Durham a County of Light and Culture

Neil Hennessy-Vass discovers the cultural attractions in Durham, a county that has a wonderful cultural past, present and future.

Culture & History, Europe

Neil Hennessy-Vass discovers the cultural attractions in Durham, a county that has a wonderful cultural past, present and future.

The LNER train took me from Kings Cross in London to Darlington in less than two and a half hours, and into another world. A world of lush green pastures, rolling hills and surprisingly a mild temperature in mid-November. It also opened a few unexpected doors for me to enjoy walking through in my quest for art in the north of England.

Spanish Gallery in Bishop Auckland

Spanish Gallery Bishop Auckland
Spanish Gallery Bishop Auckland

Although perhaps an unlikely find in Durham, the Spanish Gallery in Bishop Auckland was a bit of a gem to come across on my search for local inclusive art. Part of the Auckland Project, this is the first for the UK, a gallery dedicated to Spanish art of 16th and 17th centuries it’s the largest collection outside London.

With works by many renown Spanish big hitters, including Velázquez, Murillo and Greco it certainly packs a cultural punch. The interior is rich not only in art but the lighting and placements of the art works. Sometimes it feels like a large grand house that one has been allowed to peep into. It also served as a perfect starting point as the Light and Art Biennial Lumiere 2023 has one of the exhibitors, Daniel Canogar, from Spain showcasing the most incredible projection onto the front of the building. He has curated 60 of the gallery’s paintings and created a computer programme using String Theory (which took nearly four months to write) whereby the images all melt into each other, not on a loop but in a perpetually unique sequence. Mesmerising to say the least it is projected onto the side of the gallery as soon as it gets dark.

This year’s Lumiere instillations are curated by Artichoke, a London based outfit that like to ruffle feathers in the world of art and generally make people think differently about how they see things. In other displays they have included the local community in the whole process, making it their art as well as everyone else’s. They really serve to promote the region as somewhere worth visiting anytime of the year. The lights are there for a few days and display what might be at times overlooked.

Part of the extensive library at Raby Castle
Part of the extensive library at Raby Castle

Durham itself has an overabundance of cultural pursuits as well as all the back-up systems required to make it all work well for the consumer; plenty of quality hotels ( I stayed at the Radisson Blu, very comfortable) and many bars and restaurants to take the weight off one’s feet.

Arts Council England have been doing a lot of heavy lifting in the push to make England a country by the year 2030 where the arts are valued and encouraged to flourish. The initiative is called Let’s Create, everyone will have a chance to access high-quality cultural experiences, backed by an investment of £440m million from the government and £93 million from the National Lottery. Expect big things in the coming years.

Raby Castle

I took the chance to dip into work in progress at Raby Castle, already one of Britain’s most impressive and intact castles, plans are afoot to improve the offering even more. Constructed in 14th century by the Neville family it has been the Vane family seat since 1626. Red and fallow deer roam the extensive grounds. The interiors are beautiful, with many additions over the centuries it has grown into what became a substantial family home of some luxury.

The Rising is the collective name for the restoration of the stable block and a large restaurant with extra space for exhibitions. The five-acre walled garden is being redesigned by Luciano Giubbilei, incorporating traditional yew hedging, water features and incredibly an amphitheatre. This will all be in place next year to join the children’s adventure playground, which opened in 2022.

Durham Cathedral

Illuminated Bottle Rack, Ai Weiwei. Lumiere 2023, produced by Artichoke. Durham Cathedral
Illuminated Bottle Rack, Ai Weiwei. Lumiere 2023, produced by Artichoke.

It would be remiss of me to not mention one of Durham’s most famous and historic buildings, the Cathedral, as part of the Lumiere the Cathedral’s 11th century Chapter House was transformed by artist Ai Weiwei’s Illuminated Bottle Rack, created from 61 antique chandeliers, inspired by Marcel Duchamp, using an enormous upside-down wine rack and the chandeliers as branches.

The next year looks very promising for Durham, lots of money heading to the right quarters to make a difference and the attitude of all the main players is indeed admirable. And in case you’ve forgotten it’s only a few hours away from London on a train, so why not treat yourself to see some wonderful art that you don’t get to see in down south.

Read about Mark Bibby Jackson’s journey to Durham: Barnard Castle, Auckland Castle and Headlam Hall

Cultural Things To Do in Durham

For more information go to www.thisisdurham.com.

Main image: Pulse Topology, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Lumiere 2023, produced by Artichoke.

Explore Topics

Neil Hennessy-Vass

Neil Hennessy-Vass

An award-winning journalist and photographer who lives in London, France and on things that move, Neil moved from food broadcasting and photography, to travel writing. The last 10 years have been spent trotting around the globe writing about all he experiences. Never happier than ordering a rare Bourbon in some far-flung bar while checking to see his passport isn’t out of date, he prefers to take the path less trodden even if it takes a little longer.

Read more posts by Neil Hennessy-Vass →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *