the vote.

Kynren: Poppies in a poignant moment
Kynren: Poppies in a poignant moment

There’s still something for those who like history, told from a North-East angle, with this year’s audiences again getting to meet the Venerable Bede and Prince Bishop Bek.

There’s also still a particularly moving sequence featuring the coal mining communities of the North East. Pit props rise from the lake, and miners march to work, only for a number of massive explosions to rock the stage, followed by the collapse of pit props. This is followed by mourning women following a number of hearses across the stage, showing just how dangerous working in the pits of County Durham, once the lifeblood of the region, was.

On a lighter note, however, there’s also a myriad of performing animals including 33 horses, a flock of 27 sheep (a crowd favourite), a gaggle of geese, numerous donkeys and a pair of Durham shorthorn oxen.

Kynren: The sheep are a crowd favourite
Kynren: The sheep are a crowd favourite

The show also features more stunts, including a Roman Centurion being dragged along behind his horse, in the early moments of the show, plus a motorcycle rider crossing the stage ablaze.

Stephenson’s Locomotion, the first steam locomotive to carry passengers on a public rail line, also makes an appearance, steaming across the stage followed by cheering crowds, and in later scenes, Winston Churchill makes his “fight them on the beaches’ speech, while a spitfire chases a German bomber overhead.

Produced by Eleven Arches, the 2018 season features 17 performances across, commencing on June 30, and running on Friday and Saturday evenings throughout July, August and September.

Tickets for Kynren range from £25-£55 for adults and £19-£41 for children. For more information, visit www.kynren.co.uk.

Cyclist’s Paradise:  Keeping fit and enjoying the region’s landscapes

DAVID SIMPSON shares his passion for cycling as he explores old railway routes and scenery across the North East from the saddle of his trusty mountain bike

Lydgetts junction cycle hub near Consett. Photo: David Simpson
Lydgetts junction cycle hub near Consett. Photo: David Simpson

Cycling and especially mountain biking is one of the best ways to see our region. Taking in the wonderful varied scenery of our beloved North East from the cyclist’s saddle is one of life’s great pleasures.  Travel from village to village, town to town and watch the delightful changes in the region’s rolling scenery mile by mile. Head along rural riverside routes into industrial heartlands, take in lovely country roads or try out the course of a former railway route at your own leisurely pace. Simply marvellous!

Sure, you can do some of these things from the comfort of your car but can you take a break without the headache of finding a parking space and can you go ‘off road’, away from all the traffic? Cycling is great because you always feel that you’re part of the outdoors, rather than just passing through within the confines of a wheeled metal box. That feeling of being part of the scenery is something that you never quite get from inside the car, even when the window is wound right down.

Scenery near Sunderland
Scenery from a recent Durham to Sunderland cycle ride. Photo: David Simpson.

Best of all though, cycling keeps you fit, in both mind and body. Mentally, I’m at my sharpest and happiest when I’ve been doing lots of cycling and it’s really invigorating. Walking, running or team sports might work for you but it’s cycling for me. It works well with my lifestyle and interests: my love for history, for taking photographs and a passion for the region’s varied landscapes makes cycling the perfect fit.

Now let’s be clear, I’m not one of the Lycra brigade. No, no, no, when I’m out cycling, I prefer skinny, stretchy jeans, old trainers, a long-sleeved shirt plus a jumper or fleece in the backpack just in case it gets too chilly. That’s more my scene. Purists might frown on this but that doesn’t bother me, though I should say a helmet is always a must. Taking something high-viz too if you’re going to be out in the twilight could also be wise and don’t forget a spare bottle of water or squash and a snack to keep you going if you feel peckish en route.

C2C Cycle route. Photo: David Simpson
The C2C Cycle route. Photo: David Simpson

No, it’s not about the streamlined look or the speed for me. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the thrill of the racing bike fraternity whizzing through the blurry countryside constantly improving on their best times, clocking up mile after mile on twisty roads and climbing hills with endless motor cars for company. There’s plenty of great scope for that activity across the region and I am sure the exertion is exhilarating but it’s not really for me.

I’ll often ride more than thirty or forty miles a time on the mountain bike but sometimes I’ll just go for twenty or a modest ten or perhaps even six or seven miles just to get out of the house. The more miles you do though the easier the distances become. I don’t mind cycling on the road some of the time but more often than not I head off along one of those superb off-the-road cycle paths that crisscross our region.

Many of these routes are the legacy of Dr Beeching, the man who closed so many railways back in the sixties, but that was due to the burgeoning growth of the motorists. I don’t suppose Beeching ever envisaged the growth in popularity of cycling though many of the cycle ways he has unwittingly created, from old railway routes, provide ideal and relatively easy going paths that often stretch for many miles. It all makes sense: those routes were designed for steam locomotives that wanted to avoid steep hills and take the easiest routes. All good news for leisurely cyclists like me.

