Monday, September 24, 2012

Waxham Barns, Norfolk

Last week I was telling at Waxham 16th Century built barns in North Norfolk to the first years at Acle Academy. It was part of a history and geography field trip, which works well at Waxham because the site focuses not only on the history of the building, but also it locality in terms of environment and economy over four hundred years.


I think thats what stood out for me - the detailed interpretation on many different aspects of both the barns and regions history. There were for example a number of panels focusing on the labourers over many hundred of years as well as the original owners...

Panel about local labourers

There were also some that focused on how the barn was built with displays of building techniques, half finished so their construction was clear...

Cob bricks made of clay, and straw

Knapped and squared flints

 Other panels focused on the the areas and peoples relationship with the sea. From smuggling to ship wreaks and their reclamation by the manor and the locals who often ignored the manorial rights over such material!

Reclaimed ship mast for beam

There was also information on the areas importance at the time it was built especially its vulnerability during the time of the Spanish Armada...

Local detail from a 16th century Armada map
A reconstruction of barn and manor as it might have looked at the time of the Armada

Outside there are panels focusing on the the local flora, fauna and wildlife conservation all of which helps make the barns relevant to today...

Wildlife exhibit inside the barn

All in all a stunning place and one that deserved to be rescued from neglect and certain destruction in the 90s. There is a cafe for visitors and the local beach is quite for those seeking some solitude and huge Norfolk skies. It even has its own local legend of the Devil himself and an 18th century lord of the manor, Sir Berney Bograve. The story goes that every new years eve he held a feast for six of his ancestors whose ghosts would eat with him until midnight. Not only that but on another occasion he was mowing alongside his farmhands and he boosted that he could out mow the Devil. The Devil appeared and challenged him to a race for his soul. Sir Barney accepted but strew the Devil's field with stones so that his scythe was blunted and he gave up with the words, "Barney bor, them stones do cut damm hard". So even a bit of local dialect at Waxham Barn!

There are nice touches like the sheaves in the window slits to keep out the weather

I didn't see the Devil when I was there but I did add some stories of Old Hob to my set. And if you look closely at some of the photos of panels you will see a strange figure from long ago lurking in the here and now!

Thanks to the cafe staff at Waxham for the warm welcome and to Paul and the pupils at Acle Academy for making it a fun day.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Good Karma at the British Museum

I've been telling again at the British Museum, both last Saturday and on the following Monday and as usual it's been great (For two earlier visits to the museum go here and here) On Saturday I was telling 'Tales from Shakespeare' to the museum's young friends and I set up just in front of some Buddhist and Daoist deities. The fellow on the right was happy enough but the one immediately behind me had quite a scowl on his face, which probably had something to do with the fact he has been sitting still for nearly a thousand years and not because he didn't approve of my stories!

Buddhist deities to middle and right with daoist on the left
Click on image to enlarge

The following Monday I was telling to the older friends at the museum and this time I was sat in front of two Assyrian human headed and winged lions.  They once guarded the entrance to the royal palace of King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) in what is now modern northern Iraq. Now some may think that they would be even more oppressive than Buddhist deities and yet they were not, for if you click on the image below to enlarge it you will see that the one on the left is actually smiling!

My own Assyrian guards!

I like to think it was because he enjoyed my 'Shakespeare's Bawdy' - A set of stories from early Tudor geste books that would have been well known to the Bard and which picked up on many of the themes that found their way into his plays - From love and death to farce in the form of disguise, deception and all manner of mishaps and mistakes. Certainly the friends of the museum seemed to enjoy themselves with 60 plus at each of my sessions and many returning to hear more tales.

Guerrilla Theatre in the galleries

I was honoured, especially since there were so many other events going on that night including 'guerrilla Shakespeare' with actors who having been given the script to Troilus and Cressida came together to perform the play without the benefit of any rehearsals what so ever. I sat in after my last session and enjoyed it immensely. Not only the performance, but also the weird and wonderful costume that some of the actors had put together, whilst others simply turned up quite casual. It all made for a surreal end to a great night.

Thanks to Sarah, her volunteers and all the other staff who stayed late to make it a wonderful night.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

From Crafty to Crude at the Ashmolean

On a beautiful sunny Sunday I told again at Folk by the Oak at Hatfield House. It was my third time there and as usual it was very busy with large audience of young and old alike, which is just the way it should be. You can find out a bit more about an earlier visit to the festival as well as a link to their website by going to:

Folk by the Oak 2012

On the Saturday however I hadn't been able to take advantage of the fine weather as I was telling in various galleries at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford. Its not the first time I have told there, as both I and Stewart Alexander telling as Past-Imagined have run medieval storytelling events for families, put on a seventeenth century performance for adults and also run some storytelling workshops for education officers working in the heritage sector. But this is the first time I've been back there since the refurbishment and I really liked the blend of old and new architecture, which also had the added benefit of making the whole museum that much more easy to navigate. As usual I was far too busy telling to spend much time wandering and watching and so as with the British Museum I've focused on a couple of things that caught my eye in the England Gallery where I spent most of my time telling:

The first was this 14th century 'diptych' carved from Ivory, which only measures about 8 inches by 4, yet includes stunning detail from the life of Christ. If you click on the image to enlarge it you can see that each figure even has tiny toes. Yet again then an object of high status yes, but on that clearly demonstrates that the medieval period was not just a load of illiterate fools grubbing about in the mud!

