GNF Review – 2011 to 2018

GNF Review – 2011 t0 2018.

GNF’s dream was that the North East would host an expo to celebrate innovation, and bring hope to the region.  The Great Exhibition of the North has in many ways brought reality to this dream.

The Great Exhibition of the North

Expo 2018 began on June 22nd, 2018; a Friday evening, and GNF along with thousands of others gathered on the quayside to watch the spectacular beginning; the sudden appearance of a giant star in the sky to the left of the Sage was one of the highlights;

“How did they do that,” a fellow watcher asked.

Perhaps, GNF speculated, the star – the cross – must have been projected onto the sky.  That it was achieved by drones orchestrated by computer was not learnt until later from someone who had watched it on TV.  .

The other highlight was an impassioned speech from the Manchester poet Lemn Sissay, an immigrant to the North as he explained; quoting St Matthew’s Gospel, “I was a stranger and you took me in.”  So began the Great Exhibition for the whole of the North

GNF first heard that North East was to apply for the £5 million the Chancellor of the Exchequer was offering to a city in the North to run an expo in May 2016.  Margie Stewart-Piercy from Stockton-on-Tees, a member of the North East Cultural Partnership, told us at our 2016 AGM that Newcastle and Gateshead had put in a bid – on the understanding that they would double the money given.  When they learnt in October that the bid had been successful GNF asked Sarah Munro, the Director of the Baltic, whether there would be enough time to realize the hopes for anexhibition.  She said that this was how the money was given and we had to live with that and “make of it an event.”.

New mood in the region

In the first large meeting that GNF held (November 2011), people spoke of the North East as having a sense of identity.   In a letter shortly before this meeting, Bob Langley spoke of the Passionate Places, Passionate People campaign, which whatever people may have thought about it, at least put the North East on the map.  ‘At its best’, Bob wrote, ‘it was built on a celebration of certain values to be found in the people and the north-east as a place – something about its particular identity which comes from its peripheral position and its history, not least its Christian history, its independence and ruggedness, and seeing those as a positive value almost over against the more materialistic values of the dominant south-east.’       At a later meeting, Bob spoke of a new mood in the region, the development here of new sources of energy, of developments in the universities, the Centre for Life and Science City and a growing awareness that more could be done.  The 2013 festivals (of which more below) was a further sign of this, the January Manifesto group (from which has come Tyne and Wear Citizens, the local branch of the Community Action group, Citizens UK) ) another, and our own small group too; an awareness of new spiritual potential in the region.

GNF’s beginnings

Our particular contribution to the venture began when I was walking the St Oswald’s Way from Holy Island to St Oswald’s church on the site of the battle of Heavenfield – mostly walking, the last bit from Rothbury to Heavenfield was by car,   A cross stands in the middle of Rothbury commemorating the life of Lord Armstrong and there is another at Heavenfield commemorating St Oswald’s victory over Cadwallon of Mercia.  The first was the leading figure of the North East in the 19th century, the second a giant of the 7th – the two great periods of North Eastern history.  Why not, I felt in inner surprise, if there had been great periods in the past there could again, why should we not organize an expo to encourage and bring new hope to our region?.

The response to the idea was encouraging.  The Archdeacon of Northumberland, Geoff Miller wrote to say that the idea resonated with him and he set us forward by coming to the first exploratory meeting.  Like this last one was here at St John’s, Kingston Park.  Initially we formed ourselves into an executive group: Bob Langley, the retired Archdeacon of Lindisfarne, Paul Southgate, recently retired, but then director of the Churches Regional Commission and later Director of the St Vincent de Paul charity, Gordon Morris, a journalist and formerly the Deputy Business Editor on The Journal and me as convenor.  We became the Great North Festival Charitable Company Limited by Guarantee.  This was necessary for our credibility and to raise money.  Once we had £5000, we also became an official charity.