Former railway station at Lanchester in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson
Former railway station at Lanchester in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson

Old railway routes converted into long-distance paths are one of the great gems of our region’s countryside and are great ways to get out and about in the North East. In recent rides I’ve headed out in various directions using a village near Durham City as a base. The other week I cycled from Durham into Sunderland through lovely countryside with views of the sea along the way.

Surprisingly, much of the track through Sunderland itself encompasses fields, trees, parks and even a lake. Except for the occasional glimpse of a block of flats nearby, you barely notice you’re in an urban environment until you eventually emerge in the city centre and then after crossing a couple of main roads at pedestrian crossings you head over the Wearmouth Bridge and back into the countryside along the banks of the River Wear – though I took a brief diversion to the river mouth first just to see the sea.

Cycling by the River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Cycling by the River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

In County Durham there are pathway ‘hubs’ that provide good centres for exploring various walking and cycle routes where railways once ran. Broompark, just west of Durham City is one such hub. There’s parking there and a picnic area too, so you can take your bike along on the car then make your way by bike along a choice of three routes. I’ve tried all three. One heads along the pretty wooded valley of the little River Deerness to Esh Winning and on towards a place called Stanley Crook and another heads north along the Browney valley to Lanchester and then on towards Consett. The third heads south to Bishop Auckland culminating in a good view of the Bishop of Durham’s home town that can be reached across the Newton Cap Viaduct.

Perhaps the major hub for cyclists in the North East is Lydgetts Junction at Consett, arguably the central hub for all North East cycle paths. Here routes head out to Newcastle and Tynemouth, south into Durham, east to Sunderland and west all the way to Cumbria via the splendid Hownsgill viaduct.

Sculpture on C2C Cycle route near Lydgetts Junction, Consett. Photo: David Simpson
Sculpture on C2C Cycle route near Lydgetts Junction, Consett. Photo: David Simpson

It’s always good to combine parts of routes and even improvise with a bit of research beforehand. Recently, I headed out from my village base east of Durham City to join the Deerness route at Broompark but then left its course at Esh Winning to make the steep climb by local roads through Quebec and Cornsay Colliery to lovely Lanchester. There, joining the Lanchester Valley route to Consett I joined  the C2C route at Lydgetts Junction –  with its impressive art installation sculptures along the way – as I continued through Leadgate, Stanley, Beamish and Pelton where I improvised in a descent into Chester-le-Street on my way back to my village base completing about 44 miles.

Souter Lighthouse
Souter Lighthouse is one of the many beautiful features on the coastal route between the Tyne and Wear. Photo: David Simpson

Many routes link in with the longer-distance coast-to-coast cycle paths like the C2C (sea to sea) route I have mentioned. This route links the coastal Cumbrian towns of Whitehaven, Workington and St Bees to Sunderland, South Shields and Tynemouth. An alternative cross-Pennine route is the W2W (Walney to Wear) route linking Walney in southern Cumbria to Sunderland, part of which we followed on our recent ride from Durham to Sunderland.

The great thing is, you don’t have to stray far from the cities to enjoy great cycle rides. There are good cycle rides around Stockton and Hartlepool into the fringes of the County Durham countryside for example and in Tyne and Wear there’s a particularly enjoyable coastal ride from the mouth of the Tyne to the mouth of the Wear – and back.

You can cycle along the bank of the River Tyne all the way to Wylam and then back along the other side of the river and once you’re back at the beginning there’s no extra charge for taking cycles across the Shields ferry to reach the other side.

Bicycles are welcome on the Shields Ferry. Photo: David Simpson
Bicycles are welcome on the Shields Ferry. Photo: David Simpson

Superb cycling can be found in Northumberland too, often with the Cheviots serving as a wonderful backdrop with some routes taking in coastal areas and castles. A cycling friend of mine recently tried out a circular route from Wooler across to Holy Island which looks appealing.

In North Yorkshire the Vale of York and Vale of Mowbray around Thirsk and Northallerton offer relatively gentle cycling with gradual climbs into the Yorkshire Dales to the west or challenging cycling in the North York Moors to the east.

Sustrans provide a useful zoomable map of all the major cycle routes in the region (see the links below) but it’s also worth checking out the region’s woods and forests that can appeal to thrill-seekers or those who just want to take a cycling stroll. Hamsterley and Kielder for example have superb mountain biking trails to explore.

