Tag Archives: History

Remembering the miners who gave their lives

DAVID SIMPSON recalls the tragic loss of life in the coal mining  history of North East England where literally thousands of men lost their lives simply doing their job.

West Stanley memorial
Memorial to the West Stanley Colliery explosion of 1909.

“Bye mam”, shouted fourteen year-old John Richard Heard, as he set off for work, as he’d done so many times before.

“Bye son”, his mother replied and then, strangely, moments later, another farewell came as he briefly returned, for reasons that we will never know:

“Bye mam”.

“You’ve already said goodbye, son” came the reply, the mother not knowing that this goodbye, would be his last.

The young lad lived in Perkinsville, a little pit village near Pelton just west of Chester-le-Street. He worked at nearby Urpeth Busty Pit, a short walk from his home. How long he worked there, we don’t know. What sort of lad he was, we don’t know.

All we know is that the inquest notes for his death on that day, January 27, 1898, include the boy’s name, the name of the colliery owners, the name of the pit and the cause of death.

The mine owners were Charles Perkins and Partners, the successors to Lieutenant Colonel Edward Mosely Perkins, from whom ‘Perkins’ Ville’ was named. The Perkins family also owned the nearby iron works at Birtley where there is a prominent statue to E.M. Perkins’ memory. The pit was the Urpeth Busty Colliery, ‘busty’ being the name of the coal seam that this particular colliery worked. As for the cause of death, a short matter of fact explanation reads as follows:

“His work consisted in ‘helping-up’ the putter with his empty tubs, after which he should have returned to the siding. On this occasion, however, he did not return to his proper place, and being caught by the full tub, which the putter was bringing out, was crushed between it and the prop.”

The words “he should have” are typical of the comments found in the summaries of mine accidents at that time. Responsibility is firmly placed on the individual worker, even when the deceased worker might be as young as eleven, ten, nine or eight-years-old but this lad was fourteen, so clearly he must be considered an adult. To the modern mind the thought occurs that this is only a boy and he should not be working here at all, but these were very different times when the risk of death in the name of work and progress, even for children, was a simple and unfortunate fact of life.

Five months following John Richard’s death, his mother, Alice Heard, would also pass away. She was 41. Her death was perhaps hastened by her heart-breaking loss. Alice would share the grave with her beloved son in Pelton churchyard. She would, however, live to see the marriage of her daughter from whom my mother’s family descend. Alice was my great-great grandmother and the story of the lad – my grandma’s uncle – who came back to say that one last goodbye, has passed down to us.

Felling Colliery
Old postcard showing Felling Colliery the scene of a disaster in 1812

In our day and age no one expects to lose their life simply doing a job, simply earning a living for their family. Less do we expect to find children employed in such dangerous work. However, this was once the widely accepted reality in the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham and in other coalfields across the land. A century earlier, back in the early 1800s most people had worked as ‘agricultural labourers’. That was no doubt a relentless job and it certainly received very poor pay. It was a life of virtual servility, little better, perhaps, than that of the medieval peasants of old. For such people, mining was a very attractive proposition.

Businessmen, speculators, risk takers, entrepreneurs and men of money like Edward Mosely Perkins brought new opportunities for the impoverished. They opened mines and built new villages from scratch, offering simple home comforts and wages which though modest by the standards of today, would have been more than tempting for farm hands used to working the land.

Alice’s mother and father, were called Apperley and originated in rural Herefordshire where Apperleys had resided for centuries, presumably working the land. Mining brought new opportunities that drew people of modest means from far and wide to the North East seeking work in the coal mines. Another branch of my family came over from Ireland, also to work in the Durham mines. Mining was a comparatively lucrative trade, but of course it was also, as we have seen, potentially deadly.

Woodhorn Colliery museum
Woodhorn Colliery on the northern edge of Ashington is now a fabulous museum that celebrates and recreates the lives of miners. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The massive scale of this danger and the huge loss of life really only hit home to me some years ago when I co-authored a book about the history of Sunderland aimed at young people in that city. The book was filled with quirky facts and fun features but also the occasional poignant event.

