Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ludlow Castle, Shropshire

My storytelling tent in the inner bailey of Ludlow Castle
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Last weekend I was telling at Ludlow Castle Medieval Christmas Fayre. Its my second time there and one of my favourite events of the year. Not least because I love Christmas and the fayre has a wonderful Christmas feel. It's predominantly a craft market with all sorts of great gifts for all. Trust me when I say that I have told at many craft fairs and some can be very dodgy with little more than bread boards covered with poker work and cushions covered in cuddly kittens! But not Ludlow, for just about every stand had something both imaginative and well made being sold on it; from museum quality miniature interiors of castles to colourful felt hats and insect inspired jewelry. And the creative crafts spilt out of the fayre into Ludlow market where one trader was selling old coins and cutlery that he had cut and hammered into stunning bracelets and pendants.

The huge craft tents at Ludlow taken from the Keep

That's the thing about the Ludlow fayre is that it is very much a town event with market traders and local shops staying open late on the Saturday night with many getting dressed up in their most weird and wonderful fancy dress style 'medieval' costumes. Its not about reenactment style authenticity; its about taking part and having a good time. The whole town seems to join in and maybe that has something to do with the old fashioned air about the place. Many of the shops are very traditional in their displays, including the butchers with their produce still hanging outside their widows. There are old timber framed buildings dotted about all over the place that show Ludlow to have been a prosperous place. It must have been full of rich merchants who clearly liked to show their wealth in the excessive decorative woodwork in their houses; much more than was really needed to make them structurally sound. Our ancestors were into showing off just as much as we are today!

The conspicuous consumption of wood!

More showing off

Yet more over the top yet beautiful wood framing

One of a number of butchers in Ludlow with pheasants for sale

The castle also demonstrates our ancestors need to keep up with the latest fashions and fads and its walls are covered in doors and windows from many different periods. Some are now walled up or the heavy wooden doors bolted shut, which all adds to the mystery of the place.

One of many mullioned windows

There may be some cynics out there who just see it as yet another example of the over commercialisation of Christmas, but I don't think it is. Firstly the crafts on sale are all virtually unique and so show some thought has gone into them. Its not just a case of thumbing through the Argos catalogue or doing your shopping on line. I like that! And even though the fayre is predominately about spending money, many people come for the great festive entertainment.. There is of course storytelling and also archery, falconry and all the other things you'd expect at an historic fayre. But there is also lots of festive music, especially bagpipes. Now if you're like me your early experience of bagpipes was the endless screeching of many a Scotsman on the TV on New Years eve, but these are different. They include Northumbrian and various German pipes which are much softer sounding and are great when played with other medieval style instruments and a big drum! I defy anyone not to be drawn in.

The bagpipe festivities well under way

People were dancing and singing along to the various Christmas choirs on site as well as eating and drinking and being very merry. Unfortunately the weather was not that good and there was plenty of rain, but what stood out to me is that it didn't get people down. Thousands turned up over the two days and every one was smiling. I'm not into the religious aspects of Christmas and prefer to treat it as a winter festival, a time of feasting and fun at the coldest and darkest time of the year and that's exactly how many of the visitors to the fayre seemed to treat it as well. A time to forget about credit crunches and wet weekends and to eat, drink and be very, very merry!

Thanks to Wynndbag and all the other entertainers and volunteers.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nottingham Robin Hood Pageant

Last weekend I was telling at the annual Robin Hood Pageant in the grounds of Nottingham castle. As you would expect Robin Hood and his merry men are here there and everywhere. As is the cruel Sheriff who battles with Robin many times over the weekend in the main arena up in the top bailey earthwork of the castle.

Entrance to the fayre in Lower bailey
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The main action however is down in the outer baileys, a beautiful setting for the fayre with all the tents nestling amongst the trees; their leaves turning golden brown and scattered all about. Row upon row of lights hang from the trees adding color and light on the dark wintry days of the weekend. Much like Ely It has a Christmas feel to it with many crafts represented in the many colorful tents.

