Jonathan Ruffer, patron of the Eleven Arches Project, and the 1,000s of volunteers participating in its ‘Kynren’ spectacular, are hoping their show can match London’s opening Olympic ceremony; in both performance and legacy writes Alex Matchett
Beneath the eleven arches of the Newton Cap viaduct a muddy field is telling a story. A former golf course next to Auckland Castle will, this summer, become the site of a show charting 2,000 years of English history that features Romans, Vikings, knights on horseback, steam engines, pyrotechnics, a specially built lake and a 7.5-acre stage; all run by more than 1,000 volunteers from the local community.
‘Kynren’, a play on the Anglo-Saxon word for family from which we draw ‘kin’, is the centrepiece of the Eleven Arches programme, which, in conjunction with Auckland Castle, aims to make Bishop Auckland and the region ‘an international tourist destination’. The vision and money behind all this has come from wealth manager and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, chairman of Ruffer asset managers, holders of £18 billion-worth of assets. He was previously involved in regeneration in London’s East End before turning his attention to County Durham, where he saved Auckland Castle, the historic seat of the Prince-Bishops, securing it as the home for a series of twelve paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán that had been resident there since 1756.
On meeting Ruffer in his plush offices, nothing dispels the ‘Charlie Christmas’ and ‘very modest, down-to-earth gentleman’ described by Kynren’s volunteers. His jovial tone is almost disarming: ‘My background is losing money for people in markets, and I’ve always taken the view that that’s because I’m rather stupid.’ It’s a gambit underwritten by the sharp intellect, cultured drive, and belief that have made both his firm and his philanthropic vision a reality.
‘My first thought was really to be a patron of the soup-ladle and go into community halls and dish out brown Windsor soup to adoring people, and somebody pointed out that I was almost completely incompetent of anything which attained to brown Windsor soup,’ he says. ‘The two things I had were goodwill and money, and both are a pretty good disaster area. It’s very difficult if you use money as a regenerative agent, even to break even.’
Cost was not his main concern, though — rather the inherent imbalance created by handouts and the perversity of misplaced patronage: ‘You set society on edge if you simply stand back and do that. There’s only one group of people who absolutely give me the dry heaves, and they’re people who wish to bring a blessing to other people.’
Kynren is no such token. It takes its cue from the Vendeé’s Puy du Fou, a project founded in 1978 with 600 volunteers, seeking to bring pride, livelihood and identity to a region. The day park, now a commercial activity, employs 1,300 during the summer and has provided 3,500 jobs in the regional economy. Giving people that chance to turn their volunteering skills into livelihoods brings transformation, says Ruffer: ‘When they actually discover that they can blow up the whole of the north end of Bishop, that their ability with pyrotechnics is greater than anybody else, or that their skill in movement and arms is remarkable, the effect on them is galvanic.’
That social metallurgy is already present in County Durham. ‘I see the advert [for Kynren] appear on the television and I watch it and it dawns, “That’s me!”’ says retired art teacher and now Viking shield-maker Mark Rossi. ‘You realise this is not a production for four, five hundred parents, it’s for a few more.’ Actually, 7,500 more.
As a local educator, Rossi was appointed as an ambassador for the project, working closely with Puy du Fou. Although Kynren needed only 600 volunteers, it now has over 1,000 and Rossi mentions the new friends he’s made and the heritage he hopes his cohort can establish: ‘The idea with Puy du Fou is it’s become a generational thing. I went across and was talking to a grandmother backstage, she must have been about 90 and she’d been in it since it started, her children are in it now and her grandchildren.’
‘I do hope Eleven Arches is going to be kept as a family,’ says Debra Willison, an Auckland swimming instructor and Kynren seamstress for 2,200 costumes. ‘You’re meeting people you’d never meet, some people are meeting their neighbour who they’ve never spoken to. It is bringing a community together.’ Willison’s enthusiasm is infectious. From the first meeting ‘it was absolutely brilliant,’ she says. ‘Everything about it was exciting because you think, “Wow, they’re going to bring an outdoors show to the UK!” The town did look tired, but now it’s buzzing. You’ve got that feeling of motivation now — it’s definitely going to bring work for people, businesses, hotels — it will put Bishop Auckland on the map.’
One attraction for many older volunteers has been the chance to do something different. ‘We had a policeman saying, “Not anything to do with the public, please, I’ve done that for 50 years, I’m done with that — get me on stage, I want to dance,”’ says Kynren CEO Anne-Isabelle Daulon, who decided to make the constable a Viking. Others wanted to share their skills: ‘We had somebody saying, “I’m a nurse during the day and I want to be in first aid — I want to teach other people to do it.”’
Ruffer has provided £100 million for the Eleven Arches project, a donation of conviction. ‘I’m pretty Goddy. We’ve got a couple of Dandie Dinmonts at home — they’re very sweet and they’ve got Princess Di eyes when they look at you, but when they see a deer they kill it. Well I’m rather like that — I wag my tail and I froth and I’m extremely nice and make lots of jokes, but actually when it comes to my faith, I’m definitely the sort that tracks down hares and deer and kills them. I felt a calling to come up to the North of England.’
Ruffer’s AuM equals the amount George Osborne hopes to bring to the North by 2030. Such disparity is another mandate for Ruffer, who says it’s a ‘scandal’ so few of the City rich move money back to the regions: ‘It can’t be generated locally so it’s got to come from people outside.’ There, perhaps, the parallels between Ruffer and the policymakers end. He is gracious and measured to the point of self-deprecation (once asked how he would like to be remembered, he responded: ‘Dead’), so much so that it is difficult not to share his dismay at the behaviour of the state: ‘When we needed help we contacted the minister of the North [James Wharton], who was seen hiding under his desk. So we went to the man who is in charge of the Northern Powerhouse, who was much more forthcoming and he just told us to bugger off. Jim O’Neill — do feel free to name him.’
Government conceit aside, the success of Kynren will resonate far beyond the valley that hosts it. The investment made by so many, only in part financial, has made it so much more than a historical, community, social or philanthropic venture. If all goes to plan, it will stand alone as a monument to its legion creators, an apt mirror to the unifying viaduct that crosses its valley — although Jonathan Ruffer would never say so.