DAVID SIMPSON considers the size and importance of Northern England and its place in the world and argues that the whole of the North should have a much bigger voice
Right let’s be clear, right from the very start, when it comes to people, the North of England is a pretty BIG place to be:
Scotland’s population is around 5.3 million by the way.
Now, I’m not suggesting for one moment that the North of England – or any part of the North of England for that matter – should break away from the United Kingdom.
I mean, for a start, we wouldn’t have won quite as many medals in the Olympics.
However, the three regions that make up the north – and not just the cities – do need a stronger and bigger voice that’s in keeping with their place in the world. In fact part of the problem is that they need to have a place in the world. Too often they’re seen as the fringes of England.
They’re more than that, in fact in many ways they are the real England.
Yet somehow, somewhere along the line, we’ve been conditioned to think small and the truth is we are very far from that. We have our own distinct history and a population that many nations in the world don’t come close too.
The North has a story all of its own – and it’s a big story and with deep roots.
And we played no small part in what made our nation so powerful and successful in the past. In fact we played a major role in changing the world:
Even the North’s smallest region could have a much bigger voice:
Whenever we think about the North, we need to remember to think big and ensure that we get our fair share of investment and a bigger say in our affairs.
Great Britain is not just all about London.
Without the North, it would be Not So Great Britain.
So, always speak up for the NORTH and let’s start by making sure that we are properly empowered to do so.
If you like this post you might like this follow up post more maps:
DAVID SIMPSON meets Newcastle tour guide, Alexander Iles, who talks about his popular city tours and his hopes for the region
I meet tour guide, Alexander Iles at Newcastle’s Journey Café to the rear of the the Laing Art Gallery. He’s very welcoming and offers me a coffee. My first impression is of an enthusiastic, engaging young man full of passion for Newcastle and very keen to share his knowledge of the city and region.
He draws my attention to a nearby building that was home to Victorian architect, John Dobson and points out what looks like a plain pavement just outside the café. Alex explains that this is the controversial ‘Blue Carpet’, a worse for wear art installation of 250,000 glass tiles, completed in 1999 at a cost of £1.6 million. He’s clearly not impressed by its sorry state, but it’s great to have your eyes opened to something you might not have otherwise noticed and in this Alex excels.
Alex is the owner of Iles Tours, a three and a half-year-old business providing popular walking tours that have become, in a very short space of time, a major tourist fixture in Newcastle. They are also a great treat for locals wanting to learn more about their city.
You’re left in no doubt that the success of the business is down to Alex’s knowledge, determination and passion for Newcastle. We chat for more than an hour and I’m struck by his desire to share as much of what he knows about the city and the region as he possibly can. What he knows is exceptional. I learned much that I did not know and as a North East historian myself, I’d say my knowledge is certainly better than average.
Though only 25, Alex has soaked up facts, stories and insights spanning centuries and this all helps to make his energy and passion so much more infectious. In fact such is his passion that it’s sometimes hard to get a word in, but it’s endearing because what he has to say is so fascinating and inspiring. What’s more it’s all told with a conviction that Newcastle and the North East has an extraordinary story that just has to be told and that this is a city and region destined for great things.
“It all started in March 2012” says Alex, remembering the beginning of his entrepreneurial adventure fondly, “there was a blizzard on the day and I started asking people if they would like a tour of Newcastle.”
Alex had studied Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University and stayed on to follow up with a Masters in Innovation Creativity and Entrepreneurship. He believes his academic background helped him understand cultures and how to “take apart the method of idea generation.”
Post university and frustrated by his job searches, being told he was either overqualified or inexperienced, he opted for self employment.
“I didn’t want to do an office job and loved Newcastle” he reflects.
“When I was younger my family and I went to the Edinburgh Festival and I remembered the guides and thought, well, that is something I could do.”
As a student, Alex developed a great affection for Newcastle and in his preparation for business his passion for the city’s history was further ignited through absorbent research:
“I went into Newcastle Library and read every book I could get on Newcastle and wrote my first tour – the Historical Tour.
“From here I went out and started asking people if they wanted tours and contacting people about what I could offer them.”
In setting up the business Alex received guidance from PNE (Project North East) and Rise Up at Newcastle University who gave him a £400 grant to build a website and make the first flyers.
“It helped a lot, as I had a vision but not much finance to get off the ground.
“For research I went to York to learn about guiding and how the city of York structures things. I wanted to see how it was done in a place with lots of tourism so I could then see where Newcastle would and will be”
Alex is motivated when people get passionate about the region and start seeing it for what it is. He wants people to love the region and to fight for it too. I find him optimistic about the region’s future as well and he believes the North East is on the verge of another great period of prosperity.
His optimism is based on the belief that a new industry or technology will be found for the city. Let’s hope he’s right. Indeed, as part of his research into a new tour featuring the city’s historic entrepreneurs, Alex has learned much about modern technology developments and technology companies within the city and the region and this will feature in his latest themed tour.