2013 – the year of festivals

Almost as soon as we began, there were plans afoot for several festivals during 2013.  It felt too soon, but nonetheless a possibility that our idea might chime in with one of the festivals planned.  A festival of events was planned round the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham that summer.  As a preparation for this, the Sage, following an idea put forward by the Northumbrian piper Katharine Tickell, organised a month long ‘Festival of the North East’.  Finally the British Science Association planned to hold its annual festival in Newcastle during September.

GNF teamed up with Caspar Hewett of ‘The Great Debate’ and Jackie Scollen of Lodestone (Film Makers) and planned to run as best we could with these different festivals.    Our first event was as early as November 2012 – an evening of films at the Star and Shadow Cinema to the North of Ouseburn.  It was advertised as a taster evening of North East films, which we then followed by writing to the Business Community to invite companies to participate in a major exhibition of North East innovation which was to be held  sometime in the summer of 2013.

We began 2013 with a debate at the Civic Centre.    Catherine McKinnell, MP for Newcastle North, spoke of her difficult in promoting the region when the facts of decline and unemployment were so real.

In the course of the year GNF – with the Great Debate and Lodestone, film making outfit under the direction of Jackie Scollen who teaches young people about film making.  They filmed each of our debates and then edited an overall film of our endeavour – organized five more debates; the first one, in association with the Festival of the North East, at Cragside on energy from water, a second in Chester-le-Street on the importance of the Gospels in creating a compassionate society – see more below – a third in Sunderland, ‘Waking the Dawn’, reflecting on the lives of Emily Davison and Ellen Wilkinson.  The fourth was in Berwick upon Tweed where we thought about the Scottish Independence Referendum which was in the offing (in many ways our most successful debate and certainly the best attended).  It is striking how the Great Exhibition of the North has picked up on these various topics, perhaps especially the final Friday September 7th evening which celebrated the contribution of women to our corporate life.

Our final week we titled, a week of hope.  It was built round an art exhibition – paintings and jewellery – contributed by schools and the Newcastle branch of Crisis.  It was

One of the paintings in the ‘My North East’ exhibition was by Natasha Mohindra.  It was in St Nicholas’s Cathedral.  With it, we organized a consultation on the place of festivals in bringing hope to a region.

The evaluation of all this activity was encouraging.  Numbers coming were not great, but those who did attend found the events valuable and the whole exercise was useful to GNF in networking and meeting a host of the people involved with the North East who engage in festivals.

GNF’s hopes for an Expo

At the same time, our hopes of staging a major exhibition of innovation failed as early as May.  Our best hope had been to do it alongside the British Science Association and plans were going ahead for this, but then as early as May 2013, we learnt that this would not be possible.

Joanne Coleman the organizer wrote to say that her contacts – The Newcastle/Gateshead Initiative, the two Universities, the City Council and others – all felt that what we had in mind:

‘should be much bigger and involve them as well as other local organizations.  However at     this stage no one feels they have the resource to commit to this.  They therefore felt it could be an event done at a different time.’

Two further problems were that we neither had any money, nor had there been any response  from the Business Community.

Joanne did help us in publishing an article – ‘Ignite’, about our ideas, written by Gordon Morris – in her local Science Festival.  ‘Ignite’ is still on our website.  We also supported Henrietta Heald in her event during the festival which dramatized William Armstrong’s 1863 ‘Admirable Speech’; on innovation and the advance of industry and society .(see Henrietta Heald’s  William Armstrong, Magician of the North, pp 114-122)


Innovation and Hope

 By May 2012, GNF had developed its strap line, ‘Celebrating innovation and discovering hope’  It was significant that the organizers of the Festival of the North East told us that GNF had been one of the very few submissions they had received which looked to the future rather than back to the past.  We added ‘Hope’ a little later.

