A £100m plan to create a historical leisure park in County Durham will be unveiled today.
The park, set in the shadow of Auckland Castle, aims to eventually attract 800,000 visitors a year, providing an enormous boost for the local economy.
The centre piece will be a visually stunning £20m night show, which will re-create about 2,000 years of North-East history in the style of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London. It is hoped the first shows, with a cast of 600 and watched by a nightly audience of 6,000, will be held in spring 2016.
The setting is the former Eleven Arches golf course, a 115-acre site in a loop of the River Wear on the northern edge of Bishop Auckland.
The extraordinary plan is the brainchild of Jonathan Ruffer, the multi-millionaire City financier-turned-philanthropist who saved Auckland Castle in 2012 when the Church Commissioners were secretly planning to sell it. The castle, which for 900 years was the home of the Bishop of Durham, is being transformed into a £50m world class tourist destination.
For the leisure park, Mr Ruffer is drawing inspiration from Puy du Fou in France, which is the second most visited tourist attraction in its country after Euro Disney. It stages a spectacular nightly historical production and was voted the best theme park in the world in 2012.
Dr Robert McManners, chairman of Bishop Auckland Civic Society, said: "This is a wonderful, unique opportunity for the whole community to come together in a shared vision to enable our town to prosper.
"It is a huge and exciting project."
Last September, Chris Lloyd joined Jonathan Ruffer on a visit to Puy du Fou to see if it could be transplanted to County Durham.
I WAS scoffing all the way to France: volunteers put on an open air historical pageant in the middle of the countryside. It was bound to be, as we say in English, tosh, and, as we were not allowed to say in French, merde.
But I was wrong.
On a balmy September night, with a genuine ruined chateau and a manmade lake in front of me, I was blown away.
I was staggered.
In the course of a couple of hours, La Cinscnie, the worlds biggest night-time show, used 1,200 actors and 120 riders who got through 24,000 costumes and 1,000 fireworks as they romped across a stage 400 metres wide and 1,000 metres deep, and through 2,000 years of French history, using horses, geese, sprinting pigs and stunning effects.
Horses cantered on water. A man exploded in flames. A horse was shot dead as it galloped, collapsing in mid-stride and holding its death pose on the ground.
A peasant exited stage left pursued at full pelt by flock of sheep.
At one moment, the chateau was an opulent mansion, the next it was on fire as the Revolution took hold, and the next it was under fire as sirens screamed and wartime bombs exploded all around.
I was at a loss to describe it.
In my notes in the darkness, I wrote: "It is Durhams Lumiere on the scale of the Eiffel Tower meets the Olympics opening ceremony meets the surreal world of the Teletubbies meets Its A Knockout meets Horse of the Year Show meets Ben Hur. Its Hans Christian Andersen meets Thomas Hardy set in a boulangerie theres a giant muffin the size of a small house on the stage!"
With the entrance of the supersize cake, on a cart pulled by a handful of horses with icing made of people, I put my pen away. Words were inadequate and so I just let myself enjoy the spectacle, as ten million others have done since Puy du Fou opened in 1978.
Just as impressive as the stage show was the back-stage, where the hundreds of volunteers prepare for their starring moments. More than 1,000 are required each night, and about 3,500 are required for a full season.
Back stage was a vibrant village community. Whole families were immersed in the show. They dedicate their lives to making it happen, and their young people learn all kinds of new skills while having fun. In Britain, David Cameron's big society has been derided, but in La Vende, volunteers have created something special.
The second day of our visit was dreadful. We were drenched. But the show went on.
There are a further five performance areas on the site, where 30-minute long shows are acted out every hour or two during the day. Each looks at an aspect of French history, like the Viking invasion, the Hundred Years War and Cardinal Richelieus musketeers. The most memorable was the Gauls versus the Romans, which featured real lions.
In Bishop Auckland, this day park will be in phase two of the development to encourage people to stay longer in the town.
