County Durham community leaders visit France to learn about community revival

The group, part of Bishop Auckland's Eleven Arches project, visited the Vendee region to learn from the inspiration for the £100m vision

Puy du Fou
Puy du Fou

When was the last time you spoke to your next door neighbours? How about the people down the street? Could you even name them?

Year on year the percentage of people who talk to those living nearby at least once a month is falling, with the North East now third worst behind London and the East for nattering to their neighbours.

At the same time, the levels of people who feel they have a cohesive community is the worst of any region in England, the Government’s most recent Community Life Survey reveals.

The percentage of people volunteering has increased in the North East by 5% since 2010 - but we still have the lowest level of volunteers, with just over three in five people giving up their time for free.

While across the country nearly four in ten people admit to feeling lonely in their local area at least some of the time.

All of which makes the plans for a former golf course next to Auckland Castle the more remarkable.

Launched in April, philanthropist and hedge fund manager Jonathan Ruffer’s £100m vision, the Eleven Arches project, aims to draw millions of visitors to the region and create at least 300 jobs through a spectacular night show - to be first performed in May 2016 - and over the following eight years, the creation of a historic “theme park” on the 115 acre site.

But before the celebration of the county’s heritage as the land of the Prince Bishops can take place more than 600 volunteers will need to be enlisted for the grand performance - not a small feat in a declining market town.

“I think it is going to be a long and hard road ahead to tick all of the boxes and put everything in place, but once the community and the town and the villages are involved and aware then I think more and more people will be interested in this idea, which can put Bishop Auckland on the map,” said Bishop Auckland deputy mayor Lee Brownson, 36, who was among a group of 12 disciples from South Durham taken to visit the project’s inspiration, the Puy du Fou park in western France’s Vendee region.

Puy du Fou

“It’s an out of this world project that will help Bishop Auckland flourish and hopefully be the next step in the revival of the town. I’m proud and privileged to be part of that.”

“There are many small arts organisations in the area, working with young people and the community and giving opportunities in small ways, but this is going to be something on a scale that we’ve never seen before,” said Jane Crawford, 45, an actress and artist who runs community organisation Daisy Arts.

“People need to be taken on a journey – and I think they will be receptive to change and will want to see their area improve.”

Puy du Fou was founded 37 years ago by entrepreneur, politician and member of the French aristocracy Philip de Villiers.

Initially just a night show - The Cinescenie - the business has grown to boast 3,400 volunteers, and hundreds of paid staff, with 1,200 actors and dancers at any one time, in 24,000 costumes, performing a one hour 40 minute show, across a 23 acre stage, 30 times a year, to 14,000 spectators.

A “day park” next door has also been developed, with up to 24,000 visitors a day watching chariot racing in a recreated Roman Colosseum, the Viking invasion, medieval jousting, an amazing, 170-bird falconry show and a dazzling light and music show - as well as performances inspired by the legend of King Arthur - and visiting local craftsmen in 18th and 19th century “villages.”

The park makes a profit, and the money is ploughed back into the surrounding area.

“You don’t know what to expect because of what you think of when you think theme park, but when we got there it was so much more than I’d imagined,” said Gemma Egan, 32, a learning area lead for art, music and performing arts at Bishop Auckland College.

“It’s not a theme park because that makes you think of Alton Towers – but there’s no rides - it’s more a themed park.”

The group, who along with Eleven Arches chief executive Anne-Isabelle Daulon, project chairman Peter Watherston and The Journal spent two days in the Vendee, now have the unenviable task of returning to the region and trying to explain to others what they have seen, attempting to bring various disparate groups together to put on their own night show in just 19 months time.

Puy du Fou - falconry show
Puy du Fou - falconry show

“Puy du Fou involves people and the community in their own history and it’s in an area that in many ways is very similar to County Durham, and in particular our part of it,” said Peter, a former merchant banker and priest who moved from London to Bishop Auckland with his wife Hannah when Jonathan Ruffer asked for his help with the project.