I ask him what it is about Newcastle and the North East that he thinks is so special?
“This is the greatest region in England and has so much rich history that makes it so vibrant today” he says.
“The North East is a location with such a unique culture, it is English, but it’s not, it is communal, friendly, based on honesty and mutual respect with a huge sense of humour.
“The layers of history are near the surface with the ancient Hadrian’s Wall side by side with the modern parts of the region. It is also the durability of the location; it always picks itself up, has a bit of a laugh about it and gets on with the work needed”
Typical customers on Alex’s tours are from all walks of life, ranging from school children on trips to students and professionals, to older people taking city breaks. He also undertakes corporate tours from time to time at the request of local businesses.
Around half of Alex’s customers are British, around a quarter are from Europe and the rest are from English speaking countries. He seems to get some great feedback from customers who are impressed by what they learn. This is certainly backed up by glowing reviews on Trip Advisor.
Alex clearly gets a great buzz from inspiring and educating people about the region. Even when they are local, he is keen to show that although they may ‘know’ their city there is always so much more to know.
I ask what kind of expectations or preconceptions visitors have about Newcastle on his tours and Alex has a view on this:
“I think many people think Newcastle will just be a party city. Geordie Shore has had a lot of influence on the way people view the city. Others think Newcastle is just flat caps, coal and ships – or the lack of all three! I like showing that there is so much more to the city than this.”
Alex has made many surprising discoveries about the city but one of the things that strikes him the most is how much the world owes day to day things to the city. He believes that the inventions and inventors who came from Newcastle and the region are often taken for granted despite the fact that they transformed the way the world works and I am inclined to agree.
Light bulbs, power stations, competitive rowing, cranes at docks are among the developments Alex mentions.
“Newcastle has been pivotal in how the world has worked” he says.
Alex is an entertaining teller of tales, but also a stickler for accuracy which is a good thing, but I want to know what are his favourite stories about the city?
“It depends on how people I am touring respond to it (the tour) as to which one is my favourite” he says.
“Currently on a personal level it is the story of Roger Thornton and Ralph Carr, entrepreneurial businessmen who were very influential in Newcastle during their day. I look to them as heroes in my own business. Both men started with some advantages but had to work hard on their business to succeed in Newcastle and grew to the level where they were two of the most influential people in the North East and able to protect and invest in the region through their finances.”
Alex undertakes a number of different kinds of walking tours in Newcastle, each with a different theme. There’s an historical tour, a cultural tour and a gory tour and, as mentioned, he is close to introducing the new tour focused on Newcastle’s entrepreneurs. He can also create bespoke tours for people on request.
His gory tour started this way after Newcastle Blood Bank wanted a medical tour of the city. Alex put together the tour for them and realised he enjoyed the material, so started adding and editing it.
Alex is of course not the only guide offering walking tours in Newcastle and the North East. There are many experienced, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides offering such services throughout the region, so I want to know what he believes makes his tours different?
“I think it’s a combination of my passion for the region and wanting people to love the area as much as I do. Anyone can list off facts, but to create an engaging story you need to take the facts and make it relevant and comparable to the age in which we live. History is a lot of stories and you need to draw it out of the facts and help people feel it.”
So as the business begins to grow where does Alex go from here? Well, Alex is clear in his future ambitions:
“My dream is to expand Iles Tours across the North of England within the decade – from Glasgow and Scotland down to the south of Yorkshire and then to plan expansion into Scandinavia, northern Europe and eventually southern England.”
However, in the present he’s focused on our region and hopes to continue developing the educational arm of his business as part of a teaching group called Meet The Ancestors – where like minded businesses work to teach the past to schools and the region. Alex has also written a book that he’s hoping to get published entitled A Time Travellers Guide to the North East.
“It is a passion of mine to work in establishing festivals in the North East”, he says “and helping to get people passionate about their region” he adds, and it is in this, it seems to me, that Alex is a shining light.
For more information about how to book an Iles Tour visit the Iles Tour website at Ilestours.co.uk
DAVID SIMPSON enlists for the 1916: No Turning Back experience at Durham’s Gala Theatre for a brief, moving experience of life in the trenches of World War One
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, hundreds of thousands of men answered Lord Kitchener’s call and enthusiastically signed up to serve their country.
Patriotism and the mistaken belief that the conflict would be resolved in a matter of months meant that by the end of the year over a million men had signed up for the war. In Durham, young men, often close friends, left towns and villages in their masses to serve their country.
Few knew the horrors of what lay ahead in what would become one of the most dreadful wars the world has ever seen. The nightmare of this so-called Great War was most exemplified by the Battle of the Somme in 1916, which took place one-hundred years ago this summer. For many the Somme not only confirmed the undeniable reality that there was no turning back but it would also prove to be, quite literally, the point of no return.
