Tag Archives: Sunderland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update!

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

Useful links

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

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

Cycle Routes in Northumberland from Cycle Northumberland

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

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

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

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

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

GPS Cycling apps

Endomondo: www.endomondo.com/

Strava: www.strava.com/

Mapmyride: www.mapmyride.com/app/

“I’ll boo your team, but drink your beer.”

Sunderland fan and beer blogger PAUL WHITE swallows his pride, a glass of Shearer and a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale but does it leave a bitter taste?

Shearer and Newcastle Brown Ale
Shearer and Newcastle Brown Ae. Photo: Paul White

Well, my football team, Sunderland, got hammered and my fantasy league side had a pretty low-scoring day. Our rival football team, Newcastle, won. Ireland won in the rugby (that’s a good thing in our house). All round, yesterday was a pretty mixed bag, in terms of sports.

So, what better way to wind down than with a couple of beers, and I thought I would look at the relationship between beer and sport. In particular, beers that one might associate with a rival team. In my case, that means Newcastle United.

I guess the question I’m asking myself is, should you ever be put off a good beer because its association with the “other side” of a sporting rivalry leaves a bitter taste before the first drop has been tasted? Or, is it tantamount to a chance to get one over on the opposition: “I’ll boo your team, but drink your beer.” I’m sure other analogies can be found.

Now, Tyneside has its fair share of excellent breweries, but I have gone for one beer that is indelibly associated with the football team, and one that is, well, only linked by virtue of an unfortunate name.

Let’s start with that one and ease myself into it.

Shearer, from Black Sheep, is actually named in honour of sheep shearers, as opposed to being a tribute to Alan. Still, I thought twice, only half-heartedly, about whether I could bring myself to drink a beer that carries the name of the hero – legend, even – for those up the road.

As far as I recall, despite being the all-time Premier League goalscoring record holder, Shearer the player only ever scored three times against Sunderland (Gary Rowell managed that many against Newcastle in one game).He is also very fair about Sunderland in his punditry on Match of the Day, even quite vocal in his praise on the rare occasion it is warranted (not tonight, definitely not tonight). Plus, you have to admire a player who will choose to reject a move to a big club where he might achieve his true potential in order to fulfil the dream of joining the team he supported from childhood*.

So, actually, I don’t have any issue with the man himself, and as I take my first taste of the beer, I realise that I can put the loose link to Newcastle to one side and enjoy a really fresh, citrusy, pale ale. It’s probably more a summer ale, being so light and fruity, rather than a drink for a cold February night with a good chance of waking up to a snowy scene in the morning.

This is probably lighter than anything I’ve tasted from Black Sheep and I’ve had pretty much everything they’ve had on offer in the last five years or so. It goes down really well and you could drink it all afternoon on a good beer garden day, especially as it’s a nice steady 4.1%. Probably not in a Sunderland beer garden, though.

So, yes, this very loosely affiliated beer is a winner, but I won’t be shouting its name in bars any time soon.

broon

Now, onto the second of the beers. Newcastle Brown Ale takes me back to the days when the iconic Blue Star adorned not only the label of its bottles, but also the shirts of Newcastle United. However, it’s also a beer I’ve enjoyed many times in the past, as far afield as New York. As someone who is proud of the North East as a whole, it’s great to see a beer from the region finding its way into bars around the world.

However, as I’ve historically considered it a strong beer, I’ve often only turned to Newcastle Brown Ale once I’ve been well into a night out. Nowadays, 4.7% doesn’t seem that strong, with many of the beers on the market going much higher.

In reality, it is probably my North East roots and the cultural identity that Newcastle Brown Ale has, stretching much further than the association with the football team, that make me feel more than comfortable about enjoying a bottle of Dog.

The nickname alone says something about life in the North East in days gone by, with “I’m gannin’ to see a man about a Dog” often being an excuse to get out of the house and down to the pub.