The autumn fayre thru the trees in the lower bailey

There are all sorts of traders dealing in all sorts of historical goods, from hand fletched arrows to spindle whorls for spinning wool and even pewter pilgrim badges. And also lots of swords and and pointy hats for budding Robin Hoods! There is also plenty of entertainment including the Crazy Dutch Regulars who come over from Holland every year and get everyone dancing. It doesn't matter that most can understand what they are singing, and all are encouraged to join in. There are demonstrators like Jim the pot who makes pots from all periods and travels the world demonstrating his craft on a hand driven wheel . He makes replicas used in museums and on many a film. And then there is Jack Greene who is in a league of his own...

The Crazy Dutch folk musicians

For Jack Greene is an Alchemist and all round Renaissance man. You will meet many different and very interesting people in my business. Some who wear costume from long ago are admittedly a bit weird, but many have had many a varied career and all sorts of experiences prior to getting into reenactment. Jack was performing this weekend as Dr John Greene; a celebrated Tudor alchemist, but this is just one of many names Jack goes by. He has many different persona's, both in the Living History world and in the real world as well, from renowned potter to best selling author and inventor.

Dr John Greene's Travelling Laboratory

He brings a real touch of magic to these sort of events; tapping in as he does to children's and some adult's sense of wonder. In a session with jack you might get to assist in the making of a poisonous potion or even some dragons blood. Whilst scattered all around his travelling laboratory are dragon skins, dragon teeth, and even pickled dragon babies! To say nothing of the various potions and powders and strange and curious crystals from far off lands.

The alchemist at work

Dr John Greene with assistant cooking up some dragons Blood!

One of the other more entertaining aspects of the fayre is the nightlife, although this is only for the privileged few allowed to stay on the castle grounds at night. As I've said before about places like Battle Abbey, you get a completely different perspective of venues at night when all the public have gone home. Perhaps as with Battle it might be the wildlife who take over when all have left, or in the case of Nottingham, the wilder side of life off site. On this occasion its more about what can be see looking out from the castle and not looking in! The baileys in which I was camped are surrounded by a high stone wall looking out and over the city. And you are so high up looking down that most of the passers by have no idea that you are there...

Looking down from walls on the 'Trip'

That means that you can see all sorts of sights for the drinkers spilling out of the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem known as the 'Trip' locally, which is said to be the oldest pub in England and definitely a great place to unwind after a long days telling. Their sausage and mash is fantastic, but be sure to get in early as its a popular pub especially with students who fill the place with their love of life and unquenchable thirst for ale!

Robin Hood by day. Standing firm and unmolested!

And just occasionally if you walk round the walls and look down near the entrance you can see a lad or lass making suggestive movements up against the statue of Robin Hood that stands there. They all think that they are the first to have done so and all get embarrassed when they here the laughter from up above!

Nottingham by night from the castle walls

That probably sounds a bit odd spying from the walls at clubbers and pubbers, but most take it in good stead. Some even have a bit of a chat or more correctly a shout with you, for its a long way up. And as i told a small group of passers by this weekend; Its like being Lord of your own castle for a day or two at least!

Thanks to Richard and his staff for yet another great event

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ely Apple Day Festival & Mannington Hall History Day

On Saturday the 17th of October I told autumnal themed tales at the annual Apple Day Festival in Ely and on Sunday all sorts of stories at Mannington Hall in Norfolk.

The gathering crowds at Ely Apple Festival
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The Apple Day was very different to anything I've ever told at before and was a great experience. Not least because it encompasses all I love about my favourite season, autumn. All around the leaves were falling and there was a feel of excitement in the air. You could smell winter and there was even a hint of Christmas and all the feasting and festivities that accompany it.

The Lady Town Crier Calls all to the opening of the Festival

That's because the festival is very much a celebration of natures bounties. Of enjoying all that the woods, gardens and orchards have to offer and all mixed in with some great cakes, pies and cider. What more could you ask for!

More than just apples were for sale this day

There was a real sense of occasion, with the local 'great and good' parading about in their gold chains. They may have looked out of place amongst the greenary had it not been for the very grand surroundings of Ely Cathedral and the other historic buildings that surrounded the festival 'Palace Green'. And as well as the civic elites the visitor could enjoy traditional crafts, folk music, morris dancing and even some traditional games incorporating many an apple!

