DAVID SIMPSON considers the size and importance of Northern England and its place in the world and argues that the whole of the North should have a much bigger voice
Right let’s be clear, right from the very start, when it comes to people, the North of England is a pretty BIG place to be:
Scotland’s population is around 5.3 million by the way.
Now, I’m not suggesting for one moment that the North of England – or any part of the North of England for that matter – should break away from the United Kingdom.
I mean, for a start, we wouldn’t have won quite as many medals in the Olympics.
However, the three regions that make up the north – and not just the cities – do need a stronger and bigger voice that’s in keeping with their place in the world. In fact part of the problem is that they need to have a place in the world. Too often they’re seen as the fringes of England.
They’re more than that, in fact in many ways they are the real England.
Yet somehow, somewhere along the line, we’ve been conditioned to think small and the truth is we are very far from that. We have our own distinct history and a population that many nations in the world don’t come close too.
The North has a story all of its own – and it’s a big story and with deep roots.
And we played no small part in what made our nation so powerful and successful in the past. In fact we played a major role in changing the world:
Even the North’s smallest region could have a much bigger voice:
Whenever we think about the North, we need to remember to think big and ensure that we get our fair share of investment and a bigger say in our affairs.
Great Britain is not just all about London.
Without the North, it would be Not So Great Britain.
So, always speak up for the NORTH and let’s start by making sure that we are properly empowered to do so.
If you like this post you might like this follow up post more maps:
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
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.
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 goes for a walk in the park and discovers a rich trail of history rounded off with award-winning beer
Park goers may have noticed a flurry of activity at the old Palace of Art in Newcastle’s Exhibition Park lately.
The much-loved park, used by runners, families and cyclists alike, is now home to Wylam Brewery’s new HQ after they closed their doors at their old brew house in Heddon-on-the-Wall.
The Grade-II listed Palace of Arts building is now a fully operating, working brewery and events space having remained almost derelict for nearly a decade. The venue now boasts guided tours and a Grand Hall which plays host to brewers’ markets, live music, pop up events, weddings and more.
Ale lovers can sample freshly made brews such as the award winning Jakehead IPA as well as a variety of heritage cask and keg beers in quirky surroundings in the venue’s Brewery Tap.
Forthcoming events at Wylam Brewery include brewers’ markets, Craft Beer Calling, Battle of the Burger, movie screenings and live DJ sets and gigs.
The Palace of Art building is no stranger to glory and entertainment itself, being the last remaining building from the 1929 North East Exhibition.
The Exhibition was an ambitious project built to celebrate and encourage craft, art and industry at the start of the Great Depression. It was a symbol of pride and industrial success of the region as well as an advertisement for local industry and commerce.
The exhibition lasted 24 weeks and a total of 4,373,138 people attended. Gold watches were given to each one-millionth visitor and it closed on 26 October 1929 with an impressive fireworks display.
The Wylam Brewery building itself is steeped in history. Until 1983 a Science Museum was located in the venue which housed Turbinia, the first steam turbine-powered ship and the world’s fastest ship in its time (now located in the Discovery Museum in the city centre). A military vehicle museum was then housed there from 1983 to 2006 and the building remained unused until the brewery took over this spring.
Exhibition Park has recently undergone a £3 million redevelopment funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This included; installation of a new children’s play area and outdoor gym equipment, a new skate park, restoration of the bandstand, resurfacing of the tennis courts and new lighting and fencing.
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
Well you have to begin somewhere and our England’s North East website began life as the North East history pages way back in the mid 1990s. History is after all the natural starting point for all things North East.
I mean, exploring and promoting the wonderful heritage of the region takes us right back to the beginning of the region’s story. It is a story that continues today, reflected in the region’s rich and unique culture and the legacy of its wonderful buildings and landscape.
Every person, every place, every region is shaped by history. It is our history that makes us what we are today. Our North East history pages continue to be an integral part of the site and demonstrate that the North East is a special, vibrant and often beautiful place with a unique story to tell.