“The Vendee saw some decline and yet it has regenerated itself and put itself on the map, with the park bringing a sense of belonging and ownership to the area and a desire to share with others their magnificent skills.

“And the Puyfolais (the park’s volunteers) have become part of a larger family to put it on. In County Durham too people who may have never much talked before will hopefully become part of a community like that.

“We know it’s very ambitious but I think it’s possible, as we’ve Puy du Fou working on the script and great community involvement and engagement is now starting and moving forward quite rapidly.

“But it is up to people in Bishop Auckland and the surrounding area – which is why we’re so pleased that we’ve had this group.

“They are the ones who are really going to make it happen because they have the skills and the ability to engage with schools and young people, and older people, all of whom are needed in all sorts of roles.”

Having seen the Cinescenie for themselves, and while describing the experience as “overwhelming” and “humbling”, the comment from the group was “If they can do it, why can’t we?”

“It sets your imagination on fire with the possibilities for our own town, community and area,” said Joanne Howard, 30, the head of drama and performing arts at King James school.

“Finally people can stop saying ‘It’ll never happen here’ or ‘There’s nothing around here’ – It’s coming to them and people need to take full advantage.

Puy du Fou - Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde

“For all sorts of people, not just those like myself who are involved with the arts, it’s exciting what could come from it and I think people need to take a chance on it.”

Mum-of-two Lynn Reed, 55, a health hub manager, agreed.

“We need to build in terms of the community, to make people proud, and to get people thinking about the town for the right reasons,” she said.

“There will be doubting Thomases but we can do it. This trip has brought us closer together and we’re now feeding off each other and generating enthusiasm.

“And what has stuck with me out of everything – though the projection and the music were unbelievable – is that what makes it happen, which you could see coming through the ‘village’ backstage, is the community.

“You had babies in prams, little ones, teenagers hanging out together with their friends, then grans and aunties as ushers. And they all looked like they were having a laugh. That was lovely.

“In France they have brought people together with a common aim and we need to bring the public around in Bishop Auckland and build that great feeling and great focus.”

Former head of art at St John’s Catholic School, Mark Rossi, said he was impressed by the commitment of so many people and hoped that could be replicated in the North East.

“Puy du Fou started with a small band of founders and they have transferred their enthusiasm to a huge number of people,” he said.

“From teaching I know how difficult that is to do to just a class full of people, but they have managed it for an entire area, and that drive to develop is all for the community.

“I think people will understand that in County Durham, and repay it with enthusiasm of their own. And I would hope that people will rise to the challenge and if we can enthuse a few, then they can enthuse a few more and bit by bit it becomes a sign of hope.”

Puy du Fou - La Cinescenie
Puy du Fou - La Cinescenie

“This project will be great for Bishop Auckland, bringing people together and making the town feel special, and putting it on the world stage,” said Hannah Stirling, 35, an English teacher at Bishop Barrington school, from Coxhoe.

“As I was watching I was thinking how students could get involved and how exciting it would be for them to have that opportunity.

“In Bishop Auckland we have students who are proud of the individual areas they come from but we need to draw on that and grow it to be proud of the wider local community.”

With a tight timescale in which a show has to be written, planning permission sought, the site landscaped, seating for an audience of 6,000 installed, “Archiolais” volunteers with a range of skills found and trained up and tickets sold, there is much to do.

But Paul Flynn, 48, a director of community interest company Enter CIC, which works to give youngsters life skills through performing arts, said he was confident that not only was it possible, but that it could help restore the community spirit which has been in decline for so long.

“I think it is clear to me that as long as you have strong leadership you can really get a team of people with disparate skills to create magic,” he said. “I’m certain of that.

“You don’t have to do a lot or have special skills – all you need is enthusiasm and a will to make something amazing.

“And if Bishop Auckland can do it then anyone can do it – it’s just a case of finding that community spirit that has been lost in many areas.”


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