Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ufton Court

Ufton Court Educational Trust

Last Sunday I traveled down to Ufton Court, an educational trust based in an Elizabethan Manor House, which grew out of an earlier medieval property. I was telling stories at their annual open day which combines historical entertainment with educational and commercial stalls.

There was all sorts going on. Some school children were demonstrating the complexities of maypole dancing; the fact that its customary moves are now lost to us was made all the more apparent when the adults spectators were asked to join in and got into all kinds of knots! There were also two separate and very different theater groups on site performing very different plays. First there were the 'Pantaloons' who reduced many of Shakespeare's plays to very short but very funny songs and secondly the 'Melford's Men', a re-enactment group based at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk who gave us a bit of Chaucer performed in home made costumes and in a bawdy form that the original builders of Ufton Court would have known and enjoyed!

The children making the maypole dancing look diceptively easy!

The house itself is an odd, but wonderful mixture and is reflected in its layout. The House hosts Weddings, both in the various fine rooms of the manor house itself or in the incredible tithe barns with much of its medieval timber roof intact. It also hosts corporate events and there are lots of activities set within its sixteen acres of grounds-from canoeing to mountain biking and nature walks. But what interests me most is its role as an educational trust. There are many school visits, both for the day and residential stays. The children can get involved in sessions covering a number of different subjects, from geography and science to team building and art.

Interior of the tithe barn

But the house really lends itself to the study of Tudor history. Kids get to wear Tudor costume and have a go at early dancing, enjoy an Elizabethan banquet and have a go at traditional crafts including hurdle making (Making fences) They also have a go at being history detectives, exploring the house looking for clues to its earlier plan and Ufton is excellent for this! Unlike many period houses Ufton is not frozen in time. There are no signs saying 'do not touch' and rope barriers fencing off dry and dusty rooms set up as they would have been five hundred years ago. There are doors say 'private' and 'no entry', but that's because Ufton court is a living, working place. As you walk through the house you come across modern dormitory's and bathrooms , reception rooms and the like all built into the old structure to accommodate schools and corporate events. But behind theses modern conversions are some real hidden gems.... In the mens loos there are dark stones stairs leading down. They are just calling out be explored, although you would need the obligatory flaming torch, nerves of steel and the sense of adventure of the hero from many a medieval tale to go there! They lead to what I assume was the original stone under-croft set beneath the original Medieval Hall. Certainly the archways and doors to the medieval pantry and buttery where food and drink passed through are still extant at the low status end of the hall although the main hall itself has been lost under later eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century decoration. Just as the original hall itself has been absorbed into the later Tudor remodeling which as with many other houses of the time involved adding great wings either side of the earlier hall. These wings became the main focus of the house; subjugating the once important hall where people once lived, slept, ate and enjoyed all sorts of entertainment into nothing more than the mere entrance hall that you can see in many houses today. And there are many more clues to the houses earliest layout; in one of the dormitory's upstairs there are the huge cruck timber frames of the hall, hidden now by inserted floors, but as with most medieval halls once open from ground to roof. And just off from this room a nursery which was once the Solar of the Lord who lived here and one of the few private rooms there was in medieval times.

One of the many nooks and crannies at Ufton

But as well as the medieval clues, there are also hidden treasures from the Tudor conversion now buried beneath eighteenth century paneling and later conversions. In one room the later paneling opens up to expose the sixteenth/seventeenth century painted paneling. Most people imagine earlier buildings to be nothing but dark oak beams, but in actual fact many were painted in bright colours and would have appeared gaudy to our eyes. . The panels on display include the initials MR which I think stand for 'Mary Regina' (Catholic Queen Mary) and give an insight into the history of the Perkins family, who lived here in Tudor and Stuart times. They were devout catholics who were raided by the protestant authorities on at least two occasions, looking for hidden priests. They didn't find any, but they did find the priest holes where they hid. But they didn't find all of them for Ufton had four and there are also the remains of an escape tunnel! You can still look in these priest holes today, all cleverly hidden and one I think I'm right in saying rediscovered with a four hundred year old ladder still in place for the priest to climb down. These were not comfortable spaces; little more than small cramped holes set behind exposed wattle and daub walls. They are untouched, undecorated places that you were never supposed to see, and looking at them now you really get a true feel for the past! Especially since you still reach these hidden rooms via creaky seventeenth century staircases and even even creakier and very big sixteenth and seventeenth century floor boards roughly hewn from great chunks of oak (You should be able to tell by now that I really love sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings! and anything crafted from oak!)

