Category Archives: Days Out

Twenty North East villages

DAVID SIMPSON explores twenty different villages across the region including some hidden away inside our North East towns.

The bridge at Blanchland
Blanchland Photo © David Simpson 2018

There are hundreds of fascinating and often beautiful villages of all kinds, scattered around the North East of England from the Tweed to the Tees Valley. Most people live in the cities and towns of course and there are some spectacular towns too, but we shouldn’t forget our villages. There are villages in every corner of our region all the way from the upland country to the coast. They’re not just out in the country though, you’ll, even find some hidden away within our towns and cities.

Piercebridge
Piercebridge village, on the Durham (Darlington) side of the Tees. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Old cottages, medieval churches, a village green and perhaps a duck pond are features often associated with older villages and of course for many the focal point is the village pub. Here we thought we’d pick out twenty unusual, interesting and sometimes surprising villages, some of which you may be familiar with and others which you may not know. We are not saying these are the best ones or even necessarily the twenty most interesting ones but they give some impression of the kind of variety of villages we have across our region.

Bamburgh

Northumberland

Okay, there will be few who haven’t heard of this one, but to some extent Bamburgh is a little overlooked. It’s overlooked by Bamburgh Castle and so spectacular is that castle that it’s easy to forget how  beautiful the village is too. Lovely little shops, pubs, people playing cricket or flying kites on the huge green below the steep craggy whin stone rocks of the castle. Not to mention the beach and the view. Views everywhere. Bamburgh is Britain at its best.

Bamburgh Castle and village
Bamburgh Castle and village Photo © 2018 David Simpson

Read about Bamburgh

Norton-on-Tees

Teesside

Norton-on-Tees is a very substantial and beautiful village absorbed by neighbouring Stockton. It has a huge village green and a big duck pond. There are lots of old houses surrounding it and as if that wasn’t enough there’s a splendid Georgian High Street leading up to the green with grand Georgian houses, pleasant shops and restaurants. Given its size and picturesque qualities Norton is surprisingly little known outside of Teesside. If it were part of London it would probably be rivalling the likes of Kew or Richmond and everyone would want to know about it. Oh and Norton also has a splendid Saxon church.

Norton High Street.
Norton High Street. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Norton

Craster

Northumberland

The ‘crow chester’ of old is a fabulous fishing village. Here rugged whinstone rocks form cosy coastal cottages in this delightful place famed for its kippers. For those who don’t know, the kippers are smoked on oak chippings to give them their distinct traditional flavour. The big surprise at Craster is of course the neighbouring Dunstanburgh Castle – a magnificent and huge romantic ruin best approached by the walk from the village where visitors might follow in the footsteps of the legendary Sir Guy the Seeker.

Dunstanburgh Castle
Dunstanburgh Castle near Craster Photo © 2017 David Simpson

Read about the Craster area

Brancepeth

County Durham

Small, but with picturesque rows of houses in what what was once the estate village for Brancepeth Castle. There’s no pub or village green here, so this is a place for people who like their villages tiny, secluded and quiet, though there is a busy road that passes straight through. The great medieval castle is still there alongside a charming medieval church though the castle has seen much restoration.

Brancepeth village.
Brancepeth Village, the north side. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Brancepeth

Bellingham

Northumberland

Bellingham, pronounced ‘Bellingum’ is the capital of North Tynedale in Northumberland and a great centre for exploring the area including the nearby Kielder Forest and reservoir. This is a relatively peaceful place with pleasant walks along the river. Nearby a walking route takes you to the lovely Hareshaw Linn waterfall. It’s so serene that it’s easy to forget that Bellingham was once entangled in the violence and bloodshed of the border wars in times gone by and was at the heart of ‘Border Reiver country’ with the dale being the lair of troublesome reivers like the Milburns, Robsons and Charltons of Tudor times.