When GNF had written to Business leaders we spoke of ‘widespread feelings of hopelessness which afflict so many of our young in the North East’ and that we wanted to  replace it with a ‘new sense of hope and inspiration.’  Hannah Underwood, the Director of Keyfund in 2013 told our first debate that teenagers of 13 and 14 who were enthusiastic about their future, by the age of 16 were already disillusioned.  They had felt they could contribute something, and many now felt they were not wanted.

In GNF’s ‘Lindisfarne Gospels’ debate in Chester-le-Street, our three speakers – a Moslem, a Christian and a secular speaker – were asked to share stories with us which would give us hope.  The stories were about trust, the disciplined life, the fundamental importance of relationship, and concern for the poor.  Hope, we drew from these was not optimism; it was much more a spiritual quality which made a person believe in a future even when everything seemed to be pointing in the opposite direction.

This issue, the spiritual background of the North East, led GNF to compile a pamphlet on the history of the North East as a spiritual adventure (copies are still available).

One value of the Great Exhibition of the North is that it has told a more hopeful story about the North, the story of a region looking towards the future in hope.  In some ways, the Churches may have seemed peripheral to the vision which the region has been exploring, but it is significant that as the Exhibition came to an end, the Anglican Church in the Newcastle diocese was holding a ‘Pathways’ mission on the theme of Hope.  Hope for the Churches.  Hope for the North.   (more of this below)

Archbishop John Sentanu was in Newcastle at the start of the Great North Run, the event which concluded the expo.

GNF – and its newsletters

 GNF decided that in taking note of Joanne’s advice we should continue to promote our idea.  The evaluation of our 2013 events had been positive and we prepared a report ‘Preparing for an Expo’ to sum up what we had explored.  We decided on three strategies as our way ahead:

Over the next five years we published 14 newsletters.  After the first one, we distributed them by email using mailchimp to above 200, with hard copies to libraries and elsewhere.   The take up was always above the average, so mailchimp told us, between 26 and 40%.  A number of the innovations we highlighted have been exhibited at the Great Exhibition of the North.

GNF has met a great many people, as is recorded in the blog column.

The Lodestone film of our 2013 work, which has been on the website since, was originally shown at the 2014 AGM.  It was both shortened and edited after that into the version which is on the website.  The revised version will be shown at the 2018 AGM.   Our website was receiving about 2000 hits a month early in 2016, this was quadrupled in July for three months, dropping to to about 40% of that figure later in the year; altogether 49,000 hits that year.  In 2017 that went up to 59000, and in the three months up to March 2018 a further 20000.  We were slow in getting started on the main social media channels, Obehi organizing this for us in our final year.  By the beginning of the Great Exhibition, we had 42 followers on Facebook, and on Twitter 40, which included 8 organizations.

It is impossible to assess how important all this has been in helping the region to host this year’s expo, but it will have contributed something.   Our sense is that our work has been part of a general movement of ideas within the North.  Its holding has in any case, whatever the influence, been an answer to prayer.

GNF first heard about the expo when Margie-Stewart Piercy told us about the North East Cultural Partnership bid at our 2016 AGM.  The Government was offering £5 million to a city in the North to hold an expo, and somehow the money survived Brexit.  Once Newcastle and Gateshead had won the bid, GNF decided that the Great Exhibition of the North would fulfil much of what its vision was about, that it was something we should back.

We made our 2017 AGM an opportunity to host a conference in preparation for the Expo.  Talks were given by John Marshall (Chair of the Newcastle/Gateshead Initiative), Anna Round (Senior Research Fellow of IPPR, the Institute for Public Policy and Research) and Hans Möller  (Innovation Director of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership) and they were summarized in our Summer Newsletter 11 of August 2017.


Writing in the Daily Telegraph on October 12th, 2016, Rupert Christopherson argued that the proposed exhibition would need ;to pull out every possible stop if itwas to impress.  Even the warmest champions of the North East, he said, ‘couldn’t claim that ‘”the fires of invention” have blazed brightly here.’