There’s something about Newcastle Brown Ale that makes it far more a part of the North East than purely being a Newcastle United-related drink. And that’s before I even talk about the beer itself. Few beers achieve such iconic status without being good. Dog is good. Very good.

Smooth and full of flavour and aroma, one can forgive the fact it’s now brewed in Yorkshire if it means keeping a great beer alive.

Having enjoyed bottles of Sunderland’s Double Maxim and Guinness Original XX last Saturday, while Sunderland were enjoying their 0-4 smash and grab raid at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park and Ireland were narrowly being beaten by Scotland in an RBS Six Nations classic, I can say that great beers go with sport and it’s nice to have that association. However, why deny your tastebuds a treat simply because of sporting allegiances?

*Tongue firmly in cheek. You won’t get many footballers making that sort of choice these days.

This blog post originally appeared on www.poetsdaypint.weebly.com

 

Presidents, Prime Ministers, people of power (and their links to North East England)

As Hillary Clinton continues her campaign to become the next President of the United States, DAVID SIMPSON examines her family connections to the North East and our region’s historic links to people of power and influence.

Washington Old Hall has ancestral links to the first President of the United States. Photo: David Simpson
Washington Old Hall has ancestral links to the first President of the United States. Photo: David Simpson

Hillary Clinton’s North East Links

It was not until relatively recent times that Hillary Rodham developed a preference for publicly using her marital surname as she pursued her high-flying political career. Despite her marriage to the man who would one day be President, Hillary would often go by the name Hillary Rodham. Whether she was aware of it or not,  she was preserving a family name that has links to North East England going back perhaps more than a thousand years.

Hillary’s father, Hugh Rodham, was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1911 but his father, Hugh Simpson Rodham, came from a family of coal miners and was born in the County Durham mining village of Kyo, near Annfield Plain in the year 1879.

Hillary’s grandfather was only a child when he left Durham for the United States along with his mother, Isabella Bell (a name that must surely have posed questions of amusement within the family). The young lad’s coal miner father, Jonathan Rodham originally of Wagtail Cottage, Holmside near Craghead had gone in search of new opportunities in the New World and with work secured there, he invited his spouse and child to join him.

Hillary Rodham’s paternal family tree and its associated branches show many links to coal mining in Durham and the North East, most notably around Tanfield and Chester-le-Street but also with links to Bishop Auckland and Wallsend. They were people of humble origin, although Hillary’s great-great-great grandfather, a Jonathan Rodham, married an Ann Parkinson at the fairly esteemed location of St Mary-le-Bow church, in the shadow of Durham Cathedral.

Hillary Clinton's Great-Great_Great grandparents were married in a church close to Durham Cathedral
Hillary Clinton’s Great-Great-Great grandparents were married in a church close to Durham Cathedral. Photo: David Simpson

Other County Durham family members in Hillary Clinton’s ancestry could well be descendants of Northumberland ‘Border Reiver’ stock with a smattering of Border Reiver surnames in the family tree that include Charltons, Bells and Grahams. There are no Armstrongs in this family, though, or at least as far as we can see. That would have been an interesting link as a descendant of that particular reiver family group have made their mark on American and world history in ways that take us well beyond our skies.

Many generations of the coal mining Rodhams in Hillary Clinton’s ancestry are linked to County Durham but their true roots are just to the north in the neighbouring county of Northumberland. Here, their very name stems from a place called Roddam (its name means ‘at the forest clearings’) and today it is the site of Roddam Hall. The name Roddam is the root of the Rodham surname, despite the slightly different spelling, and Rodhams and Roddams are thought to be the oldest family in Northumberland.

North East links in Hillary Clinton's family tree
North East links in Hillary Clinton’s family tree. Right click to open in new tab of window.

Roddam is near the tiny town of Wooler about eight miles – as the crow flies – from the border with Scotland though you’d have to cross the wild terrain of the Cheviot Hills to reach the border.

