PAUL WHITE admits he’s not a museum fan but speaks in praise of the Oriental Museum, a hidden gem in Durham City
Some readers will call me a philistine, others may agree wholeheartedly, but I have a confession: it is a rare museum indeed that doesn’t have me wishing I could escape to the nearest pub.
I like culture and the arts, but not in the “shuffle along, item by item, trying to take in masses of information at a time” sense.
However, we have a gem of a museum hiding away in our region, to which I have voluntarily returned on more than one occasion. The Oriental Museum, in Durham, is full of great items for anyone who has an interest in the culture and history of the east.
Having visited China on a number of occasions and fallen in love with Japan on a trip that took in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, I find these cultures intriguing and a pleasure to learn about.
I dropped in to the Japan section of the Oriental Museum today – I’d recommend taking it in chunks – and from Manga to the Samurai and the mix of Bhuddist and Shinto religions, it’s full of items and information that I find far more exciting than the naval gazing minutiae we fill many, admittedly far from all, of our museums with.
I’m hugely proud of coming from Shildon, but it took me 20-odd years to return to the Timothy Hackworth Museum after being taken there as a child, and that was a work-related visit.
I would hasten to suggest that we are getting better, but I think I’ve been scarred from my childhood, and from being dragged to museums when I’m really not in the mood.
The Oriental Museum, alongside Beamish, show how museums can be great resources and are a massive credit to the North East. Both are done very differently, yet equally fire my imagination. On trips to the US and Canada, the museum elements of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, and the Johnny Cash Museum, were visits I made voluntarily, despite there being an abundance of bars and other amenities I could easily have opted to escape to.
Perhaps there is something niche in each of these examples that appeals directly to me.
In any case, if, like me, you were put off such visits as a child, maybe it’s time to think again and find a museum that holds a particular interest for you. The North East is a great place to start.
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