At the heart of a Viking village located on a former golf course on the outskirts of Bishop Auckland, there is frenzied activity.
Geese are gaggling, goats are chewing furiously, a cabbage stew is bubbling on the fire, and by the forge, a dozen or so magnificently bearded Norsemen are gently boiling in their furs, leathers, metal helmets and brown wellies while admiring a row of fake fish hanging out to dry.
Nearby, their buxom womenfolk are sewing, cooking, spearing more fake fish from a brook and delighting in how pretending to be Vikings — or Roman centurions, World War II soldiers, miners or, in the case of a gruff 63-year-old former publican called Mel, the King of
Vikings stride from a village on the outskirts of Bishop Auckland. They are all volunteers in Kynren, a mind-blowing 90-minute romp through two millennia of British history — including Boudicca, King Arthur and Queen Victoria
Above, Queen Victoria waves from a carriage. Around 1,000 volunteers aged from five to 83, have given up weekends and week-nights since February to rehearse in village halls, barns and outhouses for the show
‘My Nick is a different man!’ says Jacqueline Taylor, 40, a former foster carer. ‘He’s a postman and before he was quiet and shy and never went out. Now we’re never in. He talks to everybody. In just four years, our lives have completely turned about.’
‘So have ours,’ agrees Karen, 45, a herbalist and teacher. ‘It’s something fun we can do together.’
Jacqueline, Nick, Karen, Mel & Co are all volunteers in Kynren, a mind-blowing 90-minute romp through two millennia of British history — including Boudicca, King Arthur and Queen Victoria. This year’s central theme is the Vikings. It is the most ambitious outdoor show in Britain since the 2012 Olympics — and in the UK’s top five live experiences according to TripAdvisor.
The show is the ‘crazily ambitious’ idea of Jonathan Ruffer, a multi-millionaire city financier (who established and now chairs investment company Ruffer LLP) and self-appointed patron saint of Bishop Auckland. He wanted to help rejuvenate the County Durham town (population just over 24,000) in a former mining area with double the national rate of unemployment. Above, Daily Mail writer Jane Fryer tries on a centurion outfit
Along with 1,000 other volunteers (or ‘Archers’ as they’re known for reasons that will become apparent) aged from five to 83, they have given up weekends and week-nights since February to rehearse in village halls, barns and outhouses.
And from tonight, they will spend almost every Saturday throughout the summer performing — along with 50 sheep, 40 geese, 33 thoroughbred horses, three donkeys and two rare breed oxen — in front of 8,000-strong audiences.
The show is the ‘crazily ambitious’ idea of Jonathan Ruffer, a multi-millionaire city financier (who established and now chairs investment company Ruffer LLP) and self-appointed patron saint of Bishop Auckland.
He wanted to help rejuvenate the County Durham town (population just over 24,000) in a former mining area with double the national rate of unemployment.
Inspired by the famous Puy du Fou historical theme park in France, Kynren (from the Anglo-Saxon word for kindred) is a mad, wild and hugely successful show — now starting its fourth season with its 50th performance.
Let the jousting begin! ‘Sadly, I am too late to join the jousting, or practise being dragged along on a rope behind a horse, learn a complex dance routine, or drive Boudicca’s chariot. But the mantra at Kynren is that there is something for everyone,’ says Jane
There are fountain ballets, a Viking longboat that rises out of a purpose-built lake courtesy of underwater divers, a burning village, flaming arrows, the re-enactment of a mining disaster of the 1870s, the Coronation and 100kg of fireworks lighting up every show.
Most of the cast (including the divers and the pyrotechnics team) had never seen a stage before Kynren, far less performed on one.
‘Not very many professional people get to perform in front of 8,000 people,’ says Mel, the former publican. ‘So for ordinary working-class people like us to get a standing ovation every Saturday night, it’s pretty great.’