Cake stalls outside the West Front of Ely Cathedral

In some ways it was a very traditional scene, but there were some world charities represented at the event including Amnesty International and there can't be many cultures that don't celebrate the changing seasons and the coming of the harvest; even if they don't do it in such an English way!

Telling the Green Man

Many thanks to Aileen and Tracy for booking me and I look forward to returning for the Ely Eel Day next year...

Mannington Hall was also a very different sort of event because although I tell at many historic fairs, most are a celebration of one period. Mannington however was like a mini English Heritage Festival of History; a celebration of all English history with the typical medieval and Tudor stalls, but also classic cars, military vehicles, and a world war II band singing many classics from the time. There were even some girl guides reenacting earlier girl guiding! And all in the grounds of a medieval moated manor house. There's not much more I can say about it, other than I enjoyed telling medieval tales beneath a great oak (one of many fine trees on the estate) nearly as much as I enjoyed having a mug of tea from the 1940s tea stand!

Thanks to Ian Pyecroft of Black Knight Historical and of course Lord and Lady Walpole for putting up with the many colorful if somewhat weird characters!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Orford Castle, Suffolk

Orford Castle and my storytelling tent in the remains of the bailey
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Over the past few years I have spent a lot of time working at Orford Castle in Suffolk. Telling at both events for the general public and as part of English Heritage 'discovery visits' for schools.

For the most part I tell from my tent outside the castle keep, because space is limited inside, which is because of the keeps unusual if not unique design.. Its actually built on a very small mound and the curtain wall that once surrounded it would have been very close to the keep itself. With buildings inside the curtain wall conditions would have been cramped, but the builders of Orford had some great ideas to pack a lot into a little space, especially in the keep itself...

The polygonal tower Keep forms an 18-sided drum with three square turrets, and a forebuilding reinforcing its entrance. The keep was built to a highly innovative design and both exterior and interior survive almost intact, allowing you to get a real feel for what the castle keep would have looked like some 900 years ago. From the damp and cold cellar that houses a well, you can climb up and around the wide spiral staircase past a maze of passages, leading to the chapel, kitchen and other chambers in the turrets. There is a room once used to collect water from the roof and also the Constable's chamber. The Constable kept charge of the castle for the King and as such had his own room which befitted his station. In truth the room is small, fitting as it does in the walls of the keep, and now it is bare, without the rendering and hangings that would have made it comfortable. But it does have one thing that sums up both the status of the Constable and the unique design of Orford. Its a small triangular shaped opening in the outside wall of the room which was once the Constable's very own private urinal. There are few of these in existence and probably most noble men or women used gaurdrobes (Toilets built into the walls) or had their piss taken away by favoured servants!

The urinal in the Constable's Chamber

I remembered this from way before I told stories and on a much earlier visit to Orford. It's the kind of thing that sticks in my mind! Although I was a little disappointed when at last I returned to Orford to tell stories, for I had it in my mind that the triangular opening was the other way up, forming a wedge shape. I also fancied that this was a conceit of sorts; that the builders were representing the female genitalia (I know that sounds rubbish, but its better than saying 'bits'!) Anyway the idea being that whenever the noble Lord went to piss he was also showing his manliness! That's a rubbish idea I know, but I have been to a lot of medieval sites and told a lot of medieval tales and believe you me they could be just as weird as we are today.

This is why I like castles and any old building for that matter, for you can always find something different and maybe if you are lucky, something a bit weird wherever you go!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

St Michael & All Angels Church, Bowthorpe

A few weeks later and with what I think was a well deserved holiday in between I was telling tales of Saints including the local Saint Walstan at St Michael & All Angels church in Bowthorpe near Norwich

The west end of St Michael & All Angels

The church is now ruinous, but like all churches it seems to have had a checkered past...
In the 14th and 15th century the church was enlarged, despite the black death, but it has seen bad times and it has been said that when times were particularly hard the parishioners even stole the lime mortar from its walls!