The Great Exhibition of the North did not set out to build something like the Eiffel Tower (the drawings for which incidentally are in the Mining Institute in Newcastle) or a Millennium Dome, but it did wrap Earl Grey’s monument in the colours of the logo.  I rather doubt that Mr Christopherson would have been too enthused by what the maxims said.  They were taken from one of the Socialist Internationals, speaking of a vision : of ‘art and employment for all’, of ‘hope in work’, of ‘leisure for all and a life worth living.’

John Marshall told us at our May 2017 AGM that the organisers hoped to attract 3 million visitors, double the usual annual number which visit the cities.  The final numbers are not yet known, but there were 10,000 contributors, 30 venues in 83 locations, 1,175 volunteers and 19.7 million heard about it from social media and digital channels.  Given that number of events in such a short review as this, it is only possible to select one or two

In the first week of the Expo LNER juxtaposed its new Azuma engine in the forecourt of the Discovery Museum with its early predecessor ‘The Rocket’ on display inside.

Graphene featured in a lighting display at the Mining Institute, in a dress at one of the entrances to the Eldon Centre, and in the Hexagon experiment.  GNF attended the last of these Hexagon experiments, workshops for women who wanted to compose music.  Dr Dana Istrate of Manchester University talked of her work in developing modern uses for graphene with the composer Anna Meredith who talked about her art; creative science and art.  In this Cobalt Studio event, Anna encouraged her team to seek ‘inspiration’, or at least find a handle as a start, from Helen Sharman’s space suit, on display during the Expo at the Great North Museum.




The three trails of the Great Exhibition of the North


A very popular event was ‘Aeons: a Sound Journey for Newcastle,’ an opportunity to walk from the Millennium bridge along the quayside to a place just beyond the Redheugh Bridge to music specially composed for the journey.  It illustrated well the underlying idea of the three routes, the innovation, art and design ways, that took visitors on a tour of the great sites of Newcastle and Gateshead.

Has the Expo achieved what we hoped?  It certainly highlighted innovation, vision and the future in marked ways.  It has not been a grand spectacle on one site like the 1951 Festival of Britain, or earlier exhibitions in Newcastle.  The cities themselves were the exhibition site.  And that said something important about the North East and the North in general.

There is money for the legacy, for developing what has been shown for the benefit especially of the young.  That must now be honoured.  Perhaps there would be a place for a Cathedral retrospection plus act of worship some time in June next year to encourage the ongoing work of bringing hope and vigour to the North, especially to theyoung.

The role of the Churches

In many ways, the Churches seemed rather peripheral to the exercise.  None of the routes incorporated any of the church buildings on any of the three ways – though an exhibition was held in St Nicholas’ Cathedral.  The Bishop of Newcastle was concerned about this as was GNF was, and we tried in our May 2017 Newsletter to show where the churches were in relation to the routes.  When the North East Cultural Partnership planned the routes as part of their initial bid, it was just the case that the ways bypassed the churches.  Perhaps there was a concern – expressed to GNF – that the Churches might be more concerned with evangelism than the vision.  That was, GNF would argue, an unnecessary fear.

GNF wrote on behalf of the Expo organizers to all the Anglican bishops of the Northern Province telling them of the coming expo and of the opening date, and also to the main churches in central Newcastle and Gateshead inviting them to opt into the expo.  GNF had a complaint from the Bishop of Durham that Gateshead Churches had been unable to engage with it.  The difficulty was that churches had to opt in with suggestions of how they might participate rather than respond – and given the Church’s current staff power and work load, this was probably too much to ask.

Nonetheless, GNF has represented both Church and the Secular, and has been concerned to examine the spiritual roots of what was being tried.  GNF’s convenor was invited to preach at the Cathedral a fortnight before the start of the Expo and spoke there of the spiritual vision.