According to a Scot called John Major (now I’m sure I’ve heard that name before) writing some time in the 1500s, there was a man called Pole who was granted land at Roddam by King Æthelstan way back in Anglo-Saxon times. This man became the first member of the Roddam family, though over time some members of the family adopted the spelling Rodham.

It’s also interesting to note that among the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast are rocks called Roddam and Green, though it’s not clear how or if these might relate to the family name of Roddam or the place near Wooler.

Our region’s connections to George Washington

If Hillary Clinton is successful in her quest to become US president she will find herself in esteemed company in respect to her links to North East England as the distant roots of George Washington himself can be found within our region.

George Washington
George Washington

The historic village of Washington, once in County Durham – we could perhaps call it ‘Washington CD’ – is now surrounded by the modern town of Washington and is a part of the City of Sunderland. It is the place from which the entire Washington family, everywhere in the world, take their name.

The name De Wessyngton (meaning ‘from Washington’) as the family were initially called, reflected the earlier spelling of the place that they acquired and of which they became lords around 1180. The family was originally called De Hartburn as they came from Hartburn near Stockton-on-Tees in the south of our region.

They changed their name upon moving location after purchasing Washington (Wessyngton) from Hugh Pudsey (c1125-1195), the powerful Prince Bishop of Durham.

Perhaps coincidentally, their family crest consisted of stars and stripes. In the 1400s one member of their family became a Prior of Durham Cathedral, an important and powerful political post whose influence was felt across the region. Prior Washington was second only in power to the Bishop in the North East.

Pub sign Washington village
Pub sign Washington village

Descendants of the Durham Washingtons held land here in the North East until the 1600s but during the 1300s some members of the family had moved on to Lancashire and then ultimately to Sulgrave in Northamptonshire. Nevertheless, they kept their Washington name and it was from this branch of the family that the very first President of the United States was descended. Ultimately though, it is from Washington in Sunderland that George Washington, Washington DC and the US state of Washington all take their name.

People of Power in Our Region’s Past

Aside from presidential connections, Durham and Northumberland are certainly no strangers to people of power in our history. We lay claim to figures of immense political influence and sometimes radical ones too, going right back to the earliest of times.

In the Anglo-Saxon era North Easterners like King Oswald (604-642AD) and King Oswiu (990-1035AD) became ‘Bretwaldas’ or overkings of all England. In later times, King Cnut, Viking ruler of Britain is said to have established a base on the site of Raby Castle in south Durham.

Bamburgh Castle, where the Kings of Northumbria ruled. Photo David Simpson
Bamburgh Castle, where the Kings of Northumbria ruled. Photo David Simpson

In medieval times the Neville and Percy families along with the Prince Bishops virtually ruled the north as a separate entity from their bases in Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire. Just outside our region at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire was the primary home of both King Richard III and Warwick the Kingmaker (1428-1471), a Neville – whose name literally described the immensity of his power.

Our connections with royalty extend into modern times too. The present Queen’s ancestry has firm roots in County Durham through the Bowes family while, the Duchess of Cambridge along with her husband William and their children cement these links further through her family’s humble Durham mining connections that are not unlike those of Hillary Clinton.

PMs and  Political Giants of the North East

We have also had our notable share of Prime Ministers hailing from the region. Most recently, Tony Blair, though born in Scotland, was raised and schooled as a child in Durham and returned to represent the region in parliament. Under his influence the county of Durham became the only place in the UK outside London to be visited by President George W. Bush. The President dropped in on the home of Blair by helicopter before calling in for a meal at a local pub. Bush was the first US president to visit the region since Jimmy Carter came to  visit both Newcastle and our Washington here in the North East back in 1977.

