A movement that puts people at the forefront of promoting County Durham is gathering momentum. PETER BARRON continues a monthly series on the Powered by People initiative by shining the spotlight on Ali Tweddle, head of learning and community engagement for The Auckland Project

IT WAS while she was working in Iringa, a small town in central Tanzania, that Ali Tweddle fell in love with the idea of using heritage to help bind communities together and improve lives.

Ali, born nearly 7,000 miles away in Bishop Auckland, had travelled to Africa to spend a year carrying out development work and noticed how tourists were bypassing Iringa en route to Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti.

If members of the local community were to make a decent living from tourism, they had to encourage visitors to spend time in Iringa so they could be taken on guided tours and spend money at the town’s market.

The answer was to invest time in promoting the area’s heritage and showing communities how they could work together to best promote their town and tourism opportunities.

“It opened my eyes to how heritage could be relevant to people in the present day and help them to open up opportunities for themselves,” says 29-yearold Ali, whose mother was an English teacher and father was a coroner.

Ali returned home to County Durham inspired by what she had seen and embarked on a master’s degree in International Culture Heritage Management at Durham University. That led to a three-month placement with The Auckland Project, a regeneration charity with an aim to develop a visitor attraction in Bishop Auckland.

Building on more than 1,000 years of history, The Auckland Project centres on the historic Auckland Castle, once the seat of England’s powerful Prince Bishops and home to a collection of paintings by Spanish master, Francisco de Zurbarán.

The castle, along with the paintings, were purchased by The Auckland Project’s founder, Jonathan Ruffer, in 2012 with the aim of making them accessible to the local community and visitors, who would in turn contribute to the town’s revival.

During Ali’s work placement The Auckland Project made a successful bid to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and used part of the money it received to employ a community outreach officer. Drawing on her enriching experience in Tanzania, Ali applied for the role and was successful in landing it.

Starting in September 2015, Ali’s first challenge was to connect local people to Auckland Castle – but it wasn’t easy. “There were barriers between the town and Auckland Castle, it wasn’t part of people’s lives, there was disconnect,” she says.

The way forward was “good old-fashioned community outreach work” with Ali dedicating herself to forging relationships with a wide range of community groups.

Harnessing the strengths of the local community, The Auckland Project is growing into a multi-faceted visitor destination which encompasses art, history, nature, faith and food. It is being delivered across seven sites in and around the castle grounds.

The Mining Art Gallery, No.42 shop and gallery space, deer park and Auckland Tower visitor centre are already open to the public, and Auckland Castle is due to re-open on November 2 after a three-year refurbishment. Future sites including a faith museum, Spanish gallery and walled garden, will open over the coming years.

“It’s a regeneration project, but what’s really important to emphasise is that social regeneration is just as important as economic regeneration,” Ali says. “Bishop Auckland might be a thriving visitor destination in ten years’ time but if we have no connection to our local community, we’ll have failed.”

As she speaks, Ali’s passion shines through in the way she unknowingly and repeatedly thumps the arm of a chair at Bishop Auckland Baptist Church where we’ve arranged to meet.

The church, identified as an ideal location for a ‘community capacity building’, is just one example of a long list of grass roots organisations Ali and her team has engaged in The Auckland Project.

A dementia-friendly heritage group that had outgrown its previous base at the Mining Art Gallery now meets at the church and has developed into a wider community hub to which residents are bussed in from local care homes.

Marion Hodgson, hard-working secretary and cook at the Baptist Church, is seeing the impact the outreach work is having: “It takes time, but Bishop Auckland is starting to change because people are working together and realising what the town has to offer,” she says.

Meanwhile, in the fresh October air outside, members of Cultivate4Life – a charitable group rooted in the allotments down the road in Woodhouse Close – are using their gardening expertise to transform the church gardens.

“There’s a lot of emphasis on strengthening community facilities that already exist and building networks between active groups,” says Ali, who was promoted to head of learning and community engagement this summer.

“I don’t believe in formal consultation because it can be cold. I prefer having a ‘community conversation’ where we invest time in people, build trust and get real answers from the coalface when we ask what local people need. That conversation is also taking place in schools and it has to be the foundation of everything we do.”

The Auckland Project currently has ten active apprentices on its books and has employed 38 people since it began, often leading to full-time careers with the initiative or elsewhere.

“I want to reach the people who were me,” adds Ali. “I had no idea when I was at school that the castle was there and would help shape my future career. It’s about showing young people there are opportunities for them here.

“Bishop Auckland is transforming itself. Its people have weathered a lot. Others would have crumbled, but we are seeing the most ferocious community spirit and energy coming through. That’s why it’s so heartening to see people being placed at the forefront of the Powered by People initiative to promote County Durham as a great place to live, work and visit.”

Whether it’s in the traditional Masai market of Iringa in far-off Tanzania, or the gardens of Bishop Auckland Baptist Church, communities are reaping the rewards of Ali Tweddle’s passion for cultivating the grass roots.

  • If you would like to be part of the Powered by People movement, please email PoweredByPeople@durham. gov.uk to find out more.