There is so much more I could write of here; from the small but beautifully painted paneled room which served as a confessional for the devout catholic family who were willing to risk all for their faith. To the reconstructed Elizabethan Knot garden and other gardens filled with herbs from the time. It's one of the trusts future plans to develop this further as well as to reinstate to earlier medieval fish ponds that provided fish for the table. Also to to provide holidays for disadvantaged children as well. They have big plans and the building itself still requires a lot of work, although I like it as it is. We can all be history detectives whilst walking around Ufton Court!

Traditional hurdles fencing off herb and knot gardens

That's it except to say that once again Kim came with me and found out a few interesting facts...
Firstly the grounds are covered in oak trees and there is one that is datable to c. 1350. It was pollarded in the past which means that the young branches were regularly harvested at a certain height for many uses; from production of fire wood to staves used in the production of hurdles and wattling for in-filling walls. And secondly the Tudor conversion was carried out by Lady Marvyn who brought carved beams from her old house to incorporate into the new build (This could be simply because she liked them or because she was trying to save money-Grand Tudor houses were just as much about pretension to greatness as they were about actual wealth) It is also said that once Lady Marvyn got lost in the woods nearby and was only found with the help of local people and that she was so grateful that she instituted an annual dole of linen and corn for the local poor. The dole is still handed out to this day and the current landlord can be found every Maundy Thursday handing out bread and sheets to the parishioners of nearby Ufton Nervet. There are some that still say a curse will come upon the first owner of Ufton Court to break the tradition. I'm not certain that many believe that now but it think its a great way to end this blog; for who am I to let truth get in the way of a good story!

Many thanks to Mary, Karen and all the other staff and volunteers at Ufton Court

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Snailwell Medieval Fayre, the A1 and Raby Castle...

Some of the traders stalls at Snailwell Fayre

This is the forth year that I've told at Snailwell Medieval Fayre, which is just outside Newmarket, and as such horse racing dominates the scene as you drive to the venue. All around are grand looking stables, and the gallops (The exercising tracks) criss cross the surrounding fields. And the village itself is dominated by horse racing; so much so that I think I'm right in saying that one of the main roads in is sometimes closed off when horses are being exercised.

The fayre itself is smallish compared to some historic fayres and there are now a huge amount to choose from. That said it has grown each year and is very popular. I should explain exactly what it is really. For the uninitiated, its a mixture of historical entertainment (Sometimes authentic sometimes not, but always entertaining) Which includes storytelling, medieval music, some jesting, falconry and various re-enactment groups demonstrating horsemanship and knights and Vikings fighting skills. I did ask my son Sam, who helped me set up this weekend to take some photos of various aspects of the fayre. Needless to say as a teenage boy he was most taken with the arms and armour and most of the photos are of knights knocking the hell out of each other...

Demonstrating hunting on horseback

How to spear a sack on horseback!

I realise that some of you might be a bit suspicious of this sort of thing, that its middle age men living out their fantasies, but its not. As with other re-enactment groups that I've come across there are just as many women and children involved and they take their hobby very seriously. Many of the groups regularly go into schools and are valuable to bringing the past to life for young kids who would otherwise be uninterested in history. And the group in the photo below called the Knights of Honour are passionate that every aspect of what they do should be as authentic as possible. Any young people joining are fully trained up before they get to wield a sword and they do in fact become Squires serving the more experienced members of the group and earning the right to armour etc.

A fight to the death!

The other main aspect of the fayre are the traders stalls selling anything from
weapons of war to medieval shoes and pewter pilgrim badges, to Tudor musical instruments, to Saxon and Viking coins, to Roman glass and much much more. A full list of this years traders can be found on the Fayre's website. Some stalls are a mixture of all sorts others are more specialist, although what most have in common is that they developed out of the need to make things for themselves-for their various re-enactment groups. And what many also have in common is the incredible quality of their goods. Many traders like 6 of 1 regularly make replicas for museums as well as selling to the general public. Its worth remembering that their goods are saleable to all, especially in these days where everything is 'branded' and most shops seem to sell exactly the same products and indeed most shops look exactly the same and most cars and clothes look exactly the same! In this modern sometimes bland world,those of you brave enough to go to a historic fayre can come away with a something truly hand made and often unique.

Bernie the Bolt, trader in fine wools, linens, fleeces and hides

And the same goes for the overall feel of Snailwell Fayre. Allowing for the burger vans, ice cream vans and portable toilets, it is perhaps the closest you'll get to a medieval experience!

Thanks to Sharon and all her crew for the invite...