This book was fun to do but one thing that really sticks in my mind is discovering that within the modern bounds of what is now the City of Sunderland we can find the names of around 2,700 men and boys who lost their lives working in the mines of that very area. So, that’s 2,700 just within the area covered by the present City of Sunderland. That is to say just one small part of the North East coalfield.

Now you might think there must have been some fairly major colliery disasters in the Sunderland area given that figure, but in truth that part of the region seems to have been reasonably fortunate in terms of mining deaths. The worst disaster in the area now covered by present day Sunderland was of a relatively modest scale. It was also a relatively early disaster, being an explosion at Newbottle Colliery in 1815 that claimed 57 lives.

Haswell disaster sculpture
Detail from sculpture commemorating the Haswell Colliery disaster of 1844. Photo David Simpson © 2018

However, by the time that colliery closed in 1956 it had claimed the lives of  148 men and boys over a period of time, all of whom died simply doing their job. Across the region most deaths in the mines were, sadly, an almost day to day experience. There were no major disasters at Ryhope Colliery, for example, which operated for 109 years (1857- 1966) yet it still claimed the lives of 291 men and boys during its working life. Further north, at Monkwearmouth, 297 lives were taken during that mine’s history. That is of course the colliery that once stood on the site now occupied by Sunderland Football Club’s Stadium of Light.

The intention here is not to be morbid or make a political point of some kind. It’s just important to highlight this rather sad element of our region’s history that should not be forgotten. Most towns and villages around our nation have war memorials recalling the names of those who gave their lives while bravely fighting for their country. Many were young men, of whom we should be rightly proud. In the coalfield of Northumberland and Durham many such war memorials stand in almost every town and village but those towns and villages could equally display monuments to the men and perhaps more significantly, the boys – the children – who gave their lives simply earning a living to support their families.

This is no less a tragedy than the sad losses of war and these are individuals of whom we should be no less proud, especially when we consider the part coal played in powering us towards the modern world and all the comforts we know today.

Mining tragedies weren’t just a nineteenth century phenomenon, however. In May 1951, for example, 83 men lost their lives in one single event in the colliery at Easington in County Durham. And if you find the human cost too unbearable to imagine you might consider that it was not just human lives that could be taken. In September 1880 a single disaster at Seaham Colliery claimed 164 men and boys but also killed 181 pit ponies working below ground. Mining could be a hard and cruel industry in so many respects.

Mine disaster memorial Stanley
West Stanley memorial. Photo © David Simpson 2018

If the plight of the region’s miners and their families, who faced such daily dangers is remembered at all, it is in the memorials to the major disasters. One good example is at Stanley in County Durham which recalls the disaster at the West Stanley Burns Pit in  February 1909 where 168 lives were lost. The memorial was unveiled in 1995 by the then Newcastle United football manager Kevin Keegan whose grandfather, a miner at this pit, had survived the event and had helped with the rescue effort.

There are many other memorials across the North East, some new, some old. At Haswell between Durham and Easington for example there stands alongside the 1830s remains of a colliery engine house a sculpture installed in 1996 by Michael Disley depicting the faces of miners trapped between layers of stone. It commemorates a disaster at the Haswell mine in 1844 which claimed 95 lives.

Haswell Colliery Engine House
Remains of Haswell Colliery engine house and commemorative sculpture. Photo © David Simpson 2018

One of the most important memorials and one that is contemporary with the event rather than a modern remembrance can be found in the churchyard at Heworth near Gateshead. Here a memorial to a disaster of special importance commemorates that which took place at Felling Colliery in 1812 in which 92 miners lost their lives. Their names are engraved around four sides of the monument. This disaster was of particular significance because it was the first pit tragedy to really come to the attention of the public conscience and was an event that really spurred on a determination to improve mine safety. It was the Felling disaster that ultimately brought about the development of the miners’ safety lamp.

Felling Memorial Heworth
Plaque and one side of 1812 Felling memorial at Heworth churchyard : Photo © David Simpson

Coincidentally the churchyard is also the burial place of Thomas Hepburn (c1795-1864), the Pelton-born, union leader who founded The Colliers of the United Association of Durham and Northumberland. Hepburn, who had worked in mines since the age of eight, fought hard to improve the rights and conditions of his fellow miners. He was a dignified and intelligent man, determined to fight the miners’ cause by peaceful means. He often worked against great adversity and faced much resistance from those who controlled the trade but he was an important part of the story in improving the often brutal conditions in which miners had to live and work.

