Driving towards Bishop Auckland for the second time in little over a week, I passed – for the second time, naturally – an empty and down-at-heel hotel with a ‘for sale’ sign slapped on it.
For the second time a thought occurred to me, that anyone with a few bob to spare and the tiniest drop of entrepreneurial spirit should snap it up and then do it up.
Bishop Auckland seems to be going places and, for a hotelier, it could be a profitable ride.
My first visit was to attend a Press launch by Eleven Arches – that’s a new charitable concern named after the town’s spectacular Victorian viaduct – of an extraordinary outdoor event which they are calling a ‘night spectacular’.
Based on a hugely successful community enterprise in France, it is to be a dramatic enactment of North East history on a seven-and-a-half-acre site below the walls of Auckland Castle.
Up to 30 of these night shows will be presented annually, starting in June next year. One thousand local volunteers were being sought to dress up, engage in combat and bring history to life in the most ambitious and action-packed style.
Despite the talk and the videos and the presence of well-behaved local schoolchildren who had already signed up to the project, it was a little difficult to take in on a sleepy summer morning – even with Eleven Arches describing it as a £27m scheme. For any regeneration project, that is serious money.
A colleague, Michael Brown, had visited the French template of the show, Puy du Fou, which started as a community enterprise 37 years ago and is now a massive theme park attraction, its 90-minute performances attracting nearly two million summer visitors a year.
In bringing the colourful history of the Vendée region to life, the French volunteers seemingly don’t skimp. Michael enthused about massive set-piece performances against impressive sets – and, in one scene, not one or two birds of prey but a flock of them.
Puy du Fou hasn’t caught on anywhere else, it seems. According to Anne-Isabelle Daulon, chief executive of Eleven Arches, Bishop Auckland is the first to give it a go.
Because Anne-Isabelle is French, I had taken her for a representative of the Puy du Fou management, out to franchise the brand.
Wrong completely. Her background, she said, was in banking. Having worked in London for over 13 years, she had been introduced by a former colleague to Jonathan Ruffer, the North Yorkshire-born investment whizz who rode to the rescue when a valuable set of paintings at Auckland Castle was on the market, securing both them and it.
He established Auckland Castle Trust (ACT) in 2012 to be a catalyst for change in an area which has suffered many an economic knock. As well as being chairman of investment company Ruffer LLP and Auckland Castle Trust, he is also the founding trustee of Eleven Arches.
Anne-Isabelle, whose CV and personality have positivity written through them like a stick of rock, joined the ACT in 2012 and is now the woman charged with ensuring Bishop Auckland benefits from the Puy du Fou effect.
And if that seemed unlikely at the launch, it seemed much less so a few days later when hundreds of locals volunteered for tuition in skills such as sword fighting and horse riding. No fewer than 56 horses are to be acquired to give the turf of the designated performance area a good pounding.
Daulon, despite being French, said she hadn’t known much about the Puy du Fou but had taken her husband and three young sons.
“We were blown away by it, by the beauty of the place but also by the show. We had never seen anything like it before and were surprised to see how many family groups were in the audience.
“It started in 1978 when volunteers got together to tell the history of the Vendée in a way that it had never been told before. In our history books the history of the Vendée is that they were the bad guys because they rebelled against the revolutionary army.”
A local history teacher had wanted to provide some context, righting a few wrongs, and the Vendée, through Puy du Fou, was able to tell its own story in dramatic fashion.
In the Bishop Auckland equivalent, the story told will go right back to the Romans and proceed through the years of the Prince Bishops and the Industrial Revolution up until the Second World War.
It will incorporate the local Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 and other historical landmarks. But how horrible will this history be? What of beheadings and burnings at the stake? What of the manacles used to restrain and torture Catholics (currently on show in the Magna Carta exhibition at Durham University’s Palace Green Library)?
Anne-Isabelle smiled. “It will be a family show but hopefully people will be able to put the pieces together and get a good picture of local history,” she said.
Would it enable someone to get through a GCSE history exam. Another smile. “Probably not.”
But she asked people to cast their minds back to the inspiring London Olympics opening ceremony which whisked through British history with all its achievements and eccentricities.
It might be something like that. In fact, Steve Boyd, in charge of all the Eleven Arches volunteers, worked on London 2012 and recently did ‘taster’ sessions with four Bishop Auckland schools, coaching them in the key areas of combat, pyrotechnics, horses and choreography.
The volunteers, he said, would be Eleven Arches’ greatest asset. London 2012 and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow had demonstrated how volunteers from all walks of life could pool their talents to “achieve things that transcend expectation”.
I was back at Auckland Castle shortly afterwards to learn about a very different attraction.
In St Peter’s Chapel is an art installation by Bill Viola, the American video artist who first made a splash in the North East in 1996 when his The Messenger was displayed in Durham Cathedral. The work, seldom seen since, depicts a naked male diver whose slow motion ascent from watery depths stirs deep emotional and even religious feelings.
This latest is his Martyrs series – four films entitled Earth Martyr, Air Martyr, Fire Martyr and Water Martyr. Another edition of it is displayed slightly differently in St Paul’s Cathedral. Here, in a chapel named after the martyred St Peter, the films, while discomfiting, are an appropriate and thought-provoking 21st Century addition.
Dr Chris Ferguson, curatorial director at Auckland Castle, showed us this work before ushering us through the great hall where all past Bishops of Durham gaze down from gilt frames, some more benignly than others.
Our destination was the room built to display the series Jacob and his Twelve Sons, by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán.
The paintings were bought by Bishop Richard Trevor and hung here to make the case that Christians should treat the much persecuted Jews with tolerance and respect.
The Viola piece (on show here until October 26) and the long-resident Zurbaráns help to pave the way to Auckland Castle becoming the place to learn about the history of faith in the British Isles.
A major gallery extension is planned – and has been backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund – as part of a £17m development programme.
The Puy du Fou-inspired spectacular and the development of Auckland Castle to complement religious sites such as Durham Cathedral, Lindisfarne and the twin monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow augurs well for the future of Bishop Auckland, as Jonathan Ruffer and his team intend.
Then there’s the wealth of Spanish art in the region, notably that held in safekeeping at Auckland Castle and the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle. Jonathan Ruffer has close links with Spain’s renowned Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid.
“I think people don’t realise the wealth of Spanish art that we have in County Durham,” said Dr Ferguson. “It’s a really significant collection.”
If the county has been hiding its light under a bushel, that seems set to end. Bishop Auckland, which also has Binchester Roman Fort and an imposing market place, is a star on the rise.
That little hotel, scruffy now, really could be a canny investment.
Find details of Auckland Castle attractions and opening times on www.aucklandcastle.org