Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Making Bacon at the Black Knight Fair...

Last Saturday I was telling at the Black Knight Fair in Ashton-Under-Lyne.
Its an annual 'celebration' of the infamous local Lord, Sir Ralph de Assheton, who was well known for his cruel and heartless ways. Amongst other things he rolled his enemies and any local peasants who stood up to him, down a hill in Ashton, in a barrel - A barrel with iron nails hammered into it! During the modern celebration there were the expected boos when the Black knight made his entrance, but in truth everyone loved him and he was just like any great pantomime villein. But a local historian told me it was very different when the fair was introduced in the seventeenth century and the Black Knight then was still treated as a figure of hate. In those days his effigy was processed through the town before being burnt on bonfire. Now that's the kind of celebration I like. But saying that, it was still a fun day with jesters, musicians, magicians and me! Certainly the locals enjoyed themselves and its clear that they are very proud of their local history and the story of Sir Ralph. For his adventures do have the makings of a good story - Of foul deeds and secret meetings with hideous hunchbacks; its all there. And its hard to tell where the story ends and truth begins, for as one local lady told me, she can remember as a child the remains of Ralph's castle on top of a nearby hill at the end of her street. And she assured me that they were still rolling wrongdoers down that hill in a barrel full of nails until fairly recent times! Its true what they say, truth and lies do live in the same house!

A good day out and a warm friendly place, but what I also enjoyed was journey to Ashton. It was a long one that took me over the top of Derbyshire and the Peaks, which I hadn't expected. Its one thing to look at a map and follow a road, quite different when you are there taking in the wondrous views. For no sooner had I passed through Sheffield than I was driving on the Snake Pass, looking across at some fabulous views as the sun came up, lighting up the tops of the hills whilst the valleys still lay in darkness. That's one of the benefits of traveling to and from a job in one day, you get the roads to your self and the best of the views. Although I should have liked to have stayed longer to explore Derbyshire some more on the way home.

The Snake Pass at sunrise
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But Ashton was worth the drive and as well as entertainment there was also a farmers market. And what caught my eye were two young 'Old Spot' pigs penned in next to one of the tents. They were getting plenty of attention from adults and kids alike. Plenty of ooohhhs and aaahhhs from everyone. For many did not know that the pigs belonged to a butcher nearby selling pork pies, sausages and bacon and he brought the pigs with him to show the kids where their food comes from. It reminds me of a farm museum called Gressenhall in Norfolk where I first started telling and where in the visitors center there was a sign pointing to a fridge door telling children to go get some sausages. But when they opened the door it looked into a pig sty and all the little piglets therein! A shock for some at both Gressenhall and on Ashton market, but to be honest I think its good that know something of the food we put inside us and I have to say the butchers pork pies were delicious. They were also good value, for I brought one for £2.50, which was as big as my face!

BEFORE - Sausages and pies in waiting!

AFTER-The butchers stall with pies as big as my face

Thanks to Gerry and his staff for making it such as easy day and also to the people of Ashton for their wonderful stories!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Summer events

It was a very busy summer and so here are some of the high points.....

In early July I was telling as part of the Lord Mayors Celebrations in Norwich. It was on St Georges Green which has just been opened up to events after the whole area has been refurbished, repaved and the like. A great place near the City Art College to relax and even take in a bit of culture on the edge of a busy city....

Information Panel at St George's green
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Entrance to St George's Green
Over the newly restored 18th century St George's bridge

Art on the Green

Relaxing on the Green

My storytelling space on the Green

The following day I was at St Benedict's Street Fair in Norwich. This was a real eye opener for me, for to tell the truth I didn't realise they did stuff like this in Norwich! The whole street and others besides were shut off (It was Sunday anyway) and some of the shop owners and other traders set up outside. But there were also lots of performers, singers, street artists and the like and it all made for a very laid back afternoon. I was telling in a churchyard, which is now part of an arts centre and the crowds were well up for a tale or two or three!

Traders and on St Benedict's Street

Performance on the street...

Sustenance on the street....

Relaxing on the street!

