This region has so many cultural and artistic highlights, many of which are often overlooked as visitors focus attention on the more recognised cultural centres in the north of England. Here’s our guide to the best arts and culture in Durham Tees Valley.
Magnificent cathedral and castle
Music, theatre and galleries to historic monuments and museums, Durham Tees Valley really has it all. To underline this, Tees Valley has declared its intent to bid for UK City of Culture in 2025 and is looking to enhance the area’s cultural offerings to help further grow the tourism economy.
The city of Durham – described by best-selling author Bill Bryon as “perfect” – is one of the country’s finest cultural and historical destinations, with winding streets rising to a peninsula topped by the magnificent cathedral and castle. The site, protected by the serpent-like coil of the River Wear, was one of the first to be granted World Heritage status.
Work on the Cathedral, which has free entry, began in 1093 and it is now renowned as one of the finest surviving examples of Romanesque architecture. It is also culturally significant as the burial place of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede, author of the first English history. Visited by 700,000 people a year, it has been voted Britain’s best building. The castle, which is home to university students, is also open to the public for guided tours.
A remarkable and internationally-significant collection of the great cultures stretching from north Africa to south east Asia can be viewed at The Oriental Museum. Artefacts include Egyptian mummies, Chinese porcelain and head hunting swords from Borneo. The Gala Theatre is the focus of the city’s arts scene and attracts top theatre companies to its £15 million purpose-built riverside home which stages a varied programme of music, comedy, dance and drama.
The city also hosts a number of annual events including July’s famous Durham Miners’ Gala. In 2017, around 200,000 people watched a speech by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, as well as the parade of union banners accompanied by scores of brass bands, reflecting the rich heritage of the former Durham coalfields.
Work on the Cathedral, which has free entry, began in 1093 and it is now renowned as one of the finest surviving examples of Romanesque architecture. It is also culturally significant as the burial place of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede, author of the first English history
An epic tale of England
The acclaimed Brass, Durham International Festival is also held every July and is one of the key events in the arts and culture calendar in Durham Tees Valley. The event runs over four days and features a host of concerts and free events, including a raucous street party. October’s Durham Book Festival also draws large crowds.
Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland has been a Palace for the Prince Bishops of Durham for over 900 years. It is also home to important works of art, notably the paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons by the Spanish master Francisco de Zurbarán. Now owned by Auckland Castle Trust, plans are progressing to develop it into a world-class visitor attraction along with its gardens, impressive Deer House and Park.
The spectacular outdoor theatre show Kynren now takes places in Bishop Auckland every summer. The show is billed as an epic tale of England and attracts large audiences from across the region.
The first floor of Spennymoor Town Hall is home to the Art Gallery and houses a permanent collection of paintings, including works by the acclaimed pitman painter, Norman Cornish. It also houses Durham Mining Museum, which includes a mock coalface to give visitors an insight into working underground.
The spectacular outdoor theatre show Kynren now takes places in Bishop Auckland every summer. The show is billed as an epic tale of England and attracts large audiences from across the region
The market town of Barnard Castle in Teesdale is the unlikely setting for The Bowes Museum – an imposing French chateau housing a nationally-important and diverse collection including European fine arts, ceramics, paintings, period furniture and local artefacts.
Some of the most popular events recently have included shows by leading fashion icons, Yves Saint Laurent, Vivienne Westwood and international milliner, Stephen Jones. As well as a strong fashion and textiles repertoire, the museum has exhibited contemporary art work such as Damien Hirst prints, stunning photography by Tim Walker and illuminating neons by Gavin Turk.
Inspired by his French actress wife Josephine, the building was begun by John Bowes in the 19th century to house their collection of 15,000 objects. Sadly, both died before it could be completed.
Its collections are spread over three floors and include paintings by Canaletto, Goya, El Greco and Gainsborough together with the famous 240-year-old clockwork Silver Swan and slightly more infamous two-headed calf. The market town is also home to The Witham Hall which underwent a major restoration and redevelopment to create a modern arts venue with a vibrant programme of music, theatre, film and comedy events.