Hester Pit memorial Earsdon
Memorial to Hartley Colliery disaster Earsdon churchyard. Photo © David Simpson 2018

For me the most moving memorial to a pit tragedy within our region is at the scene of the biggest North East mining tragedy of them all and one that I have only recently visited for the first time. It concerns the Hester Pit at New Hartley near Seaton Delaval in Northumberland. Here a disaster struck on the morning of Thursday, January 16, 1862 after a massive beam engine used for pumping water from the mine gave way, crashing into and destroying the mine shaft below. Deep below the number of miners was especially high as it was time for a shift change with about half the men due to end their shift and the others about to commence work.

Hester Pit Memorial Garden
Hester Pit Memorial Garden. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The men and boys were able to move to a higher seam to escape the imminent danger of flooding but the destruction of the shaft and cage meant that the only means of ventilation and escape from the build up of noxious gases had been destroyed.

Above ground men worked frantically to reach the entombed miners but the breakthrough would not come until the following Wednesday. Sadly, long before that point, the men below had succumbed to the gas. The last diary entry of one of the deceased occurred on the Friday and this suggests that it may have been on that day that most of the men had met their end.

The bodies sat in two rows, all as if they were simply sleeping. One boy’s head rested on the shoulder of his father, while two brothers embraced in a permanent affectionate slumber.

A miner involved in the attempted rescue effort was the first to encounter this scene. He climbed back to the surface and with great emotion announced the dreadful news to the waiting families and crowds above. There were no survivors below.

Two hundred and four men and boys lost their lives in what was the worst mining disaster ever recorded in the North East of England. Sadly, a third of those who died were under nineteen and included five boys aged ten or eleven years old and more than twenty were from twelve to fourteen years of age.

The dead were buried at Earsdon near Whitley Bay some four miles to the south and a continuous convoy of coffins and mourners is said to have run to there from New Hartley. A monument can still be seen in Earsdon churchyard commemorating the burials but the really moving place for me is the memorial garden at New Hartley itself that is built around the superstructure on the site of the shaft where the terrible events took place. The garden was opened in 1976 and in 2012 a memorial pathway by Russ Coleman was added recalling the names of those who lost their lives

Hester Pit Memorial Garden
Hester Pit Memorial Garden. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The one positive note that came from this tragedy was a change in the law, in 1865, which made it compulsory for mines to have more than one shaft, though some colliery owners opposed this additional expense. If there had been a second shaft at New Hartley, the miners would have been saved.

Disaster memorials like that at West Hartley are unusual and recollect only the major events. They do not record the names of the thousands of incidental deaths that occurred in North East mines over the decades which were not connected to major disasters.

Deaths such as that of John Richard Heard are perhaps only remembered, if at all, by those whose family histories feature such terrible heartbreaking episodes. There must be many a family throughout the region who share in this unfortunate legacy with their own family tales to tell of men and boys who lost their lives in our North East mines.

The memorials do help us to remember how times can change. They can provoke us to ask questions about humanity itself and how we can make our lives better for future generations.

Let’s not let the miners who gave their lives, miners like fourteen-yea- old John Richard Heard, be forgotten.

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The Durham Mining Museum (online resource)

To find out more about individual coal mines, mining disasters and pit fatalities in North East England I recommend visiting the fantastic Durham Miners Museum, an amazing online resource featuring vast amounts of information on coal mines, coal owners with extensive lists of names and information and reports about miners who were killed in the pit.  The site covers Northumberland as well as Durham and also lead and ironstone mining in places such as Cleveland and Cumberland. You can visit the site at www.dmm.org.uk/ 

Woodhorn Mining Museum

You can also find out more about the Hartley Colliery disaster and much else about the life of coal miners and coal mining in the region by visiting the fabulous Woodhorn Museum near Ashington

History Pages

About the history of the Easington area

About the history of the Stanley area

About the history of West Hartley and Seaton Delaval

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.