Bellingham
Bellingham, North Tynedale Photo © 2015 David Simpson

Read about Bellingham

Billingham

Teesside

Yes, Billingham. People have preconceptions about certain places and when we think Billingham we inevitably think of the vast chemical works with cooling towers and clouds of steam. Billingham has much earlier origins though and on the hill top at Billingham Green we find a few (and there are admittedly only a few) old cottages of the original village of Billingham dating back to times long past. The biggest surprise here, however, is a Saxon church dating to around 1000D. It’s about a hundred years older than Durham Cathedral.

Old houses in the village, Billingham Green.
Old houses in the village, Billingham Green. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Near the edge of Billingham another little-known village is Cowpen Bewley near the estuarine industries of Teesside. Old cottages are set around a village green and you could easily be led to believe you were in an isolated rural spot miles away from any town or city if it were not for a sudden glimpse of the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge in a gap between two cottages. It’s pronounced ‘Coopen’ by the way!

Ivy Cottage, Cowpen Bewley.
Cowpen Bewley. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Billingham and Cowpen Bewley

Wallsend

North Tyneside

Another one of those surprising villages hidden away within a town. Think Wallsend and you think of shipyards on the Tyne or the nearby Roman fort at the end of Hadrian’s Wall. Further north from the river though we find the old village of Wallsend Green and there’s quite an extensive green with old houses plus the nearby Wallsend Hall, a mansion of the late Georgian era. Wallsend has two old churches of note but these were built at a distance from the village. Wallsend’s medieval church of Holy Cross fell out of use with the Wallsend natives who used the local school for marriages for many years. It was only when the Bishop of Durham pointed out that the school was not consecrated and that their marriages and baptisms were not valid that they hastily built a new church dedicated to St Peter to the south towards Willington Quay.

Wallsend Village
Wallsend Green. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Wallsend

Holy Island Village

Northumberland

Holy Island Village on the island of Lindisfarne is something quite special, in fact ‘magical’ is perhaps the word. Charming houses and little shops with views of the rugged castle on Beblowe rock and the romantic ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. Given all the natural and historical charms of the island it’s easy to forget that it’s also the home to a rather picturesque little village too.

Holy Island Village
Holy Island Village : Photo © 2015 David Simpson

Read about Holy Island 

Whitburn

South Tyneside

Whitburn in South Tyneside close to the coast and near the northern fringe of Sunderland is a fabulous village with all kinds of interesting old buildings and the overall impression is delightful to the eye. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “uncommonly attractive” in his famous guide books to the Buildings of England.

Whitburn village scenes
Whitburn village scenes photos: Photo © David Simpson

Whitburn has a thirteenth century church, some wonderful Georgian and Victorian houses, a curious cottage of red brick, a beautiful village green and even a windmill complete with sails. There are also literary links to Lewis Carroll who had relatives that resided here. The nearby village of Cleadon is also rather attractive and has links to Charles Dickens.

Read about Whitburn

Blanchland

Northumberland

Blanchland is situated in the Pennine dale of the Derwent in the south western area of Northumberland and is just over the border from County Durham. It is a rather exceptional and beautiful village constructed within the ruins of a medieval monastery. In Georgian times the charitable trust of Lord Crewe, a Bishop of Durham used stones from the abbey of Blanchland to construct a model village and the result is simply sublime. Highlights of the village are the L-shaped piazza,  the old monastery gatehouse, the abbey church and the lovely Lord Crewe Arms. Picturesque, it is almost a Hollywood producer’s vision of what an old English village should look like but very rustic, elegant and real.

Blanchland
Blanchland. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Blanchland

Sedgefield

Though it is arguably and technically a town, the large village green and Georgian cottages and village-type pubs that cluster around the green give Sedgefield an undoubtable village-like feel. There are some wonderful old Georgian houses and narrow lanes,  grander houses and interesting nooks clustered around the green. Our favourite story concerning Sedgefield concerns the ‘Pickled Parson’, a deceased vicar who was preserved in either salt or brandy by his good lady wife so she could avoid paying a particular tax.