As well as a strong fashion and textiles repertoire, the museum has exhibited contemporary art work such as Damien Hirst prints, stunning photography by Tim Walker and illuminating neons by Gavin Turk
Darlington Hippodrome, formerly known as Darlington Civic Theatre, has been entertaining the crowds since 1907 when it was established as music hall. Over the years, it has witnessed a host of famous acts including Tommy Cooper, Rex Harrison and Mickey Rooney. More recently it has welcomed Sian Philips, Darcy Bussell and Michael McIntyre.
Hartlepool is the home of cultural icon Andy Capp and a five-foot bronze statue honouring the cartoon icon – minus his trademark cigarette – stands on the Headland. At the time of creator Reg Smythe’s death in 1988, the strip was syndicated to 1,700 newspapers in 50 countries.
For artwork of a slightly different kind visit Hartlepool Art Gallery, housed in a beautifully restored Victorian church. It offers great views from the 100ft clock tower as well works of national and regional significance and a frequently-changing programme of exhibitions.
Hartlepool’s Gothic-style Town Hall Theatre in Raby Road offers a varied programme of both professional and amateur performances ranging from Shakespeare to comedy, music and lectures.
Over the years, it has witnessed a host of famous acts including Tommy Cooper, Rex Harrison and Mickey Rooney. More recently it has welcomed Sian Philips, Darcy Bussell and Michael McIntyre
Modern and contemporary art
One of the country’s leading galleries for modern and contemporary art is mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Situated in the heart of the town in Centre Square, the distinctive building opened in 2007 and entry is free. It displays world-class exhibitions of works dating from 1900 to present day.
The red brick and terracotta Dorman Museum, next to Albert Park, celebrates Middlesbrough’s rich heritage. From natural history to social history, geology to Victorian arts and crafts, its collection is displayed across eight permanent galleries plus two changing exhibition spaces.
The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Stewart Park celebrates the life and times of one of the world’s greatest explorers, close to the site of the cottage where he was born. The museum is open April to November.
Middlesbrough Theatre began life as an Opera House in the 1920s and was later converted into a cinema. It is now run as a theatre by a charitable trust and stages an array of entertainment including drama, music, dance and comedy. Early June sees the Middlesbrough Mela weekend, a spectacular and colourful celebration of Asian culture, music, food and dance. The event attracts up to 40,000 visitors to enjoy a mix of live music, foods, craft and fashion.
Situated in the heart of the town in Centre Square, the distinctive building opened in 2007 and entry is free. It displays world-class exhibitions of works dating from 1900 to present day
Hundreds of performers
Every summer the acclaimed Stockton International Riverside Festival plays host to hundreds of performers from around the globe. The four-day arts extravaganza is now one of Europe’s largest free open air arts festival, featuring outdoor theatre, street entertainment, circus, music and dance. Stockton Arts Centre, or ARC, is a thriving multi-arts venue offering a full programme of professional live performances and film over three floors together with a number of workshops and classes.
The Forum in Billingham is also a well-established theatre staging a variety of entertainment from drama to ballet, musicals to comedy. For eight days every August the town is transformed by a celebration of cultures from across the world as part of Billingham International Folklore Festival. Traditional and contemporary dance and music blends with a shock of colourful costumes and street parades.
Family-friendly Kirkleatham Museum, near Redcar, is housed in the magnificent Old Hall which was built in 1709. It offers a variety of permanent displays reflecting the local history as well as regularly changing exhibitions. Set in extensive grounds, which includes Kirkleatham Owl Centre, there is also a popular café.
It’s not often you can visit a museum named after a one-eyed cat, except in Marske-by-the-Sea. The hands-on Winkies Castle folk museum is in a small cottage crammed with artefacts recounting the community’s history. Open during the summer season, it was founded by a local cobbler and bequeathed to the local council after his death.
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