Monument to Earl Grey, Newcastle. Photo: David Simpson
Monument to Earl Grey, Newcastle. Photo: David Simpson

In addition to Blair, earlier Prime Ministers who have have hailed from our region included Anthony Eden (1897-1977) of Windlestone, who came from a well-established Durham family and of course the great Northumberland-born reformer Charles the 2nd Earl Grey of Northumberland (1764-1845). Yes it is he of tea fame, who tops the monument at the very heart of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Much of Grey’s Great Reform Bill that brought about radical changes to British democracy was drafted with the assistance of his son-in-law John George ‘Radical Jack’ Lambton (1792-1840), the First Earl of Durham, a coal owner to whom Sunderland’s Penshaw Monument is dedicated. Lambton, a statesman who forged important international links, first as the Ambassador to Russia, would become Governor General and High Commissioner of British North America. He was the man who instigated the process of Canadian independence from Britain.

 Women of Power and Influence in the Region

The role of women may often be callously written out of  the history books but the influence of powerful females is ever present and no less so than in the North East of England.

There have been many notable female figures of power in the region going right back to Roman times when the first ever Northerner to be mentioned by name was in fact a woman, Cartimandua, who was. a formidable female opponent to the Romans in the North. When the Romans arrived she ruled over much of our region from her fort near Scotch Corner.

Then there was St Hilda, abbess of Hartlepool and Whitby in Saxon times, in her time one of the region’s most powerful figures, who shaped the religious course of Northern England in those early times and a woman by whom kings were guided.

Some of our region’s most powerful political campaigners have been females, notably Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), the one-time MP for Middlesbrough and MP for Jarrow who was so influential in the famed Jarrow Hunger March for jobs in 1936.

Ellen Wilkinson
Ellen Wilkinson

Then from earlier times we have Josephine Butler. Born Josephine Grey (1828-1906) at Milfield near Wooler not so many miles from the ancestral home of the Roddams, Butler was one of the most determined and influential ladies in Victorian Britain. Her campaigns against human trafficking and her work on behalf of female suffrage helped to change the lives and often appalling situations of women living in the Victorian era and beyond.

Josephine Butler
Josephine Butler

We could also mention Gertude Bell (1868-1926), the Tyne, Wear and Tees industrialist’s daughter born at Sunderland’s Washington ‘New Hall’ only metres away from the ‘Old Hall’ that was the ancestral home of the illustrious Washington family. Bell became a mountaineer, a political administrator, a spy and an archaeologist with a penchant for Middle Eastern culture and politics.

Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell

Her extraordinary life included her brave acts of diplomacy; meeting face to face with powerful members of often turbulent Arabian desert tribes in what was very much a male dominated culture and era, even compared to Britain of that time. Bell was of course also noted for her part in drawing up the borders of modern Iraq, working alongside T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and she was by all accounts a very formidable person.

So it can be seen that whether or not Hillary Clinton comes to be elected as the first President of the United States, North East England is likely to take its links to her family very much in its stride. As a region we are certainly no strangers to people in positions of power.

Why I’m excited about Sunderland 2021 (and why I think you should be too)

RICHARD CALLAGHAN explains why Sunderland’s bid to be the 2021 UK City of Culture will be a great boost for both the city and the whole North East region.

Before I tell you about why I believe Sunderland becoming UK City of Culture in 2021 would be great not just for the city but for the region, I have to declare an interest.

Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

As much as I would love to be able to make a living writing for esteemed publications such as this, I’m afraid I’ve actually got a day job working for the Sunderland City of Culture bid. Admittedly, this makes me less than impartial on this subject, but I can honestly say that, even if I wasn’t being paid to say it, I’d still think that City of Culture would be a great thing for the North East.

The UK City of Culture competition was founded following the success of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008. Culture had effected a transformative change upon Liverpool, the argument went, just as it had on Glasgow in 1990. Why should UK cities wait another twenty years to feel the effect again? The idea of the UK competition was that rather than seeing this boost once every few decades, it could be felt every four years instead.

