Kynren Show – The Best History Lesson You’ll Ever See
How much do you know about your own history? If you are English and find you have a few blanks somewhere between the creation of the universe and yesterday, then Kynren, an open air spectacular in the North East can fill you in. A thousand strong cast and crew, a Noah’s ark of animals and more gunpowder than you can fit in a fire-starter’s bedroom document 2000 years in an extraordinary piece of storytelling in Bishop Auckland. Kynren offered us some review tickets so we can tell you about what is possibly the best history lesson you’ll ever see…
Every generation has a story
“Nothing ever happens here,” moans Arthur, a young boy who voices the thoughts of any child who ever lived anywhere.
“To the contrary young Arthur, so much happens in this beautiful corner of England. The rivers, the hills, the dales all hold stories of how we became us. How we became England.” replies Old Arthur, who we will soon discover is older than he looks.
“Becoming England took many years, the Celts, the Romans, the Vikings (just to name a few) shaped and scarred this land we stand upon today. Every generation has history and that history creates the story. The story of us.”
The story of us
It may not be the story of every one of us sitting in this vast open air theatre but it is impossible not to be drawn in. Because Kynren is also about wider human themes; bravery, memory, loyalty and family. (The word Kynren comes from ‘kindred.’) And ultimately it’s a really good show, set in a beautiful landscape with Bishop Auckland Castle twinkling in the background. Take a look at our Kynren 2017 video (embedded below) and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
History is long but time is short
Even on a beautiful night, Kynren has a tough job to do to pack the whole history of us into ninety minutes. So it helps to have a time portal on hand. Our journey begins in the dying daylight, in front of a charming cottage on a hillside that could be any part of rural England, when a clock with hands that go backwards rises out of the lake in front of us on a stone arch.
It’s not the only thing that floats in this man-made lake. In the space of the show, a Viking ship rises from its depths, people walk on water and a boat seemingly on fire containing Elizabeth the Virgin Queen sails along it.
There are battles in the lake, on it and around it. So many battles. In fact if you believe Kynren our ancestors seemed to be permanently attacking or defending something; I’m surprised they had time to sleep.
There are wars with just about everyone who ever stepped on England’s green and fertile land from the Scots led by Robert the Bruce to the French. Hundreds, perhaps thousands die in front of our eyes, brought down by swords, shields, muskets, flaming bows and arrows, guns and chariots. (You can’t miss the uprising of Boudica.)
An action packed adventure
The hillside on this landscape the size of eight football pitches is marched on, danced on, jousted on, loved on, lost on and lived on. People fly past us on horseback and on motorbikes. At one point, for a mere 20 seconds, they arrive on a full size working steam train.
Horses are a big feature; leading funeral processions, armies and royal coaches. Flocks of sheep run on after shepherdesses (I’d love to have seen that audition!) and geese waddle by during the country fairs. At any one time the skies are set are alight with plane searchlights, fireworks, light shows, and in the Shakespearean period, calligraphy. At one stage an entire castle pops up without anyone noticing.
Local history is mined too. In one of the most moving parts, the industrial revolution causes the death of miners. Characters join World War I and II, their palpable misery only broken by Christmas day football and communication from home.
This story isn’t fantasy
And behind this fictional story, Bishop Auckland Castle stands, solid and reliable, reminding us it isn’t fantasy but fact. Arthur’s quest for knowledge is “hidden in the secret of the River Wear” and there’s something immediate and visceral about seeing a production in the open air, as regulars to Shakespeare’s Globe will have found. Birds dive bomb the cloud, the breeze changes direction, you smell the coal and the fire, the fight and the fear.
An army of volunteers
It’s incredible to think this is a cast of volunteers. One of the volunteer greeters approaches me at the end and I suspect she’s about to ask me to get on a shuttle bus. But Wendy Raine is keen to chat and find out what we thought of it. (Everyone stops to chat at Kynren, from the welcome party at the gate to the people who show you to your seats.)
“So would you like to be in it next year?” she asks.
I laugh and tell her I’m from Cumbria but she shrugs this off telling me people come from far and wide to join the cast and crew. She reveals a few secrets, like how on earth they managed to keep all the sheep running a straight line together, (food related) where they keep all the horses and what the atmosphere is like backstage.
I remark on the show’s epic scale and vision and she tells me Olympic ceremonies veteran Stephen Boyd was Creative Director, which suddenly makes a lot of sense. What’s really astonishing is there are just 17 performances a year. But it’s hoped the spectacular, which cost over £30 million to stage, will become a long term event in summer. The show it takes its cue from – Puy du Fou – has been running for 40 years or so in France.
A quest we didn’t realise we were on
“Come back from your quest with the knowledge of who you are and where you come from,” says old Arthur to young at the beginning of the night.
By sundown I feel I am also better equipped to retell my history and the story of us. Kynren has delivered what it promised and so much more. This show, billed as the biggest in live event England since the 2012 Olympics, is nothing short of spectacular. Volunteer or audience. Be a part of it in whatever way you can.
When is it on?
Kynren is a seasonal performance and only runs on specific Friday, Saturday and one Sunday night in July, August and September. Check the booking page online to see dates and availability. If you would like to spend more time there around your visit, Bishop Auckland Castle is closed for renovations until early next year but you can visit the surrounding gardens and deer park. Here’s a taste of what you can expect to see at the show, as shot during our visit in July 2017.
What to wear?
Kynren is an outdoor performance. It takes place in the evening, in the open air and there is no shelter over the seating area. Performances continue whatever the weather so check the weather forecast and dress appropriately. Remember it gets colder as the sun sets and the show continues, so it’s worth taking a jumper or coat. If you are caught out in the rain you can buy a cheap poncho from one of the stalls.
Tickets for the Kynren show are available online from the Eleven Arches website or by phone (booking charge applies for phone bookings). 2017 ticket prices for adults range from £25-£55 with kids from £19-£41 and there may be a discount for early booking. Check the website for offers as there were savings of up to 20% available when booking in advance for families with children or parties of adults. We sat in the middle towards the front but wandered around a bit beforehand and decided that given the size of the stage and the raking of the seating every seat will have a good view. This shows the view from the very furthest (top right) corner of the seating.
Kynren is situated approximately 12 miles from the centre of Durham, near to the village of Toronto just northwest of Bishop Auckland. It is accessed from the A689 and is well signposted from the road. Parking and access is strictly controlled. If you are coming by car you must buy a show parking voucher in advance (£7 per car.) You can park in one of the designated car parks and take a shuttle bus to the stage area or it’s a pleasant fifteen minute walk down the hill.
You can’t take your own food in but you can buy food cheaply at one of a number of local food stalls. Bring some small change to buy a Union Jack Flag to wave at the end.
Where to stay
There are lots of accommodation options to suit all tastes and budgets around Bishop’s Auckland and in nearby Durham. We stayed at the Days Inn Durham, which is convenient for the show, about 10 miles away. You can read more about this Days Inn in our Durham post, here.
Disclosure: Our tickets to the Kynren show were provided by Eleven Arches for the purpose of this review. The opinions and mind blowing experience were entirely our own, but only made possible due to the hard work and commitment of hundreds of Kynren volunteers.