Ambitious plans to drive growth, spark creativity and celebrate the extraordinary people and places of County Durham have been showcased to the UK City of Culture 2025 judging panel today.
An exciting and immersive timetable of activities was arranged for the judges’ eagerly anticipated visit, which follows the shortlisting of Durham’s countywide bid in March.
County Durham is vast and varied and the aim was to shine a light on the county in all its guises, while demonstrating how the pioneering and inclusive cultural programme being developed for 2025 would reenergise the entire region.
Historic Durham, wild Durham and industrial Durham have all been represented during the visit, with the judges splitting into groups to allow as much of the county as possible to be showcased.
The day began in Durham City at Redhills, the historic home of the Durham Miners’ Association whose motto inspired the title of County Durham’s bid – ‘Into the Light: The past we inherit the future we build.’
As part of the visit, some of the panel then headed to Dawdon, on the east coast, where they met local people who have engaged in a community arts project called Beaches of Dreams. The judges were able to immerse themselves in an outdoor installation created by the group, featuring handmade flags. They also heard how the installation ties in with Black to Green, a project being developed within the bid that explores the county’s evolution from coal mining juggernaut to green powerhouse.
Other members of the panel travelled to Bishop Auckland to find out about the major regeneration projects underway in the area. This included learning more about the work of The Auckland Project, with a visit to the Spanish Gallery and No.42, where a community lunch took place. The judges were also introduced to representatives from local tourism businesses.
The third group, meanwhile, visited Durham City, where they explored the county’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, which includes Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle. Other highlights included a visit to Prebends Bridge to enjoy a view captured by the world-renowned painter JMW Turner, a glimpse inside a secret garden and a presentation about the county’s bids for levelling up funding.
The judges reunited for lunch at New Durham Working Men’s Club in the city. Here they enjoyed the warm welcome and spirit of camaraderie the region is famous for, as well as experiencing a slice of County Durham culture immortalised in the works of the Pitman Painters. However, there was a 21st century twist, with live performances and guests representing the heart and soul of the county. The judges heard how this links to No Frills, Thrill Me, a Durham 2025 project that will challenge performers to entertain audiences in simple venues without the aid of props and special effects.
Food has been provided by REfUSE, a social enterprise committed to reducing food waste, while serving up imaginative dishes at its ‘pay as you feel’ community café in Chester-le-Street.
The visit culminated at the Ogden Centre, where the judges heard about the work of Durham University’s cosmology and astrophysics departments. They also discovered how this important research has helped to inspire Light Year, a year-long cultural programme celebrating the region’s 1,300-year history of astronomy and space science.
The Durham 2025 campaign is being driven by Durham County Council, Durham University and Culture Durham, a partnership of more than 20 cultural organisations from across the county.
Cllr Amanda Hopgood, Leader of Durham County Council, said: “Durham is such a diverse county and, while it was impossible to show the judges everything during their visit, we really wanted to give them a flavour of the variety that exists here.
“It was also important for us that the judges meet the people who will benefit if County Durham is named UK City of Culture 2025. Whether that be our communities who will be able to access exciting new opportunities or our businesses, which would benefit from the increased visitor numbers our 2025 programme would attract.
“County Durham has a rich heritage, beautiful countryside, a spectacular coastline, world class festival and events and award-winning cultural venues and attractions. However, we also face challenges. The development of our bid has provided hard evidence that the cultural, economic and well-being changes that we need to fulfil our huge untapped potential can be achieved or catalysed through UK City of Culture 2025.”
Professor Karen O’Brien, Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, said: “We’re thrilled to be able to give the judges a glimpse of the wonderful places and people in our county.
“As a university, we pride ourselves on being very much a part of our regional community and Durham University’s museums, collections, visitor attractions and cultural activities are an integral part of what County Durham has to offer.
“Gaining City of Culture status would be a game changer for our region which is full of innovation, opportunities and passion to help our communities thrive.”
Tony Harrington, chair of Culture Durham, said: “Today we have been given the chance to showcase our amazing county to the UK City of Culture judges and share our ambitious plans for the future. The visit will shine a light on just some of our extraordinary people and places, but if our bid is successful, we will spread the opportunities it creates across all corners of the county.
“Being a part of the UK City of Culture 2025 competition is such a privilege and we are incredibly proud to have come this far. We are ready to go all the way and show our nation and the world the potential that exists here.”
This year, for the first time, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport broadened the UK City of Culture competition to allow counties and districts to apply, resulting in a record-breaking 20 entries. In March, County Durham was one of just four locations to make it to the shortlist. The winner is due to be announced later this month.
If County Durham secures the title, it would bring colossal social and economic benefits to the entire region. This includes creating thousands of jobs, boosting the creative and visitor economies by millions of pounds, empowering residents and helping to improve community wellbeing.
And with the county’s profile and appeal raised nationally and internationally, the benefits of being UK City of Culture 2025 would be felt for years to follow.