‘Its addictive. It’s infectious. It makes everything in your life better,’ says Christine Chisholm, a dementia carer who is part of the mounted cavalry team. ‘I’ve made so many friends and I’m so grateful.’ Another cavalry member chips in. ‘We’re all grateful to Jonathan.’
Indeed, Jonathan Ruffer’s name is forever popping up. How he has changed everything. How he has bought Bishop Auckland back to life. How he has reconnected the town, with hundreds of new friendships cemented during rehearsals and performances.
‘The town was on its knees. It was going to ruin,’ says Andrew, a middle-aged centurion and Great North Air Ambulance fundraiser.
A volunteer grapples with a donkey. As well as the volunteer cast, there are hundreds of ‘Experience’ Archers — welcomers who are given the same training as the London 2012 volunteer team. With tickets sales of about £4 million each year, the show is now self-funding. But Jonathan hasn’t stopped at Kynren. He has gone on to establish the Auckland Project, which is focused on regeneration of the area
‘Kynren has given people a sense of pride, in their town, in themselves and it has completely changed all our lives because we’ve made so many friends. I was born in this town, but I have never had so many friends.’
Bishop Auckland, once a beacon of the mining north, has struggled for nearly half a century to find new purpose since the last deep colliery closed in 1968. Butchers and fishmongers closed, the market square filled with discount outlets, charity shops and takeaways, and hope faded.
Jonathan’s love affair with the place stems from his passion for old Spanish art. In particular 12 paintings by Francisco de Zurbaran, which had been housed since 1756 in Auckland Castle, one of Europe’s best preserved former ‘bishops’ palaces’.
When, in 2013, the Church of England announced they were selling the paintings to help fund priests working in poor areas, Jonathan — a gentle, bespectacled chap who grew up 30 miles away in Stokesley — offered to buy them. And then, because it seemed a shame to move them, he bought the castle, too, in a job lot that cost £15 million.
‘I was persuaded, quite reluctantly, to take the castle — these old buildings can be absolute nightmares,’ he says.
But he soon realised that keeping the Zubarans was neither here nor there to most people in Bishop, as locals call it.
‘Would this be good for the community?’ he says ruefully. ‘It was a futile gesture.’ And then a golf course became available nearby, and Jonathan, an evangelical Christian since an epiphany as a student at Cambridge, had what he likens to Abraham’s calling by God.
‘Abraham was called on a journey, but he wasn’t given the destination. That is exactly what’s happened to me,’ he says. ‘I could not possibly have not done what I’m doing, but I still don’t know what the plan is.’
Perhaps not, but he found himself donating another £35 million to set up the charity, Eleven Arches, and through it launched the idea of Kynren with the help of expert advisers in the hope it would show the doubters — pretty much everyone who had heard his bonkers proposition — and revitalise the community.
Jonathan, who is married to a palliative care doctor and has a daughter, isn’t the sort to do things by half. He wanted to deliver the same success as Puy du Fou and so he persuaded a member of its board to help his new charity.
He also asked Roxanna Smith, Gina Martinez and Katie Pearson, who choreographed the Olympic opening ceremony, to help.
Music was commissioned from Nathan Stornetta, who worked on Pirates Of The Caribbean, while local celebrity, Kevin Whately, of Inspector Morse and Lewis fame, provided voice-overs.
Jonathan also managed to persuade Anna Warnecke, an Olympian who represented her native Germany in three-day eventing for 20 years, to join as Head of Cavalry and Estates.
As well as the volunteer cast, there are hundreds of ‘Experience’ Archers — welcomers who are given the same training as the London 2012 volunteer team.
With tickets sales of about £4 million each year, the show is now self-funding. But Jonathan hasn’t stopped at Kynren. He has gone on to establish the Auckland Project, which is focused on regeneration of the area.
So there is now a new 15ft viewing tower over the town, a gallery featuring mining-themed work by prominent artists and, to come, a new museum on the history of Christianity. And of course there is the castle, which has undergone an £18 million refurbishment — Jonathan and his family live in a lodge in the grounds — and will open to visitors.