Sedgefield
Sedgefield Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Sedgefield

Gainford

County Durham

Gainford is a very attractive former spa village near Darlington with a fine Jacobean hall. Situated on the River Tees its neighbours further downstream include High Coniscliffe, the ‘cliff of King Edwin’ and Piercebridge the site of a Roman fort and bridge that was once the home to a clock that inspired a famous song.

Gainford.
Gainford. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Gainford

New York

North Tyneside

I love the name of this one. There’s a New York Post Office and a New York Convenience Store. Several of the old mining villages across the region have some fabulous names: Pity Me, Quebec, Toronto, Philadelphia, Coronation, No Place. Many are tight knit neighbourly friendly communities often with fabulous scenery right on their doorstep. I live in a former mining village, so I know this for a fact.

New York, North Tyneside
New York, North Tyneside. Photos © David Simpson 2018

Read about New York and North Tyneside

West Auckland

County Durham

Centred around a fine village green West Auckland is a former mining village that developed from an older village centre. Most people may know that West Auckland’s local football club won the world cup – twice. It’s commemorated by a sculpture at the centre of the green. There’s some interesting buildings of note here too. West Auckland’s Old Hall and the Manor House are both substantial buildings dating from the 1600s.

West Auckland Old Hall.
West Auckland Old Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about West Auckland

Heighington

Near Darlington

Once the capital of a district called Heighingtonshire in south Durham, Heighington near Darlington is a rather lovely village with a broad undulating green, a medieval church and lots of old interesting houses.

Heighington
Heighington. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Heighington

Beamish

County Durham

A small village, this is the original Beamish, near to the famous museum. We love the eye-catching figures on the Shepherd and Shepherdess pub and the former almshouses nearby. A fairly small village but still bigger than ‘Beamish Town’  that is found within the museum grounds.

Figures, Shepherd and Shepherdess Beamish village.
Figures, Shepherd and Shepherdess Beamish village. Photo © John Simpson

Read about Beamish

Whickham

Borough of Gateshead

Whickham village near Gateshead on Tyneside was at the heart of a major mining area from as early as the 1600s. The lovely stone houses of the 1700s around Church Chare, Front Street and Rectory Lane, are reminders of Whickham’s rural roots.

Whickham church
Whickham church. Photo © David Simpson

Read about Whickham

Hart

Situated on the magnesian limestone hills just outside Hartlepool with great views out to sea little Hart village was closely tied to Hartlepool and perhaps the capital of the ancient district called Hartness. There’s a beautiful little Saxon church, a windmill, an interesting couple of pubs and the scant remains of a medieval hall that belonged to the powerful De Brus (Bruce) family.

Hart village.
Hart village. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about villages near Hartlepool

Staindrop

A substantial old village and a place of significance in medieval times, being the estate village of Raby Castle, the ancient stronghold of the Nevilles that is just along the road. The church of St Mary at Staindrop (once dedicated to St Gregory) is a sizeable and impressive medieval edifice with a core dating back to before the Norman Conquest.

Staindrop. Photo © David Simpson 2018
Staindrop. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Staindrop

Backworth

Backworth mining village was perhaps made famous by the fictional character ‘Geordie Broon of Backworth’. There are some interesting old houses in the village but perhaps the biggest surprise is the Miners’ Welfare building in a beautiful stately hall that was purchased by the local mining community in the 1930s.

Backworth Hall.
Backworth Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Backworth, North Tyneside

What’s your favourite North East village?

This is just a selection of North East villages and a bit of a random one at that. What’s your favourite village in the North East? How about Cambo or Lanchester, Norham on Tweed, Alnmouth, Elsdon, Ford and Etal or Longframlington? Maybe Castle Eden or Westoe, Rennington, Ellingham, Matfen, Shincliffe, Frosterley, Romaldkirk or perhaps the old village at Ponteland.

Let us know in the comments below what your favourite village is and why. If you’re on Twitter why not tweet  your favourite village especially if you’ve got some great photos to show it off. Tag us in on your tweet or visit our Facebook page. Details below:

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Tourist Trap: £103 and a bag of nuts to see a waterfall

DAVID SIMPSON reveals how a bit of innocent chatter, a failed download, three rejected coins and a bag of nuts resulted in a £103 charge to see England’s best waterfall.