A re-thinking of museum mentality

PAUL WHITE admits he’s not a museum fan but speaks in praise of the Oriental Museum, a hidden gem in Durham City

Some readers will call me a philistine, others may agree wholeheartedly, but I have a confession: it is a rare museum indeed that doesn’t have me wishing I could escape to the nearest pub.

I like culture and the arts, but not in the “shuffle along, item by item, trying to take in masses of information at a time” sense.

orientalmuseum
Oriental Museum Durham. Photo: Durham University

However, we have a gem of a museum hiding away in our region, to which I have voluntarily returned on more than one occasion. The Oriental Museum, in Durham, is full of great items for anyone who has an interest in the culture and history of the east.

Having visited China on a number of occasions and fallen in love with Japan on a trip that took in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, I find these cultures intriguing and a pleasure to learn about.

I dropped in to the Japan section of the Oriental Museum today – I’d recommend taking it in chunks – and from Manga to the Samurai and the mix of Bhuddist and Shinto religions, it’s full of items and information that I find far more exciting than the naval gazing minutiae we fill many, admittedly far from all, of our museums with.

I’m hugely proud of coming from Shildon, but it took me 20-odd years to return to the Timothy Hackworth Museum after being taken there as a child, and that was a work-related visit.

I would hasten to suggest that we are getting better, but I think I’ve been scarred from my childhood, and from being dragged to museums when I’m really not in the mood.

The colliery, Beamish Museum
The colliery, Beamish Museum. Photo: Paul White

The Oriental Museum, alongside Beamish, show how museums can be great resources and are a massive credit to the North East. Both are done very differently, yet equally fire my imagination. On trips to the US and Canada, the museum elements of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, and the Johnny Cash Museum, were visits I made voluntarily, despite there being an abundance of bars and other amenities I could easily have opted to escape to.

Perhaps there is something niche in each of these examples that appeals directly to me.

In any case, if, like me, you were put off such visits as a child, maybe it’s time to think again and find a museum that holds a particular interest for you. The North East is a great place to start.

Local ales? A walk in the park!

HELEN GILDERSLEEVE goes for a walk in the park and discovers a rich trail of history rounded off with award-winning beer

The Wylam Brewery in Newcastle's Exhibition Park
The Wylam Brewery in Newcastle’s Exhibition Park

Park goers may have noticed a flurry of activity at the old Palace of Art in Newcastle’s Exhibition Park lately.

The much-loved park, used by runners, families and cyclists alike, is now home to  Wylam Brewery’s new HQ after they closed their doors at their old brew house in Heddon-on-the-Wall.

The Grade-II listed Palace of Arts building is now a fully operating, working brewery and events space having remained almost derelict for nearly a decade. The venue now boasts guided tours and a Grand Hall which plays host to brewers’ markets, live music, pop up events, weddings and more.

A venue for events
A venue for events

Ale lovers can sample freshly made brews such as the award winning Jakehead IPA as well as a variety of heritage cask and keg beers in quirky surroundings in the venue’s Brewery Tap.

Forthcoming events at Wylam Brewery include brewers’ markets, Craft Beer Calling, Battle of the Burger, movie screenings and live DJ sets and gigs.

The Palace of Art building is no stranger to glory and entertainment itself, being the last remaining building from the 1929 North East Exhibition.

The Exhibition was an ambitious project built to celebrate and encourage craft, art and industry at the start of the Great Depression. It was a symbol of pride and industrial success of the region as well as an advertisement for local industry and commerce.

The exhibition lasted 24 weeks and a total of 4,373,138 people attended. Gold watches were given to each one-millionth visitor and it closed on 26 October 1929 with an impressive fireworks display.

The North East Coast Exhibition, Exhibition Park 1929
The North East Coast Exhibition, Exhibition Park 1929

The Wylam Brewery building itself is steeped in history. Until 1983 a Science Museum was located in the venue which housed Turbinia, the first steam turbine-powered ship and the world’s fastest ship in its time (now located in the Discovery Museum in the city centre).  A military vehicle museum was then housed there from 1983 to 2006 and the building remained unused until the brewery took over this spring.

Exhibition Park has recently undergone a £3 million redevelopment funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This included; installation of a new children’s play area and outdoor gym equipment, a new skate park, restoration of the bandstand, resurfacing of the tennis courts and new lighting and fencing.