The A1

Normally I would have been telling all weekend at
Snailwell, but this year I already had a booking on the Sunday all the way up at Raby Castle in County Durham. I truly am an itinerant storyteller and travel up and tell in the north of England a lot. But I don't normally work the day before and so had to pack down my tent and skins and set off with Sam after a full days telling. We had planned to stop where we could just outside Raby, but by 10.30 pm and after driving for about four and a half hours we were still on the A1 and fifty or so miles away from the castle. And seeing as Sam has yet to bother with driving we had no choice but to find a convenient layby on the main road. The cars were hammering past, the lorries shook my camper van and we had to struggle around the mass of gear I carry about, but we had both been up early that day and what with putting up tents, taking down tents to say nothing of telling all day, both Sam and I slept remarkably well. Now if you have read earlier postings here you might remember I talked about celebrating the journeys as much as the storytelling venue i tell at. A layby on the A1 however doesn't count! Although it should at least demonstrate how dedicated I am to my art!

A rubbish strewn lay by on the A1 on a Sunday morning

Raby Castle

Raby castle with my storytelling tent in the distance

Not wanting to stay in a layby over long, we made an early start and arrived at Raby by 9.00 am. Plenty of time to set up and have a wander around. Although the castle itself didn't open till 1.00 and by then I was telling on the hour every hour, so i didn't get as much time to look around as I would have liked. There was however loads to see including ornamental gardens. Now I have to admit I'm not really into ornamental gardens, but I did like to old yew hedges. Firstly, they are very old and so were growing when all sorts of history was taking place. I know that's a bit of an obscure, daft statement, but its late and I've been working on new stories all day, so you'll just have to decide on the history for yourselves! Although my interesting fact for Raby (Because I was busy telling this is gleaned from Raby's brochure) is that the 'Barons Hall' at the castle is where the Nevilles, Percys and other Northern Lords met to make plans for their ill fated 1569 rebellion against against Elizabeth I. The other thing I liked about the yew trees were the shapes; big and bulbous. What can i say, I like big and bulbous yew trees.

Bulbous yews

The Castle itself certainly dates back to the medieval period, although it has clean almost 'new' look to it in places. It certainly not ruinous like many of the castles in English Heritage's care and I suppose that's the point; Raby has been in the same family, the Barnards since the early 1600s and as such must have constantly been being repaired and improved in line with the latest fashions. Certainly if you could go back to most castles at any point in their earlier history they would have probably resembled a building site as their owners attempted to keep up with the Joneses!

Sam liked the canons...

Unfortunately I didn't get inside, although Sam who did said he liked the Kitchen best. I think I would have too, because in truth I'm into history from below and like to see where the servants lived, worked and played. I did however have a good walk about outside and really liked seeing the Red and Fallow Deer roaming free about the parkland. I tell the occasional tale about hunting and deer parks and its always good to be able to point at what you are telling about! The estate also has some long horn cattle. I did stroll up to take a photo, but didn't get close enough for a good shot. I was born and raised in the country and so am not normally weary of cows, but this cow was giving me a funny look. I think it was the combination of really big horns and the the fact that it sensed that i was a soft Southerner that made it stand its ground. I think that if I had horns like that, then I too would be far more assertive.

Long horn cow with attitude

Anyway thanks to Katie Blundell and her team and especially the guy who waited for Sam and I to put away my rain sodden tent and stayed late to shut up when we were finally packed away and were gone...

And finally, it is about the journey sometimes. Having been working and driving, working and driving I was tired and we took a few wrong turns going home. But as is the way of things it meant that we saw things that we wouldn't have, including a really small suspension bridge. So small that it had a weight limit. It was crossing the river at Whorlton near Barnard Castle. It may look to some that I have a thing about bridges, but its just that I like anything unusual and this has to be one of the smallest suspension bridges in England. I suppose thats unusual?! You can find it on google map by clicking here...

Whorlton Suspension Bridge

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The British Museum

This was the second of my first two busy days in May and I had to be up at 5.00 to catch the train to London for three viking storytelling sessions at the British Museum.

I arrived early before the main museum was open and so spent an hour or so relaxing in the covered Great Court. Its a cathedral like space and even when busy seems a peaceful place to be. Not least because you can loose yourself in the museum exhibits placed there; from the Alabaster Stela of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpall II to a House Frontal Pole from Kayang in Canada.