Things did however go from bad to worse. Local records show that in1605, it was returned to be a free chapel, that paid no synodals nor procurations, and therefore is exempt from archidiaconal jurisdiction, but the King lately presented to it as a rectory, valued at 6 marks, in the archdeaconry of Norfolk and deanery of Hingham. It was during this time the church was neglected and laid in decay, without any service, it being esteemed as a sinecure, till Matthew Bishop of Norwich obtained a decree in Chancery, dated 23d Feb. 1635, against Henry Yaxley, Esq. lord here, by virtue of which the church was purged of all things in it; (it having been used as a sort of store-house;) the churchyard was fenced in, (being 28 rods round,) four windows were put into the church, and one into the steeple, a porch built, new doors made, the church paved, ceiled, whited, and reeded a font erected, and the pulpit and desk finished, at about 140l. charge; the profits of the whole living were sequestered to repair the church, and it was finished at Michaelmas, 1639; the priest's or chaplain's salary to be paid by the said Yaxley, and all others after him, that shall possess the tithes and glebes; all which was performed accordingly, and ever since it hath been served by a chaplain or parish-priest, as it is at this day, it being a donative in the lord of the manor.

All of this basically meant that the St Michaels was in the hands of a local Catholic recusant family, the Yaxleys, who for whatever reason let the church fall into disrepair. They were in fact at one point using it as a barn, but were forced to reinstate it as a church and make the necessary repairs. Some of these repairs can still be seen today with most notably a series of large holes running parallel to each other and set low on either side of the nave. During a survey of the remains in the 80s that was part of a dig prior to the building of a new church, it was suggested that these holes once took floor beams to support a raised wooden floor. It was suggested that there is also evidence of a gallery above. If this is right the church would have become more like a meeting house than traditional church, which seems unlikely knowing the Yaxley's beliefs. But who knows, for some have suggested that the raised floor was put in whilst still a barn to keep grain away from the damp floor.

The holes that at one time took beams to support a raised wooden floor

That's the beauty of all ruins they all have their secrets, but St Micheal and All Angels has a few more... During the excavations in the 80s, the archaeologists found that the tower of the church had been demolished in the 1700s, but prior to that a kiln had been placed inside it. This kiln had gone out of use, but at some stage a body had been buried inside it and all had eventually be covered by the demolished tower! Now archaeologists aren't the kind to hypothesise on such mysteries, preferring to instead to stick to the evidence and in this case it appears that the floor of the kiln had been leveled and made good prior to the body being placed there. This suggests a level of care and reverence that infers that it was a proper burial albeit in an unusual place and it has been suggested that it was done by a family unable to afford the rite or perhaps because they had been denied burial for some other reason. Myself, I'm not sure for there would have had to have been exceptional circumstances to deny burial in consecrated ground and its more likely i think that something far more sinister took place here long, long ago!

Inside the remains of the nave looking west

That said the ruin is now a very peaceful and beautiful place to come and explore and relax, in an area that most local people of Norwich associate with nothing more than a large housing estate; a rabbit warren of boxes. The housing estate does sprawl out that's true, but its worth an explore, for like everywhere I've been it has its hidden secrets!

Thanks to the Reverend Canon Simon Stokes and all the parishioners and volunteers at the new Church in Bowthorpe for making me so welcome.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

West Stow Anglo Saxon Village, Suffolk

On the August bank holiday I had the privilege of telling Saxon tales in what is all respects a real Saxon hall-house, reconstructed at West Stow Anglo Saxon Village.

Some of the Halls and Houses at West Stow

Excavations on the site have revealed human interaction there since the end of the last ice age, with evidence of stone age hunter gatherers from about 7000 years ago. There is also evidence of a neo lithic burial mound and an Iron age community complete with enclosure ditches and round houses from about 300 BC. The site was then used sporadically until it was settled by the Anglo Saxons in about 420 AD and for the next two hundred years the village grew and 'traveled' about a mile east to its present position; the site of the reconstructed village in the center of the Lark Valley.

