IT is 10.45pm on Saturday night. The clouds have cleared after a week of grey drizzle and a full moon hangs like silver orb over Auckland Castle. Beneath it, despite the chill, members of a small crowd sit on a banked seating area in front of a manmade lake. They are entranced.
In front of them, bathed in bright lights on a vast open air stage, men saw, hammer, scythe and shave, while women wash, sow, sew, spin and milk as a spread-eagled pig is roasted on a cart.
The washerwomen are up to their ankles in the lake; the carpenters are on the steps of a mock castle, and the barbershop trio doing the shaving is in the spotlight – quite why is difficult to explain, but then your attention is stolen by three cute-as-anything pigmy goats trotting from one side of the stage to the other, followed by four sheep on leads with four quick-moving geese bringing up the rear.
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A gaggle of thoughts spins through the head. Kynren is like the opening ceremony of the London Olympics meeting Durham City’s Lumiere mixed with Time Team at the Horse of the Year Show which has somehow got entangled in the Last Night of the Proms with all the detail of a Pieter Bruegel painting and the surreal air, and grassy knolls, of the Teletubbies thrown in for good measure.
It is preposterous on so many levels. How can they possibly find 1,000 volunteers to enact the show? How can they possibly cram 2,000 years of history into 75 minutes? How can they possibly expect people to sit outside until 11 o’clock at night in Bishop Auckland?
But they have, and they do, and I’m glad I took my warmest winter coat for this mid June dress rehearsal.
The volunteers gallop through the centuries, charging into battle on flying steeds, and sword-fighting their way through a multitude of enemies, carried on their way by wave after wave of special effects: the Lindisfarne Gospels are beautifully projected onto a spray of water, producing a genuine “wow” from the audience; William the Conqueror rises out of the lake on a longboat; a model of Auckland Castle magically appears from one of the Teletubbies’ hillocks and then acts as a Lumiere-style backdrop.
Oh, and a whole building stage left spins round to reveal a new elevation.
The story is held together by a boy, Arthur. At the beginning, wearing the “two blues” strip of Bishop Auckland, he kicks his football through a window belonging to the Bishop of Durham who, as a diversionary punishment, takes him on a guided tour through time.
At the beginning, while daylight remains, it is possible to see the natural drama of the setting. High on the ridge above the River Wear, the silhouette of Auckland Castle is centre stage, but the gentle, chateau-like roofline of the town hall is also impressive above the trees and is a contrast to the stark 1970s squareness of the Vinovium House office block.
But as darkness draws in, the drama of Kynren takes over. The stage is lit by gorgeous washes of coloured lights and often, like a Bruegel painting, it is packed with people performing vignettes.
Perhaps it is a bit disjointed, and probably Simon Schama would question some of the historical accuracy, but this is a broad brush on a wide canvas so details – like the shape of Locomotion No 1’s chimney – are not that important.
And it is true that the effects are not as stunningly explosive as the French theme park, the Puy du Fou which attracts 2.5 million visitors a year, on which it is based.
But it ends with a truly memorable and epic firework finale, as the hundreds of volunteers of all ages – so many little ones – gather beneath a spangled night sky which explodes into thousands of shimmering colours.
It is a glorious rush of genres and a never-ending riot of history. It is unashamedly patriotic and ends with a feel-good flag wave and a crescendo of Land of Hope and Glory.
One of its biggest thrills is that it really is North-East history. You might expect the story of England to be London-centric, but here the Wear is far more important than the backwater Thames.
Here, St Cuthbert’s body is walked across the water; here, the Stockton & Darlington Railway is the start of the Industrial Revolution; here the good times are at the Durham Miners’ Gala and the bad times are when a coalmine – brilliantly hewn out of the lake – is blown apart by a seat-shaking explosion.
And, most extraordinary of all, this visitor attraction is here in Bishop Auckland, carved out of a derelict golf course in a town desperate to find a future for itself.
As a reminder, when the firework smoke had cleared and the volunteers had left the stage, the full moon still shone bright above the battlements of the 350-year-old St Peter’s Chapel – Europe’s largest private chapel – in Auckland Castle. Who would ever have imagined that it were possible?
It is a preposterous concept but it has now been magnificently brought to life. Wrap up warm, pray it doesn’t rain, and be prepared to marvel at the volunteers, the horsemanship, the effects, the stories, the pigmy goats and the fact that it exists at all.