In remembrance of the Somme, Durham’s Gala Theatre is hosting ‘1916: No Turning Back’, a visitor experience and theatre production created by Studio MB and directed by Neil Armstrong. It aims to recreate, through actors, the story of the Somme from the angle of local lads and their families.
It begins with the cheery eagerness of enlisting, then takes us through training before we find ourselves experiencing the terrible horror of the trenches. Ultimately it moves on to the devastating impact on families and survivors. It is a story tenderly told through the live performances of talented actors, accompanied in places by appropriate film footage.
As I stood in the queue along with my daughter and a small group of tourist ticket holders – mostly couples in their fifties and sixties – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Like the enlisting soldier whose life it portrays, this was a date of uncertain destiny. I knew that if it was going to be true to its tale then there would have to be some sadness and horror, yet I also knew with much certainty that the chances are I would get out alive, but would it be entertaining, educating and moving?
This is an experience told through actors, but it is not a traditional theatre production. Over the course of around 40 minutes, the actors interact with the visitors who are carefully ushered on a short walk-through of different stage sets that tell the story. Thankfully, there is enough balance between audience interaction and the sometimes deeply emotive stories of the actors to keep the visitor feeling comfortable and engaged.
If the aim is to get you to imagine the experience of the soldiers of the Somme then it succeeds in this well.
You are escorted through a series of stage sets partly recreated within the auditorium – though you won’t realise this – where seats have been removed. At the recruitment stage you hear the hearty banter of Second Lieutenant Simon Taylor as he has his photograph taken – in this case by my daughter – along with his Durham pals before you are moved on to the setting of Cocken Hall (now demolished, it was near Finchale Abbey) for our military drilling.
Here, some ladies and gentlemen in the front row of our group are subjected to a fierce verbal dressing down by the drill sergeant, Jack Cotton. One of our group was then given the opportunity to take a stab at the enemy – in the form of a sack – using a bayonet rifle (of the blunted, retractable kind you will be glad to know).
The best bit for me though, was the experience of sitting in the dark bunker deep inside the trenches of the Somme.
For a few moments you will hear the constant realistically loud, thunderous pounding of shells above and around you as the nerve-shattered lamp-carrying Tommy recalls the horrific loss of his colleagues. With all the noise and sudden intrusion of theatre-effect smoke you will begin, during these few almost claustrophobic moments, to imagine the sheer terror that the trench-bound soldiers constantly endured for many months and years.
Yes, it is an understatement to say you can only begin to imagine, but it is enough to make you think how fortunate you are not to have been there.
Finally you are told it is time to go “over the top” in the terrifying though no less absurd sense of the phrase as it was used in the days of the First World War. For a moment I wonder if this could turn out to be “over the top” in some farcical ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ moment as I picture a sudden, chaotic rush of tourists running across a staged battlefield but it is nothing of the kind.
Instead the sombre emotion of the Somme’s story is appropriately maintained. So, as we alight from the trench onto the battle stage we are greeted with a veiled screen at which we stand, in line, briefly, watching black and white movie footage of the battle events. It creates a slightly dream-like out of body sequence that was perhaps not unlike that experienced by many on the battlefield.
Post battle, our particular fates unknown, we move on to a field hospital room where we are greeted by a triage nurse, Sister Bailey and three beds with a kit of antiquated operating instruments lying upon one. In a kindly but matter of fact, battle-hardened way the nurse explains her role and experience in caring for the wounded and dying of the frontline. We are are confronted by the sad reality of death and survival in this awful war.
Other stages then take us on to a family home where news from the trenches arrives and then we head inside the home of a traumatised ‘lucky’ survivor whose story is told through the tender anxiety of his loving sister. Finally we learn the fate of Simon and his comrades and we are moved by the terrible futility of it all.
So was I entertained? In places, certainly. Educated? Just enough. Moved? Undoubtedly.
If I’m honest I’m not always a big fan of actors working in heritage attractions as the result can often seem fake or in your face, or even embarrassing. This is NOT the case here but in fairness it is not a museum or heritage centre but a theatre production with a difference where the audience is taken from stage to stage as a story is movingly told by experienced North East actors who effectively and professionally maintain just the right mood to move you.
I would recommend it.
Some kids will enjoy it too, though in truth, my daughter, who is eleven and not a history fan, wasn’t particularly keen. She was a little on her guard from the beginning of the production/tour when the usher explained that there would be loud noises so perhaps she didn’t focus on the event.
She was the only youngster there too – though I know this is not always the case – but this may not have helped. The actors included her in the experience and I’m certain lots of kids will enjoy the battle bunker and the banter, or seeing a parent getting some much-needed discipline at the training camp, so don’t let that put you off.
All in all it is an unusual, interesting and moving commemoration of an important yet tragic event in our nation’s history.
Go see it.
1916: No Turning Back runs until Sunday, August 28 at the Gala Theatre, Durham City
There are multiple performances each day with the production featuring two teams of North East actors: Luke Maddison, Samantha Neale, Lawrence Neale and Anna Nicholson who perform in rotation.