High Force
High Force waterfall, Teesdale. Photo David Simpson

A roaring awesome force of nature, High Force waterfall is one of the most beautiful and remarkable features of the North East landscape. People come from far and wide to enjoy this majestic ‘force’ pouring its foamy waters at roaring pace over the imposing slate-black rocks of the Great Whin Sill.  I wonder, though, how many people know that if they’re not too careful, they may end up paying more than a hundred pounds for the privilege?

I hadn’t been to the waterfall for a while so with some delightful sunny weather to enjoy I headed off to Teesdale, stopping at bonny Barnard Castle and the pretty village of Romaldkirk along the way. A little nearer to my destination I then called in at lovely Middleton-in-Teesdale to draw out some cash on my driving route to ‘feel the force’. Now ‘Fors’ is a Viking word meaning ‘waterfall’ by the way and has nothing to do with a force of power or the enforcement of fines for that matter – at least not as far as we know.

I haven’t been to High Force for about three years now – to my great shame, High Force should be at least an annual visit for anyone in the North East. Having been diverted at so many wonderful stops along the way I didn’t get to the High Force car park until just before 5pm. I’d never been there that late in the evening – though it’s hardly what you’d call ‘night time’ at the height of summer.  I then see a sign at the car park saying the fall closes at 5pm with the last admission at 4.30pm. Looks like I’m too late.

Low Force waterfall
Low Force waterfall, Teesdale. Photo © David Simpson 2018

I was a bit confused, did this mean that the entire pathway to get to the fall was closed or do they enclose the waterfall in some kind of iron cage to keep people out? In fact, as it turns out, the path doesn’t close at all, you can still stroll along the riverside to within a literal stone’s throw of the fall. The only limitation is that after hours you will find a locked gate near the fall beyond which you can go no further. Don’t worry though you’re still more than close enough to get a decent view or a photo.

If only I’d known all of this a bit sooner as I’d have saved myself £100 pounds but you see I have a problem; I’m a bit of a chatterbox. No sooner had I parked  the car then I got into a conversation with some friendly visitors and ramblers. Now when I say ramblers, I  mean walkers. Their conversation, I should say, was far from rambling and was pleasantly engaging, though as it turned out disastrously engaging. “Can I still get to the fal” I innocently asked, “or is the path closed?” I wanted to be sure. No point in paying a £3 car parking fee for nothing.

Soon there was a suggestion to walk back downstream to Low Force and cross a footbridge to reach the High Force from the other side of the river  (on what used to be the Yorkshire side – where unlike the Durham side they don’t charge you). There was also a suggestion from these helpful visitors that I take in Summerhill Force at Gibson’s Cave and see the Low Force as well. I should confess, that I hadn’t been to either for some time (again to my shame), at least not since I was a kid, so I wasn’t sure how long that walk would take.

As the conversation continued, I took little notice of the time. I can’t be sure but I suspect that by this time more than 10 minutes had already elapsed. Eventually another curious conversational visitor interjected and explained that I could in fact still get pretty close to the “big one” from the Durham side; certainly close enough for a photo and so I decided to commit to the parking, which was going to cost me a minimum of £3 which I could see from where I was standing and confirmed by the conversation.

£3 seemed reasonable enough, so I fished out my £10 note, fresh from the Middleton cash point, only to find that the machine wouldn’t take notes – unlike the nearby cameras which it seems take notes of your every move with a view to taking much more than a trusty tenner – but more on that in a moment. Also, there was no facility for accepting cards in the parking machine as you often find on remote car parks near Hadrian’s Wall.

I saw then that there was a parking ‘app’ that you can download to your phone. Great, I thought, I love a bit of simple technology – so I downloaded the application onto my phone, or at least I tried to. From what I remember it aborted on two or three goes, causing much frustration and taking much precious time before I eventually succeeded. Time was still ticking away.

