Putting the Band Back Together

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

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

Ross Millard
Ross Millard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

puttingtheband
Putting the Band Back Together

RC: If you could describe the show?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Kielder: A jewel in the North East’s crown

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

Kielder Water
Kielder Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kielder
Kielder

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

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

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

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

Laughs a-plenty across the North East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ross Noble
Ross Noble

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

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

Matt Reed

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

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

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

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

The Stand Comedy Club
The Stand Comedy Club

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

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

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

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

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

The Durham “Busk Factor” dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1916: No Turning Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would recommend it.

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

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

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

Go see it.

 

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

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

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

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

Twitter @GalaDurham

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

www.durham.gov.uk/durhamremembers

 

World War One History Links

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

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

North East War Memorials Project

Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project

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

Durham Remembers  www.durham.gov.uk/durhamremembers

 

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

 

Treasure the moment

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

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

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

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

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

Viking artefacts
Viking artefacts. Photo: David Simpson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathedral timeline
Cathedral timeline. Photo: David Simpson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is for understandable reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

What does the future hold for Ouseburn Farm?

HELEN GILDERSLEEVE finds out how a popular urban-based farm hopes to achieve self-sufficiency as it faces major cuts in funding

Ouseburn Farm and Viaduct
Ouseburn Farm

Based under Byker Bridge, the Ouseburn Farm in Newcastle is a rustic green oasis in the heart of the city.

Sadly, the popular farm may face closure after a key backer was forced to withdraw support, leaving a significant funding shortfall.

Established as a charity in 1973, the farm is owned by Newcastle City Council, though for the last eight years Tyne Housing Association (THA) have paid £100,00 towards annual running costs. Cuts in funding mean the housing provider can no longer support the farm beyond April 2017.

The free-to-enter farm is a much-loved feature of the Ouseburn townscape and is home to cows, pigs, sheep, goats and ducks. It gives an opportunity for city people to get close to farm animals and provides farm-based and environmental education for over 4,000 school children and students in term-time.

Workshops teach agricultural, horticultural and environmental skills to vulnerable adults and members of the public and are provided by a staff of six full-time and two part-time employees supported by up to 20 volunteers.

Closure of the farm would be a major loss to Ouseburn but things are looking hopeful, as the charity is making steps towards becoming financially self-sustaining. The Board of the Tyne Housing Association has transferred a carpentry workshop and two furniture shops in Wilfred Street, Byker to the farm charity to help generate the much-needed funds.

Further funds come from Ouseburn Farm Shop on Heaton Park Road which opened its doors at the end of June. The shop sells upcycled furniture that has been restored and recycled at the Wilfred Street workshop which in turn reduces a cost to the environment by helping reduce landfill waste.

Ouseburn Farm Shop
Ouseburn Farm Shop on Heaton Park Road

In addition, the shop sells homemade bakery items and preserves produced at the farm. It is very a positive step forward for the farm in its aim to become self-sufficient

The farm itself in Ouseburn Valley also generates income from its newly refurbished coffee shop and educational classrooms. Workshops are available which aim to teach school children, students, vulnerable adults, volunteers and members of the public about agricultural, horticultural and environmental projects.

A spokesperson from Ouseburn Farm, said:

“We’d like to give a massive thank you to Tyne Housing Association who have funded the farm for the last eight years and we remain positive that the farm, treasured by all the community – near and far – will get backing in the near future.

“If anyone would like to do their bit to help us then they are more than welcome to donate as much or as little as they can afford.”

Ouseburn Farm Newcastle upon Tyne

Ouseburn Farm

Councillor Stephen Powers, Cabinet Member for Policy and Communication, said:

“The Council has had a long involvement with the farm and was instrumental in saving it ten years ago when it was discovered that the old City Farm was situated on land that was heavily contaminated from its historic use as the site of an iron works.

“Because it was recognised as an important and much-loved attraction in Ouseburn, which also had great potential, in 2006 the Council oversaw a major project to clear the contamination and replace the old buildings with a new environmentally friendly building.

“An innovative agreement with Tyne Housing Association for them to take over and develop the Farm has been very successful and I am very keen to see the Farm’s future secured. Both the Council and Tyne Housing face serious financial pressures in a time of austerity and so it is essential to find an alternative external funding source so the Farm can continue its excellent work with schools, volunteers and vulnerable adults.

“It is one of the key visitor attractions within the Ouseburn Valley alongside Seven Stories, the Victoria Tunnel and the various galleries, pubs and cafes and is integral to the emergence of the Valley as a unique and vibrant area of the city.

“The Council will work alongside THA to find a way of securing the future of the Farm after April 2017 and would be happy to talk to anyone who is interested in becoming involved with such a fantastic place.”

To find out more about Ouseburn Farm visit:

ouseburnfarm.org.uk

To donate to Ouseburn Farm, visit their Just Giving page here 

Tweet @OuseburnFarm

Live music needs…you!

PAUL WHITE speaks up on behalf of small, independently-run music festivals and the talented, hard-working bands that deserve our support

This Sunday marks one of my favourite days on the North East social calendar.

It’s not the first day of the Hoppings. I’m not talking about Sunderland Air Show. I’m not even talking about my annual Cup Final Day outing with “the lads” (none of whom usually have much concern over the result of said match, being largely Sunderland, Newcastle, Everton, cricket and F1 fans).

