We began life back in 2017 as one of England’s 16 ‘Great Place Schemes’. Jointly funded by Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Scheme was designed to pilot new approaches to local investment in arts, culture and heritage.
Northern Heartlands’ ‘great place’ was the south-west corner of County Durham; an area comprising the Area Action Partnership districts of Teesdale and Weardale (rural, isolated villages and hill farms), Bishop Auckland & Shildon, and the ‘Three Towns Partnership’ of Tow Law, Crook and Willington (small towns and surrounding settlements of the former Durham coalfield).
Over the three years, projects ranged from small one-off workshops to a major new community opera created with local communities in partnership with Opera North. A small grants scheme supported by County Durham Community Foundation saw 47 projects developed by community groups.
Approaches ranged from an innovative 18-month project commissioning an artist/researcher to work with hill-farmers to harness their views and voices, to ethnographic engagement with a cluster of small, neglected settlements in the Dene Valley Parish – once destined for demolition under the infamous Category D scheme when the pits closed – and supporting a major outdoor arts event in the former coal-mining town of Willington where, prior to Northern Heartlands’ engagement and as one young person succinctly put it, “nothing ever happens”.
At the end of the Great Place Scheme, it was clear to us that this work had only just begun. Our evaluation revealed that our work had a profound impact on our communities, including:
increased pride in the area
increased confidence in themselves
greater connection to the heritage and culture of the area
as well as having a positive impact on health and wellbeing
At the end of 2019 we made the decision to establish Northern Heartlands as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation in its own right. Going forwards we will continue our work primarily in the south-west corner of County Durham, building on existing relationships with communities as well as striving to forge new ones in order to continue the work we have begun.