The same craftsmanship can also be seen on this 16th century Cittern, which includes these stunning and erotic images of a satyr and satyres on the neck of the instrument as well as the carving of Adam and Eve below.

But for all this refined craftsmanship which clearly cost their respective owners a lot of coin, even the Ashmolean has some objects that are far more crude in its collection, and in more ways than one:

Feast your eyes then on Jack of Hilton - A crudely made 'hollow-cast copper alloy figure who dates from the late 13th or 14th century. A rare example of an aeolipile, or 'hearth blower'; a vessel was filled with water and warmed on the hearth to fan the flames with a jet of air released through the steam–pressure created within. I like many thought that the hot air must shoot out of his privy member as it was often referred to long ago, but closer inspection shows that it hung too low to hold enough water to produce a constant jet of steam. In actual fact it blows from the figures mouth. There is then a joke here, with the craftsman mocking our own crude expectations of his crudely made vessel. A joke that was cast some 700 odd years ago, but still has the power to make us laugh to this day!

Thanks to Adam for yet again putting on a great event at Hatfield and Jude Barrett - Education and Access Officer at the Ashmolean.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Inside Arundel and Rockingham Castle

Another busy weekend for me in which I told at the all new Festival of Arts & Literature for the Children of Norfolk and also two castles!

The first marked a return to Arundel Castle and because of the foul wind and weather I was lucky enough to be telling inside - In perhaps the most unusual space I've told in in a long time!

I was telling in this beautiful vaulted room (A vestibule even!) where I was surrounded by ancient weapons and many a stuffed and mounted deer's head looking down with dead eyes, so it was hard to tell if they liked my tales or not! It was a room just off this long hallway...

Also a space packed full of  stuffed animals including some very rare American Eagle Owls that were bred on the estate long ago. What you are looking at here though is not the original castle, rather it is a nineteenth century rebuild, but beautifully done using ancient techniques and i'm sure that are many who walk along this passageway think they are walking along a 900 year old room. It does contain some fragments of the original castle keep though, including a medieval doorway that leads into the remains of the early undercroft.

From Arundel I came back to Norfolk for the Children's Festival before heading off to Rockingham Castle, in the midlands. It was unusually for this year a lovely sunny day when I arrived. There is not much of the early castle still standing except for the medieval drum towers and gate through which I passed to set up my tent in the inner courtyard. Another beautiful space surrounded by what looked to me to be Tudor and /or Jacobean buildings. It is a serene space even when full of people and the views over the low walls provide stunning views for miles around. I was told by one member of staff that you can actually see five counties!

 Views from the inner courtyard wall

I really warmed to the castle not least because of the lovely colours and textures of its old stone walls like these....

In the inner courtyard

I also enjoyed the clever historical interpretation on site - All the castles I visit have had their fair share of sieges and involvement in the ups and downs of long ago and Rockingham is no different. Indeed, Prince John is said to have hunted here often and the castle became a hunting lodge for him and other English Kings. Some say that he stored his treasure in the great hall and that it is buried somewhere at Rockingham rather than being lost in the Wash after all!
What stood out though at Rockingham was the clever use of modern day news reports on a video presentation in one of the drum towers. The presentation went from the news reader in the studio to a reporter reporting live at important events from the castles history, including the two civil wars of the 12th and 17th centuries. The reporter  interviewed both important figures and everyday soldiers at each siege thereby giving a very unique and local spin on national events. It really kept me hooked and other sites that fixate on dates and building chronologies should take note!

Thanks to Andrew Norman for the Invite to Rockinham and also to his very warm and friendly staff.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Donington Le Heath Manor House & Norwich GuildHall

It has been a busy month this May - From Hatfield to the Birmingham Storytelling Cafe and then to Donington Le Heath and back to Norwich Guildhall.

All have been great places to tell, but I am particularly drawn to the historic buildings. Donington was amazing and I just wish I had had more time  to check it out and take pictures. It was like stepping back into the 13th century, because apart from some 17th modernisation the hall has remained much as it would have been in the first few centuries after building. Although it was suggested to me that it might be older still and grown out of a Saxon long house. I like the blend of medieval and early modern architecture and it all fits together to make a comfortable house that I'd be more than happy to call my own! I'm not sure I would have been able to afford it even back then, for it was at one time a gentlemans residence, albeit a notorious one at that. It was non other than Sir Everard Digby, one of the Gun Powder Plotters. Its fortunes were not always that grand, even becoming a pigsty at one point, which is perhaps why the medieval  building survived, unspoilt by much later modernisation. 