Out and about. Scenery near Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Out and about on the bike. Scenery near Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

Whatever kind of cycling you do, it’s always enjoyable to keep a record of your routes, speeds and distances mile by mile, to see how much you’ve ascended and descended and how many calories you’ve burned. It’s a satisfying way to round off a good cycle ride. You can post the details on social media too and it’s a good way to log your progress and share with others.

That’s all part of the fun and can be facilitated by downloading great route-tracking GPS apps like Endomondo, Strava or Mapmyride to your mobile phone. It’s always good to review your times and distances, when you get back to base, and to check your best and slowest lap, though often, I find, I’ve lost more than an hour or so stopping to take photos or admire the beautiful views along the way. I’m certainly not going to complain about that.

Tyne Bridge. Photo: David Simpson
Tyne Bridge. Photo: David Simpson

Update!

We’ve been out on the bike again (the day after this blog) this time from Consett to Newcastle and back (38 miles) taking in the Derwent valley and Tyne riverside with Lydgett’s junction as our starting base. Another lovely route. Check out our sunny day of cycling photos of the Derwent Valley here and of Newcastle-Gateshead here.

Useful links

Railway-paths in County Durham  (for cyclists, walkers, runners, horse riders and wheelchair users) with downloadable pdfs of maps and route features.

Sustrans C2C Cycle Route  and other routes throughout the North East of England.

Cycle Routes in Northumberland from Cycle Northumberland

Cycle friendly cafes: englandsnortheast.co.uk/2016/08/21/many-reasons-get-yer-bike/ a blog by Helen Gildersleeve

www.cycle-route.com Has an astonishing  choice of suggested cycle routes. Select by nation and county for an extensive list of routes with map details.

Kielder Forest Mountain Bike Trails: www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/OverviewA0panel.pdf/$file/OverviewA0panel.pdf

Hamsterley Forest Cycle Trails: www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/nee-hamsterley-cycle-trails.pdf/$file/nee-hamsterley-cycle-trails.pdf

Cyclists on the Shields ferry: www.nexus.org.uk/ferry/guide-ferry  Large groups of cyclists should contact the ferry in advance.

GPS Cycling apps

Endomondo: www.endomondo.com/

Strava: www.strava.com/

Mapmyride: www.mapmyride.com/app/

Cathedral’s Treasures are the ‘Tutankhamun of the North-East’

JONATHAN JONES  visits the wonderful relics of St Cuthbert that are finally back on display at Durham Cathedral in a superb new setting that drew audible gasps at the official unveiling.

St Cuthbert's Cross: Treasures of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral
St Cuthbert’s Cross: Treasures of St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral

Anglo-Saxon artefacts, dating back more than 1,300 years, and belonging to monk, bishop and hermit, St Cuthbert, have gone back on display in Durham Cathedral.he relics, including the coffin in which St Cuthbert’s body was carried from Lindisfarne, to its final resting place on the site of Durham Cathedral, and the gold cross he wore around his neck, are the centrepiece of The Treasures of St Cuthbert, which opened to the public at the weekend.

The relics were described as the “Tutankhamun” of the North-East, by cultural historian and Anglo-Saxon specialist, Dr Janina Ramirez at the official launch of the exhibition.

Dr Janina Ramirez and an of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett
Dr Janina Ramirez and the Dean of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett

She admitted that the excitement of seeing the relics, back in their rightful home, in a purpose-built exhibition inside Durham Cathedral, had made her unable to sleep the previous night.

The ornately carved coffin, featuring runic and Latin inscriptions, is rightfully, the centrepiece of the exhibition, and is regarded as the most important surviving relic from before the time of the Norman Conquest.

Images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostles and archangels are still visible on the incredibly preserved oak fragments, and brought audible gasps from the clergy, scholars, officials and journalists gathered to witness them for the first time in their new home, in a specially developed exhibition space inside the cathedral.

The coffin of St Cuthbert forms the centrepiece of the permanent exhibition in the cathedral's great kitchen
The coffin of St Cuthbert forms the centrepiece of the permanent exhibition in Durham Cathedral’s Great Kitchen.

Dr Ramirez said: “Some people think that there is a time in the history of Western Europe when the lights went out – when the civilisation and refinement of the Roman Empire was replaced by a Dark Age, visible to us only through a glass darkly; through scraps of archaeology, fragments of enigmatic text, and the bones of early medieval people, who walked a thousand four hundred years before us.

“But the Cuthbert Treasures fly in the face of this theory: from the complex, visual riddles engraved across the oldest surviving example of wood carving on Cuthbert’s coffin, to the gold and garnet splendour of his pectoral cross; from the continental elegance of the ceremonial comb, to the remarkable examples of Opus Anglicanum, recognised at the time as the best embroidery in the known world, the Cuthbert Treasures bring colour, depth and drama to the so-called Dark Ages.”