The Great Court

Alabaster Stela

Canadian House Pole

That's the thing about the British Museum; as you can see from the floor plans on the museum website it has something for every one. So much in fact that you would need many days to really take it all in. Certainly more time than a traveling story teller with viking tales to tell has! I did make a brief visit to the Egyptian galleries, especially the mummy room. Ever since a small child on my first visit to Norwich Castle museum to see their one and only mummy who appeared to be looking straight back at me, I have had a fascination with such things. But unfortunately for me I'm not alone in this interest and within half an hour of opening the gallery was already packed with visitors all with mouths agape. And so many mummies!

I also went into a themed exhibition that dealt with both life and death and was packed full of objects relating to various types of medicine, as well as death rituals and the like and all from various parts of the world. What was interesting was that it included a modern piece of artwork made up of many of the different types of pill we take in the western world in order to try and cheat the inevitable. What made it more moving was the inclusion of family photographs of people who were dying but also people having fun and living! The artifacts that really caught my eye in this exhibition were the carvings of evil demonic looking creatures (I have a particular interest in Devilish tales!)

One of many 'demonic' carvings

Also the eharo storytelling masks of the Elema people of Papua New Guinea. There are many modern storytellers who are uncertain about the use of masks in storytelling, but it seemed to work for the Elema!

Eharo Masks

For the most part of the day when not telling, I spent in the European galleries that dealt with the Roman, Saxon, Viking and Medieval world. All were wonderful as far as I am concerned, for all were object rich each with its own label close by to tell you what it was, when it was from and where it was found. You might be thinking so what, but because I have worked in museums I have seen many new exhibitions where new fashions for large interpretive panels full of text have taken over from the objects themselves. I for one like to let the artifacts speak for themselves (Or maybe with the help of a storyteller once in a while!) They certainly do in the newly redisplayed medieval gallery which seems to focus on all that was beautiful in medieval times, both religious and secular. And that's got to be good, because we are all to often bombarded with images of medieval people grubbing about in the mud and falling prey to foolish superstition. Its about time there was something to redress the balance! Two objects that really grabbed me for their craftsmanship and exquisite, elaborate design were the Chaucer Astrolabe , a multi functional instrument used for time keeping, surveying and casting horoscopes (At a time when astrology was considered a science) and also the Citole , a musical instrument covered in fine carvings of hunting and the like. Its an object that must have been much prized and cared for by its many owners and Its worth remembering that it was made before the Black Death came to Britain. I think that its amazing that something like this has survived especially in a time when in human terms so much was lost.

There are many more items I could write about but I suppose the exhibits I really like best are the various hoards of coins on display from different times and places. Sometimes huge collections of coins and many of them gold. And by that I mean real gold, the bright yellowy orange pure gold. What I like to call proper gold- The kind I would like to discover in a great wooden box buried in the roots of an apple tree at the bottom of my garden!

Thanks to Claire Johnstone for inviting me to tell and also Anthony and Yvonne for their help on the day...

Lakenheath American Middle School

It was a busy two days and both early starts. On the Friday I was telling at the American Middle School situated at RAF Feltwell. The Kids were taking part in their annual 'British Day' and as well as hearing stories about some of the more cruel Kings of England from me, they also took afternoon tea, experienced life as a medieval monk, met Henry VIII, played cricket, re-enacted the Norwich Cathedral riots of 1272, had a go at being a town cryer and experienced much, much more besides!

Heightened security at the base meant that the morning was a bit rushed and it was straight into my storytelling sessions, so I didn't have much time to look around. But even driving into the base was a unusual experience. Its the first time that I have had to show my passport to armed guards in order to get into a storytelling venue. And driving through the base to the school was like experiencing a little bit of America and what struck me most was how neat and orderly everything was, but I suppose this has more to do with it being a military base and not anything inherently American. I'm pretty sure they have their fare share of litter problems too. The school was also just like you see in American movies; each room had its own American flag, announcements for staff and pupils were made over a pa system throughout the day and there was a schools counsellor. The other thing that stood out was the amazing level of hospitality. Many of the mums seemed to have baked for the occasion and there were all sorts of muffins and a vast array of different types of doughnut!

But for all those differences to the English schools I tell in, the one constant was the pupils: twelve and thirteen year old Americans are no different to twelve and thirteen year old British kids; they all provide certain challenges, but at the end of the day are great to work with.

Kim was not with me on this outing and so I had to work hard to find out my own interesting fact and the best I could come up with was courtesy of a healthy eating poster made by one of the pupils. It recommended that in order to say healthy you should... drink prune juice to thoroughly cleanse your colon!

Thanks to all the staff, volunteers and pupils....