Derry-Londonderry was the first city to win the title, being named UK City of Culture for 2013. If you’ve not already heard them, I’ll give you a quick run down of the numbers: 48 new start-up businesses as a result of their year. 25% rise in hotel occupancy in the first six months, with May to September the highest the city had ever seen. £5 back for every £1 of public money spent. £100m invested in the city through cultural programming and infrastructure. These are real numbers, real impacts.

cityculture

Hull will take the title of City of Culture next year. The city’s already feeling the effects. Look at any newspaper, watch the six o’clock news, check out whichever news site you prefer. There are already world class artists coming to work in Hull, ready to make great art in the city next year. I’ve got family in Hull, which has meant I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for that unfashionable city on the Humber. It is, like Sunderland, significantly nicer than people who’ve never been there think it’s going to be. And, with the boost from City of Culture, with next year’s prize on the horizon, it’s a city metamorphosing. Go to Hull today and what you’ll see is a place getting ready to transform itself, a civic chrysalis preparing for its year as the national butterfly.

All of the economic impacts are great. Much needed, much welcomed in the North East. But for me, the power of the City of Culture, the reason why it would be so fantastic both for the city and the region, goes beyond the economy. The North East is a fantastic place. We all know this. It’s the place I was born, the place I’ve lived most of my life, the place I’ve chosen to raise my family. It is my home. The North East, as a place, is profoundly important to me.

Yet, too often, the perception of those from outside the region is of a post-industrial wasteland, of economic deprivation, of somewhere we’d all leave if only we could. It’s a destructive narrative, one that must be argued against for two reasons. First, it makes it harder to attract skilled people to the North East, harder to attract businesses, harder to attract investment. Why would you want to move to a cultural backwater, or an economic sinkhole? Why would you want to come somewhere everybody else wants to leave?

Sunderland's Empire Theatre is one of the existing cultural icons withiin the city. Photo: David Simpson
Sunderland’s Empire Theatre is one of the existing cultural icons within the city. Photo: David Simpson

That’s the first reason, but for me it matters less than the second. The second reason is this. That narrative, the story we’re told about the North East, affects the way that we feel about ourselves. If the North East is a failed place, then the only people here are failures. If it’s somewhere everybody wants to leave, then the only people who stay are the people who have to. Because they’re not good enough for somewhere else. Because they couldn’t make it in Manchester, couldn’t hack it in London. They’ve settled for second best, accepted their lot. What that story says about us, all of us, is that we haven’t made a choice. We’re here because nobody else wants us.

Well, my friends, I’ve made a choice. I wouldn’t live in London if you paid me. For all its faults, for all its failures, I love the North East. There is nowhere else I’d rather live, nowhere else I’d rather raise my daughter. It’s a beautiful place, vibrant and exciting, with a fascinating history and a wonderful story to tell. That, for me, is the power of City of Culture. It’s an opportunity, a chance to tell a different story about the place, about ourselves. To make the argument for all of us who’ve chosen to be here because we want to be. The renaissance in Newcastle and Gateshead in the last two decades has begun to shift that narrative for Tyneside, but it’s time for the rest of the North East to see that kind of change.

If Sunderland becomes UK City of Culture in 2021, it’ll boost the region’s economy. It’ll attract national and international news coverage. It’ll bring world class art and world class artists into Sunderland’s communities, and offer people opportunities they’d never otherwise have. But it’ll go beyond that. It’ll help to change that story. It’ll mean that when people think of Sunderland, of the North East, they’ll not just be thinking “Post-industrial wasteland with three crap football teams,” they’ll be thinking, “They’ve got the Turner Prize there this year. They’ve got brilliant art exhibitions, groundbreaking theatre, fantastic concerts. They’ve got amazing events. They’ve still got three crap football teams (because some things never change).” That’s why I think Sunderland 2021 is important. That’s why I’m excited about it. And that’s why I think you should be excited about it too.

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To discover more about Sunderland’s 2021 City of Culture bid visit www.sunderland2021.com

Twitter: @Sunderland2021

Facebook: sunderland2021

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

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