There is evidence of medieval settlement on the site but that does not concern us, for what is more interesting to me is that the site was excavated from the 1960s onwards with a view to turning the whole area into a country park. It's worth noting that a visit to West Stow not only takes in the reconstructed village, which is fascinating, but also the surrounding walks which are stunning. We are talking about getting in touch with the past in the morning and perhaps a picnic in the afternoon and all with a great walk in between. Or maybe if you can't walk far there is a great cafe on site as well as a visitors center and museum. Whichever option you choose, you can fill both your mind and bellies if you've a mind to at West Stow!

At the same time as the park was being developed the idea was put forward for a practical archaeology project on the site; the idea being to reconstruct the buildings with a view to seeing how the structures related to the evidence found by archaeologist below the ground. What is now called experimental archaeology today. They reconstructed both Saxon 'houses'; smaller structures of which there was evidence of about 70 on site all centered on shallow pits, and also 'halls'. These were larger gathering places that probably served as meeting places for individual family groups. There is evidence for at least 7 of these from Saxon times.

The 'sunken house', built in 1976

What is interesting is that because it is an ongoing archaeological experiment as well as a visitor attraction, you get to see the changing ideas about our past. One of the earliest buildings on site, but still standing today is the 'sunken house' which was built to reflect the then popular idea that Saxons lived in pits below low thatched roofs. This idea has since been proved wrong not least because the example at West Stow continually flooded. Its now thought the sunken pits excavated on many Saxon sites are the remains of cellars beneath a raised floor, but the sunken house still remains as evidence of the benefits of experimental archaeology.

Inside of the 'sunken house' showing the supposed floor level
Clicking on some images will make them larger

And the experimentation still goes onto this day, for when one of the earlier reconstructed halls burnt down, it first gave the archaeologists a great chance to to study how a Saxon house falls and begins to rot, but also it allowed them to build a new hall in which I was lucky enough to be telling! A new hall that Incorporated all the latest ideas about Saxon house/hall building.

The new hall built in 2005

Inside the new hall
Awaiting the 'Scop', the teller of tales!

I've just mentioned two of the buildings here, because quite simply I couldn't do the rest justice. You just have to go and experience them yourselves. The reason I say experience is because the whole place is an attack on your senses. There are the sounds of wooden latches being lifted and the smells of smoke and cooking, for the fires are lit on many days of the year and there are always demonstrations of cooking, weaving and other Saxon crafts taking place. And if all that wears you out you can even have a sleep upon an authentic straw/fleece covered bed in one of the smaller houses!

The lifted latch leading too....

The fire pit in MY hall!

A raised bed in one of the houses

What really caught my eye though was the attention to detail on site and the wonderful workmanship which planned or unplanned really brought out the beauty of the natural materials being used. From the rough split timber used to clad the outside of the hall in which I was telling......

Outer timbers of new hall

To the smoother adze worked inner timbers that highlight the halls important status and the need for comfort.....

Inner timbers of the hall
smoothed with an adze (An axe of sorts)

There was also the shiny and worn floor timbers in all the buildings, smoothed not with an axe, but by the footfall of many a visitor over many a year. Timbers worn smooth by modern feet, but modern feet walking in the footsteps of our ancestors!.....

Worn floor timbers at the entrance to the new hall

Many thanks to Hannah for inviting me tell at West Stow and also to Catherine, Sarah and Chrissy (I hope I got your names right!) for looking after me so well.

I leave you with a selection of other textures and materials from West Stow.....

Looking up under the thatched eaves of the new hall

Thatch on the 'sunken house'

Some Saxon scroll work
framing a door of one of the houses

Old Sarum

As one half of Past-Imagined Historical Tale Tellers I was telling at Old Sarum in Whiltshire.

Ariel view of Old Sarum Hill Fort

I was telling with Stewart Alexander from Monday to Friday, the 24th-28th August and each day we were telling different tales from different periods of English history, from Viking and Saxon through to Tudor. It was an attempt to try and get across the vast history and mans continued involvement with the place, although in truth it goes back much further than the Saxons to at least 500 BC when an Iron age tribe raised the massive outer ditch and bank.