But a pigsty lovingly restored to its former glory and now a perfect venue for telling a collection of medieval  tales like Dame Fortunes Wheel and the Three Estates. I really get a kick out of telling stories that would have been recognisable to all those who feasted in its great hall or huddled round the kitchen fireplace long, long ago!

To find out more about the Manor house just visit the Leicestershire County Council Website here...

Hall at Donington Le Heath

The following evening I was back in Norwich telling the Shaming of Agnes Leaman at Norwich Guildhall. For me it was much the same buzz, but more so, for not only was I telling Tudor tales in the Tudor Court room of the medieval building, but the stories were mixed with the stories of real people actually sentenced to various punishments  in that very room over 400 years ago. Its an austere looking room really except for the stunning 15th century window glass restored after the collapse of the chamber roof in the 1500s. But when the civic portraits are hopefully one day restored to the court room; paintings that include many of the 16th and 17th century Mayors of the City, it will look very grand indeed. With all those once great men of a long lost elite no longer looking down on petty thieves and all those accused of ill and evil rule, for now they will be looking down on the likes of me. No change there then!

East end of the Mayors Court Chamber

Detail from the Mayors Court Fifteenth Century Glass

Thanks To Alison and Richard for the Invite to Donington and Rachel and everyone else at HEART in Norwich for once again looking after me at the Guildhall.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Living Crafts, Hatfield House, Herts

This is the second time I've told in the grounds at Hatfield. The first was at Folk by the Oak music festival, but on this occasion its the Living Crafts Fair - One of the biggest events of its type in Europe.

I've told at craft fairs before - Ludlow Medieval Xmas Fayre for example has huge tents selling jewellery, furniture, pots and who knows what else, but what marks Living Crafts out as different is that many of those selling their wares also demonstrate their crafts. I watched a woman heating and manipulating glass into all sorts of delicate objects; making it look so easy although of course it was not.

Another man, a 'bodger' processing the raw timber into trugs, hurdles and so much more...

A stone mason was giving kids and adults alike a master class, his tent full of tap, tap, tapping and concentration as visitors slowly revealed their own designs...

Pupils work above and the Masters below

What also struck me were the stories of many of these crafts men and women. Many had come late to their trades - Dissatisfied with their lives; with being forever caught in the rat race they had opted out, many with a desire to leave something behind. Something beautiful! One man, a silver smith told me that he was once an antique dealer who made a good living from buying and selling all sorts of beautiful bits and pieces, but he felt unfulfilled and wanted to know how the objects had been made, so as not to just be profiting by the skills of others. So that's what he did and I watched him this very day hammering and crafting a delicate silver spoon.

I like that. It makes me relax when it comes to my own kids - neither are really happy with the path they have chosen, but clearly they have time to ponder and try different things. It also fits in well with my own experience of life - For once when I was a welder I would never have dreamed that one day I would be an itinerant teller of tales!

Thanks to Robin and his staff for the invite to his fantastic event.

P.S I also got to camp amongst some great 'stag oaks' like this......

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Schools, schools and more schools...

Most of my telling in these early months of 2012 has taken place in schools. From Tudor tales and activities at Stalham and Northrepps Primarys to comic tales at Shine in Gt Yarmouth (For children with special needs and their families) Also three days of Beowulf and other stories of quest in a number of primary and secondary schools in Ipswich. This was part of a local funding initiative that coincided with national book and reading week to bring greater cooperation between the schools and their pupils.

What struck me about these schools is the level of optimism they project and also dedication from teachers and other staff. In just one of the Ipswich schools there was a map of the world with corresponding arrows leading to pupils work - From a story and photographs about the time a group of Maasia people came to dance with the children and presumably at other schools as well! Also another arrow linking to a letter; one of many written to Maori pen friends in New Zealand.

In another school there were banners all around the hall painted by the kids and dealing with a wide range of subjects from respecting other peoples beliefs to recycling and helping others. Whilst on the walls were the children's versions of aboriginal 'dot' art. In the final school of the last day in Ipswich I watched the children telling stories that they had created themsleves using typical quest themes, with Princes and Princesses going off in search of adventure.

The children were totally unafraid and there seems to have been no thought or worry about how they looked and the other kids in the audience were supporting the performers and clearly enjoying the silliness. It's just a pity we can't hold on to that lack of self consciousness as we get older and likewise remain responsible and open to new ideas, including being part of a much greater world, instead of being ground down by petty squabbles and local prejudice.

Perhaps we all need to go back to school once in a while!