First, phase one, the night show, will have to overcome the planning hurdles. If it does, it could be sensational, the best thing to have happened to Bishop Auckland since Bishop Eadmund put the first manor house on the hill overlooking the Wear. It really is not to be scoffed at.
AS dusk falls in Bishop Auckland, a spectacular historical night show unfolds before the eyes of an excited 6,000 strong crowd.
With the majestic chapel of Auckland Castle as its backdrop, the story of centuries of North-East history is told by a cast of hundreds using dramatic special effects, including water fountains, pyrotechnics, music and projections.
There could be Roman gladiators on Hadrians wall, Viking invaders pursuing St Cuthberts monks, the birth of the railways and Hartlepools First World War bombardment all brought to life in an 80 minute long show, repeated 30 times a year, starting in spring 2016.
But the £20m nightshow, a not-for-profit venture, on the Eleven Arches site is only the start of the 100m leisure park plan to be unveiled today.
Phase two of the plan is due to begin in 2018, with the construction of a day park on the former Eleven Arches golf course, which is named after the commanding Newton Cap viaduct which strides across the wide valley of the Wear.
The day park will consist of themed mini-shows celebrating different aspects of the history of the region and the country as a whole. It will encourage visitors up to 800,000 a year to spend a day or more immersed in Bishop Auckland, and in contributing to the local economy.
When the day park opens in 2020, it is hoped that the two phases of the development will have created more than 100 full-time jobs, with another 200 being created in the wider economy.
An Eleven Arches Academy is also to be created. The night show requires about 600 volunteers to act it out, and the academy will annually train 300 aged between eight and 25 in everything that the show needs: sword fighting, horsemanship, falconry, sound, lighting, pyrotechnics, animal care The park is to be developed by the Eleven Arches Trust, which is separate from the trust which runs Auckland Castle.
Discussions have already begun with local schools and colleges regarding the academy, although a planning application for the park has yet to be submitted to Durham County Council. However, part of the idea of todays launch is to get feedback to assist with the application which, the Eleven Arches Trust says, will be sensitive to the possible impact on those living close by and will minimise any potential difficulties. Transport and noise are going to be the most obvious questions.
The development follows a template mapped out by Puy du Fou, near Nantes in France. It was established in 1978 with a ruined chateau as its backdrop. It attracts 1.7m visitors a year, employs 1,300 people and is credited with creating more than 3,000 jobs in the Vende region.
The park fits the vision of Stokesley-born financier Jonathan Ruffer who has already invested 35m in Auckland Castle. He sees his investment as not only saving a crucial part of the history of Christianity, but also as an opportunity to improve ordinary peoples lives through economic regeneration.
Dr Robert McManners, chairman of Bishop Auckland Civic Society and a trustee at the castle, said: "For a long time, the need for something-to-be-done to revitalise Bishop Auckland has been frequently voiced.
"Not only will this bring a wonderful visual experience for the visitor, but it also has the potential of creating many truly new jobs. It has the power of establishing a social cohesion across the age groups and of encouraging a vast range of new skills."
Mr Ruffer said: "On the back of all the encouragement weve received from the community in Bishop Auckland and beyond, we are very positive the Eleven Arches concept will work.
"We have a template with a proven track record. Puy du Fou is the best of the best and they are helping us with the project.
If we can couple a beautiful night show with a successful day park, then we will have a winning formula in County Durham. It is a marriage made in heaven.
It is the first time that Puy du Fou, the most visited attraction in France after Euro Disney, has allowed its model to be copied abroad."
Anne-Isabelle Daulon, who is leading the Eleven Arches project, said: "A visit to the Puy de Fou Grand Parc offers an awe-inspiring set of historical shows in the middle of unspoilt countryside.
"Its night show is a breathtaking and moving spectacle, as well as an inspiring human adventure, orchestrated by the community of volunteers behind it.
"It is this spirit we want to recreate in the Eleven Arches Night Show."