When I arrive at the site three days before opening night, I find the atmosphere joyful and the scale astonishing.
There are fountain ballets, a Viking longboat that rises out of a purpose-built lake courtesy of underwater divers, a burning village, flaming arrows, the re-enactment of a mining disaster of the 1870s, the Coronation and 100kg of fireworks lighting up every show
There is a huge area of landscaped meadows, stable blocks, 16 huge changing rooms (known as villages), a wooden 8,000-seat stand and the ‘stage’ — actually a vast expanse of lake, castle, railway and cathedral — with Auckland Castle, which is illuminated at night, as a stunning backdrop to the show.
Sadly, I am too late to join the jousting, or practise being dragged along on a rope behind a horse, learn a complex dance routine, or drive Boudicca’s chariot. But the mantra at Kynren is that there is something for everyone.
So I spear some plastic fish with a wooden pitchfork and chat with Karen, who assures me that coming to Kynren rehearsals with her husband several times a week has revitalised their marriage.
Next, I mend a fishing net, stir the boiling cabbage broth for the Vikings and then rehearse for a Roman chariot ride. The chariot is driven by a very handsome centurion called David and pulled by four thoroughbred horses.
The attention to detail is astonishing. Every piece of tack is glossy and gleaming. Every centurion helmet (apart from, perhaps, mine) is straight and every tassel tangle-free.
We do loop after loop past the empty stands, perfecting timing, formation and posture.
The logistics are mind-blowing. And that’s even before they start herding 150 animals and 1,000 volunteers into each show.
Each Archer plays multiple parts, changing up to six times in the course of a performance. The costume department has more than 10,000 items — doublets, royal regalia, Boudicca’s feathered headdress, thousands of boots and belts and gloves.
A huge team of mostly volunteers, aged from 42 to 78, work all year round sewing, fixing, laundering or, more often than not, just spraying everything with diluted vodka. ‘It gets rid of the bacteria very nicely,’ says Chris Livingstone, a retired civil servant whose sister was a costume designer for Elton John and Queen. (‘It’s in the blood,’ she says.)
As opening night approaches, the hours put in by the core team spiral — 18-20 hour days are standard, says Anna Warnecke.
No one is bothering about overtime. Everyone — even the small number of paid staff — volunteers on show nights. And, oddly, no one seems to care about the weather.
But there is fevered excitement for the now-legendary opening and closing show parties. ‘The after-party went on so long last year, I went home on the milk float,’ says Andrew, the centurion. How bloody brilliant!
The impact of Kynren is extraordinary. Entire families embrace it, and volunteers hail from all parts of the local community — from hospital consultants to the long-term unemployed.
Every person I talk to glows when talking about the show and how it has affected their lives.
Leia, a 19-year- old apprentice at a lawnmower manufacturer, tells me she has high-functioning autism and usually struggles to make friends. ‘But not here!’
‘We’re all looking up now, not down,’ says one of the hairy Vikings. ‘It’s impossible to walk through the town now without bumping into new friends.’
‘Some people were sceptical at first,’ says Karen, my fish-spearing friend. ‘They’d ask, “Why would you want to give up all that time when you’re not getting paid for it?” But we’re not giving up anything. We’re having a great time!’
Lucy, who is on the Kynren staff, just throws up her arms and says: ‘Bishop is the best place in the world now, because just look what we’ve got here.’
It goes without saying that almost everyone who takes part returns the following year. ‘We count down the winter months,’ a member of the cavalry tells me.
But there is always room for more and this year’s newbies include Jeremy, a Viking/centurion (in real life, a manager for Specsavers), who was dragged along by his wife and daughter and is feeling ‘a bit nervous’.
Of course he’s nervous! He’s going to perform live in front of 8,000 people in an utterly brilliant, extraordinarily bananas yet highly professional show which delights, astonishes, inspires and, most of all, has helped to mend a broken and dispirited community.
But I bet my centurion helmet he’ll be back next year.