It’s Middlefest 2016, one of the many small, independently-run, not for profit music festivals that have sprung up in the North East over recent years. It’s small, but growing. They’re expecting up to 1,000 this year.

Middlefest
Middlefest, photo: Art of Noise Photography

Unlike some of the other festivals in the region, there is no big name headline act (though credit to those who are now drawing those names – I still can’t get over the fact that Dodgy have now headlined a show in Shildon). It’s largely local acts who, in the past, have belted out a mix of their own music and covers, performing from the back of a trailer to an audience who sip beer, while lounging on the grass and, as the day progresses, even getting up and dancing.

It’s a chilled day, just as it should be. And the music is good, very good.

Festivals like Middlefest are made possible by the coming together of two groups – those selfless individuals who just want to put on a good event for the public, and those who dare to pick up a guitar or a pair of drumsticks and dream.

We’ve always had both sets of such folk in our region. I started following the local music scene in the late 90s, as a young reporter for The Northern Echo, and found that Darlington and Durham in particular had some great bands and excellent venues. The Filibuster & Firkin in Skinnergate (sometimes running four gigs a week), and O’Neill’s in Duke Street, along with the Tap & Spile, sat at the heart of the Darlington scene, with the Quaker House also coming along as well. In Durham, again O’Neill’s was a fantastic place for a Bank Holiday marathon gig.

Bands like Taller Than, Ethan, Lucas (later Stone Coda), Alex & I, and Teesside’s Little Pink Polliwog were always good for a night’s entertainment and, occasionally, hard-working venue managers, such as the Firkin’s Craig Sharp, would pull through a gem. I recall Sex Pistols legend Glen Matlock, Toploader and Bad Manners among the bands to grace that stage at the time. Let’s not mention Rock Bitch.

I saw Nick Harper play for the first time in the Tap and have been a fan ever since.

Now, we have bands of equal value playing festivals like Middlefest, where recent years’ highlights have included The Silence, Warning! (sadly no more) and Edenthorn, while our scene also boasts the likes of Black Nevada, Twister, Fire Lady Luck, Ten Eighty Trees and amazing singer-songwriters like Hayley McKay and Beth Macari. This is just scratching the surface.

Middlefest music festival
Middlefest, photo: Art of Noise Photography

The problem is, I said earlier that this is made possible by these two groups of people, but it actually requires a third group to get involved as well, and that is the music loving public. It’s easy to sit and think “oh, that sounds nice…but I’m quite comfortable in my armchair”.

Get out and find that live music before it’s gone. These acts and these events need support to keep going. They work a damned sight harder than many of the acts (I say many, not all) who try to make a quick win on TV talent shows, and they choose the difficult route of playing in front of three drunk men and a pool table, a dog if they’re lucky, and working their way up as they slowly get better and their talent is recognised.

Middlefest* is this Sunday, July 24, at Misty Blue Farm, near Spennymoor. Tickets.
*Other festivals are available.

Gazza’s woes

As former North East football star Paul Gascoigne hits the headlines for all the wrong reasons PAUL WHITE argues that we need less shame and more compassion on mental health

I rarely take note of celebrity gossip these days, but I was saddened by the latest chapter in the Paul Gascoigne saga that unfolded this week.

Gazza is a sporting icon, fallen from grace. A tragic comic, some might say. Others, who only remember the antics, might argue the accuracy of the word “grace”, but not those of us who prefer to remember his skill.

Despite historic bitterness and rivalry between fans of our region’s top flight and Championship football clubs, there are some characters who transcend that and are loved and admired for their sporting skill and achievements, regardless of what team you support.

As a Sunderland season ticket holder, I have no qualms about putting Gazza at the top of that list, alongside Sir Bobby Robson.

Gazza is such a character that it is difficult not to be on his side through all the troubles he has experienced and it was heartening to see the positive side of social media, as people flocked to wish him well after this week’s tabloid tale.

But let’s examine that tabloid tale for a moment.

It’s fair to say that when Celebrity X walks out of a club on the arm of Celebrity Y, in front of a group of paparazzi, or Couple Z (list) are snapped on the beach, it’s planned to get the attention of the media. These things rarely happen by accident. Yes, Gazza and celebrity pals, even the non-celebrity friends, played that game in the day.

When a celeb is snapped in a place that you wouldn’t normally expect to find a tabloid photographer, have a think. Does the celeb come out of this well? Yes? Someone on their “team” probably tipped off the photographer. Does the celeb look a state and come out of it badly? Yes? Someone else did.

It’s fair to say that Gazza was stitched up on this occasion. If not by a professional photographer, then by a “citizen snapper” with a smartphone and an eye for a quick buck at someone else’s expense.

Yes, we can all see how heartbreakingly tragic a situation his life has become over the years. Yes, he undoubtedly went out in a dressing gown (sadly, so many people do these days) and I don’t see any point in disputing that it may have been a trip for booze and fags. I don’t even dispute the fact that it is of public interest that someone who is so loved by the British public has fallen so far.

What needs to be considered is the staging of such “shame” pictures that can do nothing but add to the troubles of Gazza.

Mental health and alcohol issues should be treated far more sensitively in the modern age. Gazza has talked about his problems in the past. Let those words be the lesson learned from the fall of a great footballer and entertainer, not these pics of “sick Gazza” in the street in a dressing gown. Sadly, there are too many people out there ready to leap on such imagery and mock someone when they are down and out.

It’s time to treat mental health more compassionately and not as a sideshow.

gazza

www.mind.org.uk

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