Low Force waterfall, Teesdale.
Low Force waterfall, Teesdale.

Now I’m no technophobe, or at least I like to think that I’m not, but I couldn’t get this app to accept the input of letters from my number plate on my phone – something which, incidentally, the nearby cameras seem to have no problem reading. I decided the best course of action was to get some loose change, so I popped into the handy High Force Hotel right next to the car park and waited patiently for a thirsty couple in front of me, who were buying a not-to-quick round of early evening drinks for their numerous friends, to get served. Again, unbeknown to me, time was ticking away.

With the couple served, I decided to get myself a bag of nuts plus change from my tenner as it occurred to me that this hotel must get a constant stream of annoying people asking for change to feed into the coin-sucking parking machines nearby. At least, with the nuts, I had made a purchase that would benefit the hotel.

So you’d think I was sorted? Well, actually, no. For some reason  the parking machine didn’t like my coins at first or at least didn’t like my level of concentration or understanding of the payment process in that evening heat. No, it just wouldn’t accept those coins, coughing them out on several occasions without hesitation until eventually a new set of three pound coins was happily accepted and the parking ticket was finally there in my hands.

So with my three pounds paid and the said ticket placed on the dashboard, as instructed, it was time to explore. What I didn’t know, however, was that time had already ticked its final tock and taken its £100 toll. What I didn’t know was that despite the payment of £3, the camera had clocked my time of arrival with its number plate recognition technology and decided that I was a dreadful offender.  It was only when I’d paid that £3 fee that I was approached by one of the friendly visitors who I’d been talking to a few minutes earlier. Warily, if a little tardy in his thoughts, he asked rhetorically: “you have seen the ‘small print’ about the £100 fine after 10 minutes?”

Sadly, I had not, and for that matter nor had the talkative lady standing nearby. She confessed she hadn’t seen it either but was confident that she had paid for her ticket on time.  At this point you might have heard me exclaim “*$!~**#!”  or words to that effect. There it was: a little warning in amongst the usual T&Cs, about a £100 fine for anyone who fails to pay within ten minutes of arrival. Now rules are rules, but this seemed like a little case of extortion to me; a ridiculous sum for a silly error, perhaps even a case of bullying you might say.

Summerhill Force and Gibson's Cave.
Summerhill Force and Gibson’s Cave.

I had that sudden horrible feeling I’d been there much more than ten minutes but couldn’t be certain but thought it was a reasonable and honest mistake and as I’d paid my parking fee I thought perhaps things would be okay. On the other hand, perhaps I am just hopefully naïve.

So off I went on my stroll. It’s always a great feeling of anticipation as you approach ‘the High Force’ on the thickly wooded pathway and can hear it, though not at first see it, getting closer and closer until eventually it reveals itself in all its glory in a gap amongst the trees. I waited for a group of teens larking around at the locked gate – one of whom had unsafely climbed over the neighbouring fence towards the fall. Having made her way back across the fence and onto the path, the group departed for home, leaving me to take a few photos and admire the view from the gate, quite contently.

It had been sunny for several days so the High Force  in these dry conditions wasn’t in full spate but the powerful flow was still more than enough to impress. On the way back along the path leading to the fall I passed a couple of young blokes heading in the direction of the force clutching a veritable picnic of alcoholic drinks who were clearly intending to venture beyond the locked gate and have the after hours waterfall all to themselves for the rest of the evening. I hope they remembered to pay their parking fee.

Having paid £3 which covers a maximum of 3 hours I decided to get my money’s worth so acting on the advice of my recently found friendly band of car park advisers I tried out the walk heading downstream to take in Low Force on the Tees and the Summerhill Force at Gibson’s cave which is along the nearby Bowlees Beck. Within less than an hour I’d managed to fit in High Force and these other two falls (I’m a brisk walker) and I must say all the waterfalls are stupendous.