She continued: “At their very heart lies a unique individual who was both Anglo-Saxon warrior, and early Christian Bishop. His connection to the North East means we can walk in the footsteps of arguably England’s most important saint.”

The exhibits are housed in the Great Kitchen, which has been transformed into a world-class exhibition space, following a year of environmental monitoring, to ensure the relics are kept in the right conditions to ensure their continued longevity.

Comb, thought to have belonged to St Cuthbert
Anglo-Saxon comb, thought to have belonged to St Cuthbert

The project has seen the construction of purpose built exhibition and gallery space in the Cathedral, with access to the treasures themselves being monitored at all times. Indeed, access to the space itself, felt more like entering the Star Ship Enterprise, than the stone walls of the Cathedral.

Visitors were beckoned into a chamber, through which they could see the artefacts beyond another door. Once the environment was stabilised, the inner door opened, granting access to view the fabulous treasures, in glass cases that only enhance their true beauty.

The relics of St Cuthbert, previously on display in the Cathedral’s undercroft, have been in storage for the past six years, during the main phase of the project.

The creation of this space, marks the completion of the Cathedral’s £10.9million investment in the Open Treasure project. The project has been generously supported by a £3.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Speaking at the launch, Jim Cokill, Member of the North-East Committee for the Heritage Lottery Fund, said: “A place of worship for thousands and a spectacular attraction drawing visitor from near and far to the city, Durham Cathedral is a heritage treasure in the North East. The Treasures of St Cuthbert and the Open Treasures Exhibition will not only boost the Cathedral’s continuing popularity but will also keep its visitors at the heart of heritage.”

The Conyers flachion, a medieval sword used in a ceremony for newly appointed Bishops of Durham is another highlight of the exhibition.
The Conyers Falchion, a medieval sword, used in a ceremony for newly appointed Bishops of Durham, is another highlight of the exhibition.

But perhaps the final word should go to the Dean of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett. He said: “It is very fitting that the final jewel in the crown of Open Treasure is centred on St Cuthbert, in whose honour Durham Cathedral was built.

“The launch of the Treasures of St Cuthbert on permanent display in their new home marks a new phase in the life of Durham Cathedral and its exhibition experience Open Treasure.”

Among the Treasures of St Cuthbert on display are:

  • St Cuthbert’s wooden coffin, widely regarded as the most important example of Pre-Conquest woodwork, and finely engraved with linear images, Latin lettering and Anglo-Saxon runes
  • St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross, a 7th century gold and garnet cross designed to be worn on a chain around his neck.
  • St Cuthbert’s portable altar, used to support his missionary work in the North East. It is believed to be the oldest surviving portable altar, dating from 660AD.
  • The original Sanctuary door knocker, dating from the 12th Century, and one of Durham’s most enduring symbols. Originally attached to the North Door of Durham Cathedral, those who had committed a crime could rap on the door knocker and be given 37 days of sanctuary, during which time they could reconcile with their enemies, or plan their escape.

The Treasures of St Cuthbert are now on permanent display within Open Treasure in the Great Kitchen, one of only two surviving medieval monastic kitchens in the UK. Tickets cost from £2.50 – £7.50, and are available online and from the visitor desk at Durham Cathedral. For more information visit www.durhamcathedral.co.uk, or telephone 0191 386 4266.

A re-thinking of museum mentality

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.

orientalmuseum
Oriental Museum Durham. Photo: Durham University

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 colliery, Beamish Museum
The colliery, Beamish Museum. Photo: Paul White

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.

Gems of the #NECoast

In preparation for a social media celebration of the North East coast PAUL WHITE explores the shores from Seaton Carew to South Shields

Sunshine at South Shields. Photo: Paul White
Sunshine at South Shields. Photo: Paul White

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.

Moody Skies over Seaton Carew. Photo: Paul White
Moody Skies over Seaton Carew. Photo: Paul White

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.

Crimdon Beach. Photo Paul White
Crimdon Beach. Photo Paul White

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.

Crimdon Beach
Crimdon Beach. Photo: Paul White

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.

South Shields pier. Photo: Paul White
South Shields pier. Photo: Paul White

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.

Beach at South Shields. Photo: Paul White
Beach at South Shields. Photo: Paul White

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

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.

 

Kielder: A jewel in the North East’s crown

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

Kielder Water
Kielder Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kielder
Kielder

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

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

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

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

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

 

Durham’s hidden coastal gem

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
Crimdon

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.

LittleTern
LittleTern

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.

Little Tern conservation area at Crimdon
Little Tern conservation area at Crimdon

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.

Crimdon
Crimdon

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.

Mine’s a 99 please, with an extra Flake.

@DurhamCoast