There was rather an odd happening in November 2016.  The convenor and his granddaughter were at the Northern Stage to see Aeschylus’s play ‘The Suppliant Women’.  In the Greek world, such a play would begin with prayer and a small sacrifice.  Their modern counterparts were concerned that this production should emulate this.  Carol Bell, Executive Director of the Great Exhibition,  was summoned from the audience to make the required sacrifice; on this occasion a bottle of wine which she poured out over the apron of the stage.  A joke?   Pagan, obviously; but perhaps more than that, a significant moment, a reminder that great happenings have spiritual roots!  A ‘prayer’ which the GNF convenor and his granddaughter could steer in the right direction!   It should have reminded us of the importance of holding some spiritual event, an act of worship to launch the Great Exhibition.  Perhaps it will be important to have something like this to support the ongoing legacy of the Exhibition.

The Future

 Andrew Robinson, the French consul in the North East, once asked a headmistress what she thought the population of the North East might be; 15 million, she ventured.  That is in fact nearer to the population of the entire North from Manchester and Hull northwards.  The North East’s population is little more than 2 million.

When GNF started, we were thinking in terms of the North East as a region developing alone.  The North East Assembly referendum seemed to point to that.  The referendum failed to win approval, and that made many in government think that there was little they could do to help a region which did not seem to want to help itself.  It has become clear over the seven years that in reality the region is too small.  The North East needs to work with the rest of the North.  The infrastructure for this is still inadequate, but IPPR, Transport North, and the Great Exhibition of the North are all talking about the truth of this.

The Scottish Referendum showed how important the devolution of power to the regions has become.  Figures show that regions develop as power is devolved, that the comparative poverty of the North will remain if it is not devolved – and that the divide between South and North will remain.  The Powerhouse idea, which has taken off in Manchester and Teesside, has had a much rougher passage in Tyne and Wear.  The cities have a reputation for not working well together.  The North East Combined Authority did not really survive the Brexit vote, but it was running into difficulty before that.  It has now been resurrected in truncated form with the Tyne as the dividing line.

Whatever political decision are taken, if there is one thing that is clear, political leaders have to work much more closely together for the good of the North.  If there is to be a good legacy from this Great Exhibition, this is an essential.

Costing – and thanks

 GNF has been in existence since 2011.  It has all cost about £10,000.  GNF received funding from the St Hilda’s Trust (£1000), from the Durham Community Foundation for the Lindisfarne Gospels debate in 2013 (£1113) and the rest was paid for by personal donations and the gift aid that accrued from most of that.  GNF would like to express its thanks to the Funding bodies and to all who gave to the work.

Speaking personally, one of the joys that I have experienced as convenor of GNF is the enormous help and support the organization has received from so many.  First of all from those who joined me in the Executive: Bob Langley, Gordon Morris, Paul Southgate, Liz Robson, Obehi Sule and Niki Black.  The generosity of each and the amount of time they have given to me personally and to GNF has been inspiring and I am most grateful.  Thanks are also due to Henrietta Heald , whose biography of William Armstrong was such an inspiration in the early days and for all she contributed, Caspar Hewett, who helped so much with the debates in the beginning and designed our logo, to Jackie Scollen who prepared our film, to Tom Lloyd and Cloud Data who set up and looked after our website, to Hannah Underwood of Keystone who spoke for us and opened our ‘My North East’ exhibition and to so many others.

I must also mention NCVS and VONNE who gave much support and advice.  And perhaps above all, the organizers of the Great Exhibition of the North; Carol Bell and her team in particular, Sarah Munro and the members of the North East Cultural Partnership – especially Margie Stewart-Piercy who especially helped us.  They did the bid, and got it going.  Thank you to them all..


David Goodacre

September 17th, 2018


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GNF Review – 2011 to 2018

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GNF Review – 2011 t0 2018. GNF’s dream was that the North East would host an expo to celebrate innovation, and bring hope to the region.  The Great Exhibition of the North has in many ways brought reality to this dream. The Great Exhibition of the North Expo 2018 began on June 22nd, 2018; a... Read More