The sites continued history is of course its main selling point for even the toilets built into the iron age bank are actually the remnants of a second world war gun emplacement! But for all its history, its internal structures are ruinous and so it takes a lot of imagination on the part of visitors to get a feel for how it would have looked at any given time. Although they are ably helped by some excellent interpretation panels that go beyond the straightforward, literal description of various features about the place. The panel next to the well for example talks about it be a meeting point for 'gossips's; a place that linked together the various buildings in need of water and more importantly the servants who worked in them. I thought that was a great bit of imaginative interpretation that brought the people from the past to life, for they too loved to hear the latest news and perhaps have a laugh at another's expense as much as we still do today!

Unfortunately there is not that much to see beyond the mainly medieval remains in the center of the early iron age fort and I don't think that most visitors (other than the dog walkers) get to explore the early ramparts. Perhaps the site needs more to encourage the casual visitor beyond the remains of the Keep and Cathedral. I of course was lucky for working there a full five days I had plenty of time to explore and walk the ancient bank and ditch that defines Old Sarum hill fort. And I'm glad I did, because as you ca see for the selection of photos I took, it gives a great view of the surrounding countryside and a much greater feeling of the dominance of the site over the surrounding area than you get from looking up from the outside. For on driving up to the fort it looks to be an unimpressive hill, but standing on the outer bank you do get a sense of the massive scale of the original enclosure and just how safe and dominant it would have made its Iron Age builders feel. It also helps explain why the site would have continued being important to the Romans, Saxons and medieval peoples to come!

Various views looking out from Iron age bank at Old Sarum
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Telling at Old Sarum all week meant that we had plenty of time to explore the locality and started by looking at Salisbury Cathedral. Although both Stewart and I were nearly locked in the Cathedral Close, because we were so taken at looking at all the different houses, medieval through to eighteenth century and of course the cathedral itself. I really liked the exterior of Salisbury. For one thing apart from the west front which is covered with carvings of Saints and is very ornate; the rest is unusually plain. According to a local man who worked at Old Sarum this is because it was built a lot quicker than most cathedrals; "In one go" (Foundation stone laid in 1220 and consecrated in 1258) and so there is not the jumble of styles you usually associate with medieval ecclesiastical buildings.

The Prisoner of Conscience Window, the east end of Salisbury Cathedral

As to the interior, I wouldn't know where to start, for there was so much going on, from one of the original copies of Magna Carta and also some great examples of early documents now displayed in the Chapter House. It includes a very early 12th century indulgence sold to a wealthy patron to lessen their time in purgatory whilst boosting the Cathedral's coffers! But of particular appeal to me was the Prisoner of Conscience window, which the photo above can not do justice too. It was designed by Gabriel Loire in 1980 and from the West end is the deepest blue, but up close it is a mass of detail; of faces, which I think represent men and women imprisoned all over the world for having stood up to corrupt regimes.

Sixteenth century tomb in Salisbury Cathedral

There was also the tomb of Gorge Sydenham above who was a chaplain to both Henry VII and Henry VIII. It is one of two that is very unusual in that it shows Sydenham as a wasted corpse. I have seen many 'transi' tombs that show the dead person in both a likeness from life with a corrupted version hidden below, but never one that shows them only in decay. Perhaps it has something to do with the times; with the reformation and heightened Protestant feelings, or it could just be a local fashion?

The Tisbury Tithe Barn

We also took a trip to a very old pub near by where we were staying. But we got lost and happily happened upon a medieval tithe barn at Tisbury which turned out to have the largest thatched roof in all England. It was whilst googling this on his I Phone that Stewart also discovered that Tisbury was famous for the ancient Yew growing in its churchyard that is said to be over 4000 years old! It has been filled with concrete which looks ugly, but its still wearing well for something so old. It was still bearing fruit; bright red berries on the night we went to see it.

As the photo says, the concrete filled Tisbury Yew,
Tisbury Churchyard

So there you go, lots to see, including a happy accident with the tithe barn, but also an ancient Yew, which proved Stewart's devotion to his I Phone was well justified!

Thanks to all Naomi and all the other staff at Old Sarum who made Stewart and I feel very welcome.

And also a very special thanks to Helen and Paul of Discover History who kept us company all week and supplied us with lots of treats courtesy of the Premier Inn!