The team behind ambitious plans for a spectacular open air night show and historical leisure park in the North East are heading across the channel to visit their inspiration.
Backed by philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, the £100m vision for the former Eleven Arches golf club in Bishop Auckland aims to draw millions of visitors to the region and create at least 300 jobs.
And in an effort to celebrate the county’s heritage as the land of the Prince Bishops and nearby Auckland Castle, the former seat of the Bishop of Durham, more than 600 volunteers are being enlisted for a grand performance, inspired by the popular Puy du Fou park in western France.
With hopes the show could be ready for its bow in May 2016 – with the rest of the park welcoming paying customers by 2020 and being full developed by 2024 – members of the town’s community are heading for the Vendee to see first hand the shows and attractions offered by the French theme park.
Eleven arches trustee Stefa McManners said she hoped the trip will provide “great first hand experience” so that those involved can come back and act as “ambassadors” for the project in the North East.
“We’ve selected individuals from lots of different groups around the town, particularly those who work in the arts and with young people, as well as the town council and schools.
“And when they come back they will bring the message of what we are trying to do having seen first hand what they do in Puy du Fou.
“The French show really is special but it also has the historic message running through it. And we’ll have that same experience but with our history.
“We’ve been working with their creative team and they’ve taken a personal interest in what we are doing and are really excited.”
Puy du Fou has been open for 37 years and now boasts a cast of 3,400 volunteers, with a waiting list, as well as hundreds of paid staff.
The park makes a profit, and the money is ploughed back into the area.
“We’re doing this for Bishop Auckland and we hope to raise the quality of life in the area,” said Stefa.
“The Vendee was similar to Bishop Auckland, with a lot of young people struggling to find work, but this gave them purpose and a lot of people have gone on to apprenticeships and into related jobs.
“And we hope hotels and bed and breakfasts will be full, and people will use local amenities, and visit other places nearby.
“That would be the happiest outcome for us.”
As well as watching performances including the huge Cinescenie, which sees 1,200 actors and dancers, in 24,000 costumes, perform a one hour 40 minute show across a 23 acre stage, the group will go behind the scenes, finding out more about how the massive productions are staged.
And the hope is that such experience will help when it comes times to bring individuals and groups together.
“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,” said Hannah Stirling, an English teacher at Bishop Barringdon School.
“I’m really looking forward to the trip and seeing how the show is run and how we can bring that to out community.
“One thing I see is students saying, ‘we can’t do that, we don’t have the skills,’ but hopefully by getting them involved in this we can show them that they have a valuable role to play.”