Thursday, September 24, 2009

Orford Castle, Suffolk

Orford Castle and my storytelling tent in the remains of the bailey
Click on images to make larger

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
Click on any image to make larger

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!