I’m currently sat in the spare room of a lovely couple who live in Barnard Castle – Margaret and Angus – who’ve agreed to put me up for two nights while I complete a two day residency at The Witham Centre in Barnard Castle for my solo show, ‘Sticking’.
Today has been day one of working at The Witham, which is a wonderful arts centre, with a very strong community focus.
It was an early start – I caught the bus from Ryton into Newcastle in the half dark for a train from Central at half 7 to Darlington – as the bus came over the river, the sky was just lighting up with streaks of red behind the Tyne Bridge.
At Darlington, Katy who runs The Witham met me at the station. From there a twenty minute drive into the countryside to reach Barnard Castle, a beautiful market town and, so says Margaret, the only town for about twenty miles around.
Katy drove me about town before we got to the theatre so I could get my bearings. There is a huge, purpose built 19th century Museum, Bowes Museum, which was built, Katy tells me, by the illegitimate son of John Bowes, 10th Earl of Strathmore (I might have got the title of Wikipedia just now) for his girlfriend, who was a French actress and Countess. It’s quite a building, and also apparently has a secretive little library in one of its turrets, that I’ll not be able to get into this weekend, but maybe next time. I didn’t get a photo of the museum today but will try and mooch out tomorrow and get a couple.
The Witham Centre itself is in a gorgeous renovated Georgian building. Though it’s only been used as a theatre space for two years, it has a full and bustling program of Music, Theatre, Comedy and Art and the building itself is packed with history.
The main Music Hall – a spacious room with a high domed ceiling and removable raked seating – has the feel of a village hall and, opened out fully, has a small raised stage like the one my secondary school had. However, with black curtains pulled across, the space transforms into an intimate black box space with a sprung wooden floor.
Painted plaques above doors to each side of stage date the hall at 1860. Katy tells me that, during the Second World War, this was the only venue available for soldiers stationed in the area – all the pubs had barred them – and so they’d fill it with dances and the local girls would come along for a bit of rough and ready – when they took up the old floor, they found packets of Woodbines and bottles that had been stored away.
Upstairs, there is a second space, used variously for weddings, tai-chi and spoken word performances amongst other things. A bare rectangular, high-ceilinged room with a fireplace at one end, set with famous Teeside marble. Across from the door, a wall of windows look out onto a very English looking pub, a Superdrug, a florist with a wonky door, and beyond them, the hills and fields stretching away into the distance.
From this window, back in the 19th and early 20th century, announcements would be made to people who would gather on the cobbles below. From here, the death of the king was announced, Katy tells me. I didn’t ask which king. But this is also where the victory of Arthur Henderson, the first Labour candidate to win a local election against liberal and conservative opposition, was declared in 1903. It was a momentous event, and amongst those gathered on the cobbles for the announcement were reporters from Norway and Moscow, picking up on this advance in the new wave of support for the common working man.
I worked in this space til half four, by which time, there was a stunning moody sunset to be seen above the shops across the way.
Then back to stay with Angus, Margaret and their lovely dog, who as I write has come to visit and demand belly rubs.
Being at The Witham feels like a proper treat – a space away. Everyone I’ve met here is lovely. It’s a venue with a real, genuine community feel and outlook.
After a day working here, I’m renewed with faith and excitement in the work. Tomorrow I’ll be doing a short share back in the space at four, and I’m looking forward to it.