Low Force is every bit as good as the comparable Aysgarth Falls down in  Wensleydale – if not better – and is found in two close-by groups of falls that can be enjoyed from the neighbouring fields or from the wonderfully wobbly single-file pedestrian suspension bridge that crosses the Tees here. Gibson’s Cave and the Summerhill Force are wonderful too – reached along the beautiful wooded dene of the Bowlees Beck from Bowlees and even on this relatively dry day the sight of that lovely waterfall trickling over the cave is a pretty and picturesque sight to behold.

Sadly, all these sights and sounds on this pleasant summer’s evening were more than a little overshadowed by the distinctly unpleasant and unexpected possibility of a £100 parking fine.

Nine days passed and I’d quite forgotten about my visit to the ‘forces’ when I received a midday Monday letter of shall I say ‘high enforcement’ from a Liverpool-based company with the rather intimidating name of Civil Enforcement Ltd. Their letter, issued on and presumably also posted on a Friday*,  was received  with the following demand: “Amount due within 28 days: £100″ and “Reduced amount due if paid within 14 days: £60″.  In fact the 14 days was now 11 and a half days notice due to the delay in receiving the letter.

Now although £60 still seems to me like a proverbial ‘day light robbery’, in the circumstances it’s much less to pay and much more palatable than paying £100. It was very tempting to pay this, caving in to a bit of ‘tactical’ bullying you might say. However, I feel I have been unlucky and not properly warned of the fine rather than dishonest, so I decided to stick to my guns and hold out for what I think is right.  Anyway, I’ve appealed, and if I fail in this appeal I will then have the option of using the independent ‘Parking on Private Land Appeals (POPLA)’ service. If your appeal with POPLA is still unsuccessful you must then pay the full £100, so it’s a risk – which of course the parking enforcers must presumably know only too well.

As a penance for my unwitting error I have offered to pay £7 (in addition to the £3 already paid) as I think that £10 is a reasonable sum for an honest mistake. It’s also a very decent sum for the car park considering the time I was there – whereas £60 is not. We’ll see what they say. Just don’t hold your breath.

I just think that this is all a bit of a sting that can make money out of the unwitting public for a lapse of ten minutes? That’s certainly not enough time to do anything useful or see any of the sites or reach the waterfall, but more than enough to catch one or two chatty or temporarily distracted people like me unawares.

All that it would take, in my view, to avoid this would be a prominent sign at the entrance to the car park saying that you must pay within ten minutes of entering or receive a fine – it’s the one thing that any visitor would certainly want to know above anything else. This could be done very easily to make absolutely sure that people are aware of the possible fine. The car park could also make it clearer about accessibility to the fall after 4.30pm as it was clarifying this ambiguity that cost me the time more than anything else.  What makes me cross is it’s not like I didn’t pay at all or do anything dishonest, I just wanted to confirm that I was going to be able to see what I had come to see before I paid the car park money and committed to stay. It is after all ‘The High Force Car Park’.

I’ve asked Civil Enforcement Ltd, the company which collects car parking revenue on behalf of the landowners to consider my appeal. I’ve also asked if they would provide me with some details of how much they receive in revenue from fines at this particular car park.  If they respond to this particular request of information, I’ll let you know what they say.

Raby Castle
Raby Castle. High Force  is on the lands of the Raby estate. © David Simpson 2018

Don’t let this put you off visiting High Force and its nearby waterfalls though. There’s still parking at the Bowlees Visitor Centre – where there’s a suggested parking donation. The walk from Bowlees to Summerhill and all the other waterfalls including High Force is very pleasing. If you do decide to park at the High Force Car Park, however, which is certainly more convenient for that particular waterfall then just make sure you pay within ten minutes of arrival or you might just end up feeling the force of a very hefty fine.

High Force Visitor information:

High Force is situated on the lands of the Raby estate: Raby Castle

Visit the High Force website at: Highforcewaterfall.co.uk

Opening Times: High Force is open daily 10am-5pm (4pm winter).

Last admission: Half an hour before closing.

Car parking: £3 for 3 hours or £6 for 6 hours

Pay within 10 minutes of arriving

Admission to falls: Adults: 16+ £1.50, Children 5-15: 50p.

