Durham, the land of the Prince Bishops, miners and students, is making headlines on the artistic front this summer. It is now home of Kynren, an ambitious – and dramatic – nighttime show which celebrates the north-east of England’s role in history. It is also conceived to be an economic driver for an area still struggling to find a way beyond the legacy of its traditional heavy industry.
Kynren is nothing short of a spectacle: 8,000 people gather in the countryside to watch a colourful and energetic representation of English history. The pageant put on by Eleven Arches in the shadow of Auckland Castle, involves 600 actors, horses, sheep and even geese, as well as countless Olympics-style hosts to welcome you. It is drama on a large scale: the sweep of the centuries, the vivid storytelling and the breathtaking special effects make it a memorable experience. The energy comes from the slick choreography, a rich uplifting soundtrack by Nathan Stornetta, the performers and not least the specially created magic box of a set.
Kynren tells the story of Arthur, a miner’s son who dreams of becoming a professional footballer and accidentally kicks his ball through a window at Auckland Castle in the years before the Second World War. He encounters Bishop Hensley Henson, who urges him to think beyond football and offers to take him on a journey through British history, to open his eyes to the greatness of his land. As the centuries pass, the set’s wizardry reveals longboats, castles, St Cuthbert, Shakespearean characters, even the industrial revolution, as well as the inevitable procession of battles.
It makes for 90 minutes of rousing entertainment, unlike anything else on offer in the UK. However enjoyable an evening it is – and it is gaining great reviews – Kynren is more than the show. Designed to re-energise the north-east of England, the whole Eleven Arches project is something really special. It is part of the vision of flamboyant stockbroker and fund manager Jonathan Ruffer, 64.
He bought Auckland Castle and the Zurbaráns (a set of religious paintings by Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán held there since the 18th century) for somewhere in the region of £25 million in 2012. He promptly announced plans for a national tourist attraction which would boost the fortunes of the area. Out of this came the charity Eleven Arches (named after the 11-arched Victorian viaduct which connects Bishop Auckland and the show site) and now, after an investment totalling £35m, Kynren.
Kynren takes its inspiration from Puy du Fou in the Vendée, western France. Launched in 1978, Puy du Fou’s Cinéscénie is also a vivid night show which has now been seen by over 11 million people. Puy du Fou itself has grown into a historical theme park which is one of France’s most popular visitor attractions. Set in rural forests, there are historic villages to explore, themed hotels and several shows a day to watch… but no theme park rides. Nicolas de Villiers, the son of Puy du Fou’s founder, is the artistic director of Kynren and this is the first time Puy du Fou’s volunteer-led model has been taken outside France.
Profits from Kynren will be reinvested to keep it at its best, drawing more tourists to the region each year. Profits will also fund the Eleven Arches’ charitable objectives of creating long-lasting social and economic regeneration. Eleven Arches is focused on community development: the volunteer cast and crew have learnt new skills from world-class professionals – from performing to horse riding and animal husbandry to customer care – and will take away vast experience from being involved.
Driven by his Anglican faith and desire to help his adopted hometown, Ruffer now splits his time between his investment company in the City and his social enterprises in Bishop Auckland. “Half the time I’m making the money and half the time spending it,” as he eloquently put it.
Kynren is a very good reason to visit the county of Durham and while you are there, there is plenty more to do, with the city of Durham the obvious place to stay. The city includes a world heritage site and is full of charm and history. The castle and cathedral are the epicentre for the tourist and the historic hilltop is a strong magnet.
A very good reason to visit – or revisit Durham – is Open Treasure. Launched last month, this is an inspiring exhibition of the artefacts of the cathedral housed in a stunning space created out of the ancient buildings around the cloister. Starting beneath the oak beams of the monks’ dormitory, the history of the cathedral is dramatically – and engagingly – revealed, cunningly employing modern technology to explain and illustrate.
The star of the space is the 14th-century octagonal great kitchen, where ultimately the Treasures of St Cuthbert – his coffin, pectoral cross, portable altar and comb – will be on display. These precious relics will fill the state-of-the-art cabinets once everyone is happy the environment will do them no harm.
Open Treasure adds so much to visiting what is already one of the most impressive of England’s cathedrals. Catch the city in term time and you will queue with students for favourite cafés like Flat White and spot lads in dickie bows and lasses in bare feet on the way to parties. In fact, ladies, take a note out of the students’ book and don’t pack your stilettos as there are lots of cobbles and steep gradients.
The antidote to the bustle of the city centre is to be found along the banks of the River Wear at Crook Hall. Here delightful gardens around the family home of Keith and Maggie Bell offer a tranquil interlude.
Even better, they serve sparkling afternoon teas which – if the weather is kind – can be enjoyed out on the lawn, with a view of the cathedral on the skyline.
• Kynren takes place at on a purpose-built set at Bishop Auckland. Tickets cost from £25 to £55 for adults and £19 to £41 for children. The remaining Kynren shows this year are tonight, 3 September, 10 September, 16 September and 17 September. A dedicated transfer service operated by Nirvana Europe is available from many towns in the region; from Durham it costs £9.95. For details visit www.elevenarches.org
• Open Treasure at Durham Cathedral is open daily 10am-5pm, except Sundays (12.30pm-5pm). Entry costs £7.50 for adults (concessions available). (www.durhamcathedral.co.uk)
• Crook Hall, Frankland Lane, Sidegate, Durham (www.crookhallgardens.co.uk). Sparkling afternoon tea costs £22 per person and includes entry to gardens which is £7.