All the world's a stage

All the worlds a stage

The history of England comes alive in Bishop Auckland through a spectacular live action outdoor theatre show titled Kynren

By Stuart Forster

Published: Fri 6 Sep 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 6 Sep 2019, 2:00 AM

You wouldn't be alone if you struggle to identify Bishop Auckland's location on a map of northeast England. Kynren is one of the initiatives seeking to change that. Dubbed 'an epic tale of England', the live action outdoor theatre show is part of a long-term vision to turn County Durham into a tourist destination. Over the past three summers, audiences of up to 8,000 people have packed the Flatts Farm, on the periphery of Bishop Auckland, to watch each performance. The weekly shows take place on Saturday evenings as day darkens into dusk. When the show concludes, 90 minutes later, night has well and truly descended. The cast of 1,000 volunteer performers take a bow during a grand finale that sees the unfurling of a union jack, colourful lights criss-crossing the night sky and the banging and fizzing of fireworks.
Bishop Auckland, like many towns and villages in northeast England, has long been in the doldrums of post-industrial economic stagnancy. Ask around and you may well find that people still rue the loss of heavy industries a generation or so ago, claiming that the closure of coal mines and shipyards - and subsequent failure to replace them - ripped the heart and soul out of communities.
Jonathan Ruffer has been the catalyst for the change in Bishop Auckland. The philanthropist and art collector made his wealth via city investments and, along with Anne-Isabelle Daulon, he cofounded the charity Eleven Arches, which organises Kynren and stands behind The Auckland Project. Their vision, explained Ms Daulon, is "to create a visitor destination in Bishop Auckland and work from a blank canvas for this site, to develop it as a visitor attraction with a focus on families to complement the development of the castle."
Auckland Castle, which Mr Ruffer purchased and placed in trust for the people of the North East, was formerly a residence of the once powerful Prince Bishops of Durham and is undergoing restoration. The rear of the hillside castle can be seen from Kynren's tribune. Among its treasures are a series of 13 oil paintings, known as Jacob and his Twelve Sons which have hung in the castle's Long Dining Room since 1756. During Kynren, images of those paintings are projected onto a screen of water sprayed above the artificial lake that forms part of the set.  
The vision to redevelop Bishop Auckland includes plans to open a Spanish Gallery, at the town's marketplace, which will display artworks from the Spanish Golden Age. Bishop Trevor Gallery opened in the castle at the beginning of June and is hosting the exhibition The Origins of the British Landscape until 8 September. A Mining Art Gallery has also already opened in the town, exhibiting paintings by the likes of Norman Cornish and Ted Holloway. Those works bring to life aspects of life in northeast England's pit villages and work below ground.
That gallery stands across the street from eatery Stanley Jefferson. Laurel and Hardy fans may recognise that as the birth name of the comedian Stan Laurel, who rose to fame in black and white films alongside Oliver Hardy. A frame with photos on the establishment's wall explains that Stan's parents managed the town's theatre and he attended the local King James Grammar School.
If you arrive well ahead of a performance of Kynren, you could peer out over the town and surrounding countryside from the viewing platform at the top of the 29-metre high Auckland Tower. From the platform, you can see foliage within the deer park, established in the 12th century as a hunting ground for the prince bishops. An icehouse and a neo-Gothic shelter for the deer herd count among the sights of interest within the parkland.
While Kynren is a tale of England, it also celebrates episodes with local connections. The Romans are depicted marching northwards ahead of building Hadrian's Wall on the northern frontier of their empire. St Cuthbert, now buried in Durham Cathedral, was a celebrated monastic scholar and a scene shows monks moving his coffin from Lindisfarne to protect it from Viking raiders. Between medieval battle scenes, Bishop Anthony Bek establishes Auckland Castle.
The region's contribution to the Industrial Revolution features. The Age of Steam was, at least in part, powered by coal hewn from the seams of the Great Northern Coalfield. The show's biggest prop is a near full-size replica of Locomotion No 1, the George Stephenson-designed locomotive that pulled rolling stock between Stockton and Darlington in the 1820s. Impressively, it chugs from right to left across the length of the vast set, pulling characters wearing top hats as smoke tumbles from its funnel.
William the Conqueror is shown taking the nation's crown. Other highlights include a recreation of the jousting and festivities at the Field of the Cloth of Gold when King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France met in 1520. Queen Elizabeth I is rowed in a scene celebrating the writings of William Shakespeare and the cultural heritage of the Elizabethan Age.
The spectacle's name is based on a Saxon word meaning family or generation. It is inspired by La Cinéscénie, a show performed at Puy du Fou. "The show in France has been going on for over 40 years and has really changed the fortunes of the area. What we had was tangible proof that, by involving the community behind a project as big as this, in terms of scale, we had the ability to be a force of change. We could produce something quite extraordinary, so we liked that idea. We explored it and it came to fruition," explained Ms Daulon ahead of Kynren's 2019 season.
"We've had enormous support from the community, both in Bishop Auckland itself and within the wider community. We have almost 1,000 volunteers that are all professionally trained, and very high retention rate with those volunteers, who come back year after year," added Jacqui Rutherford, the Chief Operating Officer of Eleven Arches.
A recreation of a palisaded Viking village has been added for the 2019 season of Kynren, which runs until 14 September. Prior to taking a seat, you can amble through the village to see blacksmiths hammering at a forge, women fishing in the pond and people in character clothing tending livestock. Vikings form the principal theme and their arrival onto British shores is dramatically depicted when a longship rises from the lake, unfurling its red and white sail as axe-wielding warriors spill onto land to form a shield wall.
If you're planning on making a long weekend of it, you could splurge on a meal at The Raby Hunt, 20 minutes' drive away, where chef James Close has been distinguished with two Michelin stars. Redworth Hall Hotel, on a country estate, and The Town House, a boutique property in Durham City, are two options for chic accommodation. Alternatively, you could take your pick from hotels in Newcastle, an hour's drive north of Bishop Auckland.
It's the sheer grandness of Kynren's spectacle that leaves a lasting impression. Rated by TripAdvisor among the United Kingdom's top performances, Kynren is set to draw up 88,000 spectators to Bishop Auckland over the course of its season.

For more info:
Show timings and tickets are available via the Kynren ( website.
The Auckland Project ( has information on attractions in Bishop Auckland.

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