Could Sunderland become known as the ‘City of the Light’?

Sunderland Illuminations 2016 - Spark Drummers.
Sunderland Illuminations 2016 - Spark Drummers.
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Could Sunderland become known as a City of Light? Light is being considered as one of the themes for Sunderland’s City of Culture 2021 bid. Fresh from a visit to the Illuminations at Roker, bid director Rebecca Ball talks about why the theme may help the city to shine as efforts ramp up to stamp the city on the culture map.

Q: What did you think of this year’s Sunderland Illuminations?

City of Culture 2021 bid director, Rebecca Ball

City of Culture 2021 bid director, Rebecca Ball

A: I went with my two young children and as a family and we had a great time. Roker Park and Cliffe Park were really busy and it was great to see so many people out and about and clearly enjoying what is one of the city’s most popular cultural offerings.

The refreshing thing was to hear the accents of people from right across the region, and to see Sunderland shine so brightly, with such a warm, welcoming and family-friendly experience that I think reflected so positively on the city.

Q: We have the Stadium of Light, the Academy of Light and Sunderland is the birthplace of the inventor of the electric lightbulb. Do you think the city could be celebrating winning the title of City of Culture 2021 as a City of Light?

Well, we have to be shortlisted and win the competition first, but I certainly think there are plenty of reasons why Sunderland could be known as the City of Light. As you’ve said, Sunderland AFC’s home is known as the Stadium of Light and the players train at the Academy of Light, but the club’s link to ‘light’ goes further. SAFC’s charity arm is the Foundation of Light and the Foundation’s new school, which has just opened, is called the Beacon School.

Roker Lighthouse

Roker Lighthouse

So while the club, through its exploits on the pitch and exciting programme off the pitch – like the regular concerts – lights up people’s lives, the Foundation and Beacon will bring light and real opportunities to the lives of so many others.

The Sir Joseph Swan connection is a really great link to the theme too. He was someone who quite literally lit up the world, and he was born here and did much of his learning here. He gave electric light to the world.

But there are more links, when you start thinking about it. The Venerable Bede and his community of monks brought the first coloured glass to England, lighting up monasteries and churches across the north and further afield. And the great library that both Bede and Benedict Biscop created didn’t just further advance aspects of Christian culture, the learning that the twin monasteries encouraged and developed lit up the Dark Ages, helping educational advancements in so many different directions.

On a more practical note, there’s also the Clanny Safety Lamp, developed by Dr William Reid Clanny, an Irish physician who lived and worked in Sunderland. His miners’ safety lamp, represented so beautifully at the Stadium of Light, saved countless lives underground and went on to become the prototype and inspiration for later mining lamps produced by George Stephenson and Humphrey Davy.

Joseph Swan at 21

Joseph Swan at 21

Q: Anything more on the ‘theme of light?’

There is, yes. One of the city’s most famous landmarks is all about light. Roker Lighthouse was a sign of the city’s importance both as a port and one of the country’s major shipbuilding towns. When it was built in 1903 it was known as Britain’s most powerful port lighthouse and was the light that guided generations of ships safely home. Now it’s not just a Sunderland icon, but a cultural asset, a destination – since the recent refurbishment of the lighthouse and pier it has become a popular tourist destination.

And of course we have the Sunderland Illuminations. They were first introduced into the city in 1937 and were said then to have been better than Blackpool’s. They became an annual event until they 1959, and have thankfully been revived in recent years. The amazing lights draw tens of thousands of people into the town’s twin resorts, not just from Wearside, but from much further afield.

Q: Could light be used as theme for 2021 events, or other arts and cultural activities in the city?

Yes of course, it’s such a broad theme and one that you can imagine artists and performers being inspired by, or interpreting in so many different ways. Light artist Mick Stephenson’s Ship of Light, which is in the Rose Garden at Roker Park for this year’s Illuminations, is an interesting piece that combines light with Sunderland’s shipbuilding heritage. I know Mick spent some time speaking to former shipyard workers before starting his installation.

We’re working with Mick on a new piece which will be unveiled at a 2021 Stakeholders Event being held at Ryhope Pumping Station later this month.

The city has long been a magnet for painters, perhaps drawn to the city by its abundance of light – our beautiful coastline and riverside mean that we’re not hemmed in, that there always seems to be plenty of natural light during the day.

Painters like L.S. Lowry and famous ship artist Clarkson Stanfield loved painting in the city, while others have often commented on the almost unnatural light the city enjoys.

There are also some great opportunities to light up the city’s landmarks – and I know recently Penshaw Monument became the Monument of Light on at least two different occasions.

Keel Square already benefits from some great lighting and I know when the Stadium first opened there was a tremendous lighting effect with a beam of light shooting up from Sunderland into the night sky – so there is tremendous scope for artists to respond to the theme.

Light has so many meanings, beyond the literal sense of the word, and I think that the way in which Sunderland is innovating and creating is allowing us to beam our light and our learning beyond the boundaries of the city. Sunderland is a friendly city – a city that has shared enlightenment through many of the great figures who were born and have lived here over the years.

Light is a reference to progressiveness – I think that is a great reflection of the point at which Sunderland finds itself now; a city that is ready to shine. And, of course, our ambition is that through the bid – as well as the work that is already underway to enhance the city – it will do just that.

Q: So could ‘light’ become a theme for the City of Culture bid, could it help with the city being known as the City of Light?

We’re working through the main themes of the bid now and I’m sure the city’s connection to light will form part of that – the link is too strong, and there are so many wonderful opportunities to celebrate our heritage and uniqueness through it.

And I’m sure Sunderland being known as the City of Light and the connotations and images the name would bring to mind could help cement a positive image in the minds of judges and others.

We just need to make sure that people understand there are so many great genuine reasons why we’d like to be known as the City of Light and it’s a name that people in Sunderland agree with, relate to and take ownership of.