Parking at the site is managed by  Civil Enforcement Limited

 

UPDATE: My appeal was rejected by Civil Enforcement Ltd, however they did give me a further 14 days to pay at the reduced rate of £60 and I decided to pay that, reluctantly.

Raby Estate had only introduced the new parking system in May (2018) though I was unaware of this at the time. According to a story in The Northern Echo in response to my experience and that of others, Raby Estate have now extended the period of grace for parking payment at the High Force Car Park. Unfortunately this didn’t make any difference to me, because – as I understand it – the period of grace had not come into force at that time.

I would strongly suggest that Raby Estate ask for an improvement in the signage at the car park to ensure that people are aware of the risk of payment delays as soon as they enter the car park. Even if there is a period of grace, discovering there’s a fine after a 10 minute period has elapsed could be stressful to elderly visitors or those on low income.

I’d also suggest they consider finding a new company to manage their parking when the opportunity arises as I think the company’s lack of leniency does not necessarily work in the best interests of their client, unless of course Raby Estate only consider its visitors a means of making money and nothing more. I know I am not the only one to have been caught by this charge and I would suggest that it could be potentially damaging to an important element of Teesdale’s tourism industry.

Finally, I’d like to add that despite my experience I should say that High Force, Raby Castle and Teesdale itself are absolute gems that all deserve to be better known. My intention in creating this website was to highlight the wonderful heritage of the North East region, its history, landscape and places to visit, but occasionally, reluctantly, you sometimes have to draw attention to negative things that could be much improved.

 

It’s back: Kynren captivates with its epic tale of 2,000 years

How do you tell the tale of 2,000 years of British history, with a North-East twist, in just 90 minutes? The answer is simple, County Durham’s spectacular outdoor pageant, Kynren. JONATHAN JONES enjoys Bishop Auckland’s summer spectacle.

Kyren: Burning bagpipes
Kynren: Burning bagpipes as the English and Scots face off in battle.

Having been lucky enough to see last year’s offering, taking place on a seven-acre site in the shadow of Auckland Castle, in Bishop Auckland, I did wonder what this year’s performance might offer that was different enough to justify paying members of the public forking out £50 for the best seats.

And I can happily say there’s enough new and extended scenes to make Kynren worth a return visit. Boosted by an increased number of participants (or archers as they are known), more than 1,400 volunteers in total, the show seemed to have more in terms of excitement, and, perhaps most importantly, it just seemed to flow better.

Kynren: Performers from the cast of 1,400
Kynren: Performers from the cast of 1,400

This view may also have been aided by the fact that this year I had a slightly more elevated position in the stands, rather than the ringside seat I took last year. This enabled me to see more of the action as it enfolded, for example, being among the first to see the burning bagpipe playing Scots army of Robert the Bruce, come face to face with the burning club juggling English army.

Something I hadn’t noticed so much last year, and perhaps this is due to the more enhanced staging of this year’s offering, is just how violent the last 2,000 years of British history have been.

The first 30-45 minutes of the show seemed to focus on one bloody skirmish after another, from the stallion riding Iceni queen, Boudicca, storming the stage accompanied by her daughters, battling with their Roman oppressors on the banks of a lake, from which scenes rise and fall, through the monk slaughtering attacks of the Vikings, to the death of Harold Hadrada, clutching an arrow in his eye, at the hands of the invading William the Conqueror.

Great fun for those watching, particularly the younger members of the audience, who particularly enjoyed the sight of a Roman Centurion being thrown from his horse, then dragged along behind it.

Kynren features plenty of action scenes
Kynren features plenty of fast moving action scenes

There was a slightly more sedate section, featuring Shakespeare and Good Queen Bess, which included the Queen entering the stage on a fabulous royal barge, while Shakespeare himself could be seen on the balcony of his home. But this was soon to be replaced by the skirmishes of the English Civil War featuring Cavalier cavalry facing off against Roundhead armour.