Anyone joining me for a brew? Cheers!

For further information visit wylambrewery.co.uk

@wylambrewery

Beer lovers might also enjoy this beer blog from our fellow England’s North East contributor, Paul White

Kynren is truly epic

DAVID SIMPSON attends the opening night of the much-lauded Kynren and is astounded by its truly epic scale

The Saturday evening sunlight softly illuminates the glorious Gothic splendour of Auckland Castle as it awaits the unfolding of a great event from its lofty vantage point amidst the neatly manicured trees of the ancient bishops’ park. Close by, the ornate spire of the Franco-Flemish town hall peers above the treeline adding another beautiful backdrop to the verdant setting of an almost fairytale landscape.

Auckland Castle : Photo, John Simpson
Auckland Castle chapel : Photo, John Simpson

Only the occasional chill of a July evening  breeze sweeping across thousands of knees and the stark outline of a 1970s office block high above the valley (far enough away not to intrude) keep you grounded with a sense of reality in the present time and place. Yet even the office block seems like some extravagant addition to this extraordinary setting in which an epic two-thousand year tale of England is to be told.

Welcome to Kynren – an epic tale of England.

We wait, not quite sure what to expect, comfortable in the back row of the tribune. It’s the grand name for an auditorium of some 8,000 people but this is after all a daringly grand event.  The wooden facade looms like some grand medieval citadel as you walk the winding yellow road to reach the setting, leaving your car behind, at the bottom of the hill  – in Toronto. It’s just the beginning of a wonderfully implausible adventure.

It’s nearly 9.30pm. The moment approaches and an announcement is made: there will be a delay of ten minutes. A rumble of polite laughter rolls across the crowd. They know that this is the very first night for the volunteer performers, drawn from across the local community, children and adults alike. The expectant crowd is prepared, perhaps, to forgive the occasional glitch. They need not worry for despite the delay we soon see that the show, the spectacle, whatever we may call it, is in very safe hands.

“What’s this thing called again?” my eleven-year-old daughter asks, in slightly half-hearted fashion before it begins. She was looking forward to a friend’s birthday the following morning so this “history thing” had received little interest up until now. “KYNREN” I say, spelling it out not once but twice as she texts friends to explain where she is with a rather puzzled look on her face.

Kynren is Anglo-Saxon for ‘generation’, kindred, family’ and this epic show is designed to tell the story of generations of England’s history over two millennia, with much local flavour thrown in to taste. It’s an extraordinary challenge if ever there was one but we would not be disappointed.

And so the dream commences and a dream it surely is. The Kynren concept had all begun with the visionary dream of a City of London investor and philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer, now the owner of Auckland castle, whose plan was to recreate the spectacular French outdoor shows of Puy du Fou, right here in the North East of England.

Ruffer, born in Stokesley in North Yorkshire, just a little outside Middlesbrough, hopes to bring regeneration and a new sense of pride to Bishop Auckland and the surrounding area and in this he will surely succeed.  ‘Bishop’ as it is affectionately known, is the focal point for much of what was once the coalfield of south west Durham and was a place much affected by the rise and fall of coal mining. It is also a place with much potential and like many  towns across the region, has seen something of a rebirth.

It is a town with quite obvious medieval roots just like its medieval neighbours at Durham and Barnard Castle and it lies in beautiful surroundings too with a history stretching back to Roman times. Sadly, it is too often overlooked by visitors who mistakenly believe it to be just another mining town as they head out towards Bishop’s historic neighbours. With millions of pounds invested, this is Bishop’s chance to shine.

In both the execution and storyline, Kynren is something of a dream in itself. Perhaps it is even a dream within a dream – a spectacular stream of multicoloured consciousness, where the amazing events of twenty centuries, both local and national, flow swiftly from one into another at a captivating chronological pace. Let’s be clear, though, this is no history lesson, it’s much more magical than that.

