Jill Cole talks about Northern Heartlands, past, present and future

Photograph of Jill Cole

The north east gets under your skin

In our latest blog, Jill Cole, director of Northern Heartlands CIC and Culture Durham board member talks about the work of her organisation and her love of the north east.

I first arrived in County Durham for a weekend back in 1990 – I’m a southerner by birth, and never imagined for a moment that I’d end up living and working in the north east.

But there’s something about this place and its people that gets under your skin; that weekend seems to have turned into over 30 years, and I’m so very proud to have brought up my children and found a career here, and to know in my heart that I absolutely wouldn’t want to be living or working anywhere else in the world…

‘Place based’ arts in rural County Durham and former coalfield towns and villages

Child wearing red taking a photograph of cows

I run a small arts organisation called Northern Heartlands, based in the market town of Barnard Castle. We may be small in size, but we’re big in ambition, and certainly punch above our weight. We’re a ‘place based’ arts organisation, working with communities across the south and northwest of the county. It’s an area that encompasses the grand scenery, isolated hill farms and small villages of the two ‘Durham Dales’ – Weardale and Teesdale – and some of the post-industrial and more deprived towns and villages of the former coalfield area too. It’s also an area with very poor access to any major cultural venues, so we take ‘culture’ to where people are, whether that’s a village green, a workingmen’s club, a village hall or a hay meadow.

Northern Heartlands started life as a three-year programme in 2017 – it was one of England’s sixteen Great Place Schemes, an initiative that emerged from the landmark 2016 Culture White Paper and aimed to “pilot new approaches that enable cultural and community groups to work more closely together and to place heritage at the heart of communities.”

People rehearsing for a community opera

With Visit County Durham as our accountable body, we were in the enviable position of having a generous budget – and autonomy – to use arts, culture and heritage to try and make a difference for people living in this area. Projects ranged from small one-off workshops to a major new community opera created in partnership with Opera North. After three years (the Scheme came to an end in 2020) we had over 90 events under our belt with over 20,000 people having taken part. Yet it felt in so many ways as if our work had only just begun. So we made the decision to continue, and established a new charity – keeping our name, our brand and two of our staff – to build on the trust and relationships we had started to develop with some of the great communities and individuals in our area.

Change during a pandemic

Starting life as a new charity during Covid certainly wasn’t the easiest thing to do! But we ran training programmes in digital engagement for artists (The Art of Invitation), developed a programme of activities responding to lockdown (Creativity in Crisis) and embarked on the challenge of finding funding to rebuild the organisation. One of the key strands of work that now forms a cornerstone of our forward plan is using arts and creativity to respond to health and wellbeing challenges. We’ve worked closely with NHS Social Prescribing Link Workers and have devised programmes of weekly creative engagement for people living with anxiety, depression, loneliness and other mental health issues. Seeing at first hand the difference that taking part in creative activity can make for people has been heart-warming.

We’re continuing our work with grassroots communities, and we also partner with environmental schemes in the Upper Dales area too – always using the arts as a tool to excite the people who live here and our visitors about the amazing natural assets we have on our doorstep (did you know that some of the flora of Upper Teesdale is of global importance?).

Onwards – more new beginnings!

We’re now starting a new chapter as an Arts Council NPO, and I’m hugely excited about the next three years for Northern Heartlands. It’s an exciting time to be working in the culture sector in County Durham, too. Following the County Council’s shortlisted bid for City of Culture 2025, there is a real appetite to build on some of the ambitious ideas that were put forward, with cultural partners working together with the local authority and Durham University. It certainly feels as if the time is ripe for County Durham to become a genuine, vibrant ‘Culture County’.

Click here to find out more about Northern Heartlands on our website.