The show owes a lot of its continued success to the generosity of investment banker Jonathan Ruffer, the man spearheading the £100 million redevelopment of Bishop Auckland, which included buying Auckland Castle and saving paintings by the 17th century Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán.

After an initial £35million investment in the Kynren site, funded entirely from charitable donations, each subsequent year is funded from the previous year’s proceeds, with profits from tickets and merchandise sales reinvested in the show and keeping it at its best, continually increasing the skill level for volunteers to make this show the success.

Kyrnen: A wonderful spectacle
Kynren: A wonderful spectacle

Designed to emulate the success of France’s Puy du Fou, which helped to revitalise the Vendee area of Western France, Mr Ruffer is hopeful that Kynren will help to do the same for Bishop Auckland.

He joked, as he launched this year’s event, that he hoped Kynren would last for the next 50 years, and to ask him again then, at the age of 117, what he thought was the secret of its success.

He added: “We are not like Trooping the Colour where you see some wonderful things but the only thing that changes year after year is the name of the person who falls off the horse.

“We are not like a Premiership football match where every moment of every game is different but ultimately it’s just 24 blokes running around a lawn.

“We are more like Star Wars, or Harry Potter, which you can come back to year after year and see, in one sense, the same thing and same characters, but in another sense something different and unique because every performance is unique.”

Kynren is on target to attract more than 500,000 visitors to the North East by 2020, boosting the economy by almost £5million a year.

If the reaction of the gathered press and guests (mostly friends and family of the participants) is anything to go by, with a standing ovation at the end of the show, and numerous bouts of spontaneous applause throughout, County Durham has a hit on its hands.

If, as promised, production company Eleven Arches continues to upgrade the show each year, then I’ll be happy to make an annual visit.

Kyrnen, Auckland Castle
Kynren: A grand stage set to the wonderful backdrop of Auckland Castle

However, I must add that my enjoyment of this year’s offering was perhaps improved by my choice of a slightly more elevated seat, rather than my choice of a front row one last year.

This more elevated position gave me chance to see more of the early action as it happened, in particular items that were happening to the far left or right of the stage area.

Under the watchful eye of US-born artistic director Steve Boyd, who choreographed Olympic opening ceremonies in London and Rio, revised and extra scenes have been added to this year’s offering. These include a completely new English Civil War section, and the marking of two special moments in history, commemorating 100 years since the end of the First World War, a moment laced with poppies and poignancy, and the successful struggle of the Suffragette movement, which led to women being given the vote.

Kynren: Poppies in a poignant moment
Kynren: Poppies in a poignant moment

There’s still something for those who like history, told from a North-East angle, with this year’s audiences again getting to meet the Venerable Bede and Prince Bishop Bek.

There’s also still a particularly moving sequence featuring the coal mining communities of the North East. Pit props rise from the lake, and miners march to work, only for a number of massive explosions to rock the stage, followed by the collapse of pit props. This is followed by mourning women following a number of hearses across the stage, showing just how dangerous working in the pits of County Durham, once the lifeblood of the region, was.

On a lighter note, however, there’s also a myriad of performing animals including 33 horses, a flock of 27 sheep (a crowd favourite), a gaggle of geese, numerous donkeys and a pair of Durham shorthorn oxen.

Kynren: The sheep are a crowd favourite
Kynren: The sheep are a crowd favourite

The show also features more stunts, including a Roman Centurion being dragged along behind his horse, in the early moments of the show, plus a motorcycle rider crossing the stage ablaze.

Stephenson’s Locomotion, the first steam locomotive to carry passengers on a public rail line, also makes an appearance, steaming across the stage followed by cheering crowds, and in later scenes, Winston Churchill makes his “fight them on the beaches’ speech, while a spitfire chases a German bomber overhead.

Produced by Eleven Arches, the 2018 season features 17 performances across, commencing on June 30, and running on Friday and Saturday evenings throughout July, August and September.

Tickets for Kynren range from £25-£55 for adults and £19-£41 for children. For more information, visit www.kynren.co.uk.