Surprisingly, the River Wear is the setting for much of the story and in often unexpected ways. It serves as the sea in several  scenes and when it comes to technical effects has a major starring role in the show. It’s a role that it comfortably fulfils along with the grand castle that overlooks its river banks. It’s not the real river, though, but a  magical man-made lake and it’s not the real castle either. Yet dreamily, the whole of the Kynren site is set within a broad loop of the real-life River Wear itself overlooked by the real-life castle. Don’t be confused and you won’t be. As I said, this is virtually a dream within a dream.

Kynren. Photo: John Simpson
Kynren: Photo, John Simpson

When the show finally kicks off, in football fashion, the audience is instantly captivated. I’m delighted to see my daughter immediately relates. She is enthralled. It’s a story told through the dream of a young Bishop Auckland boy, a miner’s son during the inter war years of the last century. Befriended by Hensley Henson, the Bishop of Durham, after accidentally breaking the window of the bishop’s lodge, the boy’s fascination for history is quickly kindled by the bishop’s passionate knowledge. The boy’s name is Arthur, the first hint that Kynren is to be as much a tale of legend, mystery and magic as it is a one of history.

As a historian and father to a girl who says she finds history disappointingly dull, I am rather relieved. There’s no need for me to constantly assess the accuracy of the facts – though most prove to be broadly true – and I don’t feel I have to inspire, or bore, with my insights or quiet narration as events unfold. This is a dream after all. It is theatre not a lecture. And yet the questions fall one by one: “who’s going to win this battle?” or more often “who are the bad guys? who are the good ones?” I explain, pragmatically that it’s usually the good ones that win or so history often tells us.

So how much should I reveal about this truly wonderful spectacle? Well, firstly you simply must go and see it for yourself and hope that it does not rain – though it would take much to dampen the spirit of Kynren. What I can say though is that you should expect the unexpected and also expect, with so much happening, to miss almost as much as you will see. In fact you may want to watch it all over again. There will be bangs and the flashes of fireworks too, so you’ve been warned.

Romans, Angles, Vikings, Normans, Tudors and a whole assortment of kings, queens and common people of many different eras will come and go in scene after scene as whole epochs flash past your very eyes.  Scores upon scores of colourful, costumed characters, children, armies, live goats, sheep, geese,  slaves, soldiers, peasants, knights, show-stealing horses, carriages, carts, ships and even a steam train will  appear and disappear from nowhere and into nowhere as you count down the years and move closer to the present.

Kynren: Photo John Simpson
Kynren: Photo, John Simpson

Distracted by colourful events in one corner of this splendid seven and a half acre stage, you may turn to see that you have missed the appearance of a whole building in another corner or perhaps a ship or an army. It is really quite something, like an epic Hollywood movie set, with a wonderful technicolor cast of some 1,000 souls.

You will see live battles, fabulous fireworks, water effects, magnificent creative lighting of a kind with which Durham is now so familiar and you will soon take for granted the magic of people walking on water – Dynamo style – or a whole ship emerging from the water complete with its Norman crew. “How did they do that?” you will wonder and you will surely ask yourself “am I really in Bishop Auckland?” Often you will utter to yourself “this is just plain mad”.

The amplified stories of the past are spoken by actors of all ages but this story as it is told is almost incidental to the whole visual effect and the accompanying, specially composed music. It is unashamedly and rousingly patriotic in places but never in a jingoistic way. It will leave you feeling good and is perhaps just the tonic if you wish to escape from the weary world of present day politics.

If you love the costume character magic of Beamish, or the lighting effects of Durham’s Lumiere, or the atmosphere of open air theatre and especially if you enjoyed the wonderful absurdity of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, then you are in for a very special treat here. It’s not just me that thought this though. The standing ovation that brought the show to a close is a great testament to the many months of planning and work that have gone into this magnificent event.

As we drove back home towards the midnight hour, my daughter confessed with brutal honesty that history was her most boring subject at school and apparently even the way I explain it is rather boring too. “This was amazing though”, she declared, “it made history so exciting and so real” she then continued listing her favourite parts of the show one by one by one in yet another stream of flowing dreamy consciousness. For such inspiration, Kynren,  I am eternally grateful.

 

This year there are a total of fourteen performances of Kynren – An epic tale of England on selected weekend days from July 2 to September 17. For booking and more details, contact the organisers, Eleven Arches at elevenarches.org