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.

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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

The Norman Invasion and the North East

Every schoolchild knows the events of 1066 but what happened next here in the North East? As the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings approaches, ALEX ILES investigates.

In Britain we are very good at taking snippets of history, short info bites, and creating a very good in depth study of them. One of the best examples I use is the school curriculum – creating in depth studies of snapshots of our history when we have a good ten to fifteen thousand years of currently well documented history on this Island! The Norman Invasion is like this.

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The famous Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events of 1066

Stop anyone on the street and they can tell you the two main combatants – William Duke of Normandy (referred to as ‘The Conquer’ most of the time) and his rival Harold Godwinson – who should be called King Harold. Just from the names we can see how much of our history is shaped by the victors!

The third element of the 1066 drama is the famous Scandinavian king Harald Hardrada (The Hard Ruler). Now, as much as the events of 1066 are fascinating I would like to tell you about what happened afterwards but before we do that, we have to look at the cause and effect of 1066.

Most students can tell you that after Edward the Confessor died in 1066 Harold Godwinson rushes to London to be crowned, though he had promised, swearing on holy relics to support William’s claim.

Harald Hardrada finds out and decides to follow in the steps of the mighty Cnute who was king of England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway and parts of Ireland and Sweden and unite his Kingdom of Norway with England again.

William of Normandy flies into a rage at Harold Godwinson’s betrayal and starts building a navy. He attains Papal support for the invasion of England. Harald Hardrada invades Yorkshire and after defeating the Northumbrian forces –a half-hearted battle at York– he has the North of England swear allegiance to him and Harold Godwinson’s brother Totsig.

Tostig wanted his old earldom back after being banished for rebelling against his brother; already the story looks like a soap opera!

Harold swears allegiance to William on oath
Harold Godwinson had sworn an oath of allegiance to William

Harold Godwinson then marches north and defeats Hardrada at the battle of Stamford Bridge a few miles north east of York. He then hears that William has invaded and is building a castle at Hastings.

Godwinson marches his army south, stays in London for a week and then makes his way to Hastings arriving on October 13th. Historians who favour the Saxons are bitter about this point – he would have won if he had fortified London and the nearby land and waited for William but instead he rushed to Hastings.

When Harold joined the great battle on the 14th  the English took the ridge and fought in their traditional shield wall. They would have won, had they not chased the Normans who had feigned retreat. Harold and his Brothers died – cut down by Norman knights not by arrows to the eye – and William was victorious.

What happens next is the interesting part for us.

In schools it is all nice and clean. William is crowned King in London on Christmas day, the history book for the Anglo-Saxons is closed and the Norman dynasty is now ruling England.

To the English, this would not have been the end of the world. The Northern English were very used to ‘foreign’ rule – with the Danelaw (in Yorkshire and the East Midlands) and connections to Scandinavia, north Germany and even the Baltic a common part of everyday life for the North East folk.

The North West of England and the Lakes was heavily Norwegian and southern Scotland was both Scots-Irish and English. King Cnute had been half Polish by his mother and half Danish by his father,

King Edward the Confessor was half Norman himself and likely spoke Norman French as well as speaking Old English. William was seen as being king for his lifetime and then a likely English or noble dynasty would take over. The idea of hereditary kingship was not set in stone, kings’ sons could be king after them but they needed to have powerful allies and prove their worth to do so. To the Anglo-Saxon English therefore William was just another invader who had to prove his worth.

Because of this the England revolted from 1067-1068.  Backed by Scots, Danes and Anglo-Saxons. Danes and Irish who were hiding in Scotland and Ireland invaded The North East, Devon rose in the South West.

Following this in 1069, King William placed Robert De Comines as the Norman Earl of Northumberland. He was staying in Durham when his Norman knights pushed the Local Anglo-Saxons too hard and committed crimes against the local populous.

Durham where 700 Normans were killed in
Durham where 700 Normans were massacred in 1069. Photo: David Simpson

The Anglo-Saxons told him that he was sitting on a tinder box, but he did not listen. The population of Durham rose and seven hundred Normans were killed including Robert – many burnt to death inside the houses in which they were staying. William, in retaliation committed genocide – harrying the North, killing civilians in Yorkshire and County Durham and salting the land. The North East then quietened for a while.

William then placed Bishop Walcher as Prince Bishop of Northumberland and Durham. Walcher worked hard to deal with his rebellious population, appointing Ligulf a descendant of the kings of Northumbria as his adviser.

This worked well until 1079 when King Malcom III of Scotland attacked Northumberland, killing, burning and enslaving. Because of this, Ligulf openly criticised the bishop for failing to protect the North East from Scots attack.

This resulted in an open feud between Ligulf and Bishop Walcher’s relation Gilbert. Ligulf’s house at Newburn was attacked by Gilbert during the night and murdered him and the majority of his family.

Ligulf’s remaining relations made their way to a peace conference in Gateshead with Walcher and demanded that Gilbert be handed over to face justice for murder. Walcher stated he could not hand over a member of his family and the meeting broke down.

Because it was on holy land the Anglo-Saxons could not attack directly but as Walcher, Gilbert and their hundred Norman nights had dinner, the church in Gateshead was set fire to. The Normans fled from the burning building and were ambushed by the Anglo-Saxons resulting in the death of Walcher, Gilbert and the majority of their entourage.

St Mary’s church at Gateshead may stand on the site of the ambush. Photo: David Simpson

King William once more returned to Northumberland and ravaged this time, from the Tyne to the Scots border. This therefore resulted in the harrowing being an unspoken part of the North East’s History.

Some scholars state that a total of one hundred thousand people died in the ‘Harrowing’, though the number may be far less, it still had a large impact on the North East with many villages being abandoned or massacred.

In all it shows you why the Normans were such a force in England and why the Norman and Plantagenet Dynasties were established in England ruling over the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish population.

William was truly a conqueror and ruled by the Sword.

 

Alex Iles Iles Tours in Newcastle upon Tyne