HOLLYWOOD actor Damian Lewis has been researching an upcoming role in a film about one of County Durham's most famous women with a low-key visit to the region.

The Homeland star is to play opposite Nicole Kidman as the lover of Gertrude Bell in director Werner Herzog's Queen Of The Desert, due for release next year.

Bell, who was born into a family of wealthy industrialists in Washington New Hall in what was then County Durham, in 1868, was an intrepid traveller, writer, diplomat and spy in the Middle East in the early 20th century. She shaped the politics of the Middle East and drew up the borders of modern Iraq.

The actor visited Newcastle University's Robinson Library to view the Gertrude Bell Archive - a collection of her personal papers, photos and diaries.

Included are letters to and from his character, Major Charles Doughty-Wylie, a married man who had an unconsummated affair with Bell.

News of Monday's visit emerged today (Thursday, January 16) when the university posted a photo on its Twitter feed of Lewis posing with university archivist Geraldine Hunwick.

Heart-throb Robert Pattinson will also appear in the film as Lawrence of Arabia.

Staff at the library said Lewis was "extremely nice" and offered to pose for pictures during the flying visit.

University librarian Wayne Connolly said: "The character he plays in the new film was considered the love of Gertrude Bell's life.

"Charles Doughty Wylie was married and they had an unconsummated affair, but it's believed he is the reason Gertrude Bell never wed.

"Damian was extremely interested in our archive as it contains correspondence between them and was able to give him a unique perspective on their relationship.

"Now, we are looking forward to next year when the film is released and we can see the characters from one of our most important archives brought to life."

Bell was one of the first women to study at Oxford, she was among their most brilliant students.

She spoke seven languages, including Persian and Arabic, and was an archaeologist – founding Baghdad’s museum – and becoming trusted by tribal leaders.

In between her world travels she returned home regularly to Rounton Grange, near Northallerton, often bringing plants back, incuding a cedar tree from the Middle East.

She died in 1926.