The Spoken Word stage at St Bendict's Street Fair

Later in July I was at Folk by the Oak at Hatfield House near London.
I've told at a few music festivals recently, but this was one of the best. Not least because it was a folk festival with only one stage, so I had plenty of opportunity to get in some stories and a folk crowd always appreciates a good story. Some great young singers who are on the way up and all topped off with Bellowhead, who some purists don't like, but I thought were fantastic. Really got the crowd going, although they did take the piss out of Norwich!

What also stood out were all the oaks at Hatfield, hence the name of the festival. Its said that Elizabeth 1st was given the news that her half sister Mary was dead and that she was now Queen under one of them. Although many of the older oaks have now gone, but some still remain or at least the concrete cores that the misguided Victorians once poured inside them.

Crowds beginning to gather in front of the stage

Remains of concrete
Which was once inside now missing section of this oak

Victorian conservation at its worst!

I then continued on to the Cambridge Folk Festival. Although my time there was cut short, I did enjoy what I saw, with so many stages for both established and new acts. I was telling with John Row and he wangled back stage passes for the main stage which boosted me ego and there's nothing wrong with a bit of ego. As someone said to me just last week, if you don't blow your own horn it'll go rusty - Wise words indeed!

There was lots going on, but I enjoyed the ceilidh sessions best. Just watching everyone trying to get their heads around the moves made me smile as much as all of they were. Every one was having a great time dancing with people they had never met before. That's why I like ceilidhs, everyone can join in and even a crap dancer like me can not make a fool of themselves....

The main stage at Cambridge Folk Festival

The storytelling area at Cambridge

Enjoying a ceilidh at Cambridge

Most of August was dominated by places like Sherwood, Ickworth and Kelling where I have told before, but then I went to Devizes International Street Festival. It was a bigger version of the St Benedict's fair except it took up the whole town center. What stood out for me was the local indoor markets where you could buy anything from a second world war ARP Warden's helmet to a Victorian sandwich sponge or even a Canterbury Tales DVD in Russian!

The best thing however were all the great street entertainers and I couldn't help thinking that many a storyteller could learn lots from them, especially when it comes to connecting with a large crowd of people. They included mad WI type men/women roaring about on motorised shopping trolleys and doing displays on said trolleys to rap music. There was also a very different mix of brass band married with some hardcore drumming! But best of all was a wonderful display of puppetry and mime by a group called Nakupelle who put on a performance with life sized puppets that were down on the ground at one moment, crawling around sniffing and hugging the crowd, and then were soaring high above heads the next. They were brilliant. This was storytelling without words...

Drum and Brass!

More Drum and Brass

Even more by my storytelling space

Nakupelle in action

Amazing things with glass balls!

Formation Shopping Trolleys!

And finaly over the holidays I was telling at Rochester Castle. The Tong side of my family came from Kent about 100 years ago, so its always good to get back there and Rochester is not far from where they lived. In some ways most visitors don't see the best of Kent because they are flying up the M20 or M2 to Canterbury or Dover. That's sad, because places like Rochester are fantastic, especially if you're into the historical stuff like me. Both the castle and nearby cathedral are still Norman through and through. It really is like stepping back 900 years There are not many Norman castle Keeps as complete as at Rochester and if your'e into a bit of early medieval Romanesques architecture then you can no better than the Cathedral. A local told me that even after a fire in the nave in the early forteenth century they still rebuilt in the old style, which is unuseual. Normally they would use a disaster like that to rebuild in the latest fashion. I had thought that perhaps it was a far sighted respnse from the local Bishop; perhaps having seen changes elsewhere and wanting to save the old styles for posterity, but no. As the local informed me, they just didn't have enough money to completely rebuild anyway! But that's good with me, for nessesity 700 hundred odd years ago has left Rochester with a almost unique, and I think honest cathedral.

That was great, but because I was staying on site all weekend I also had the oportunity to visit some of the villages my family lived in long, long ago. Places like Egerton where some were buried in the late eighteenth century. I couldn't pinpoint their graves, but the churchayrd was a peaceful place, set on a rise overlooking fields and orchards and a well away from the M20!

Rochester Cathedral at dawn

The Cathedral from the top of the Norman keep

The Romanesque 'Norman' nave

The original entrance to the Chapter House
Rochester Cathedral Cloister

Model of Rochester Castle Keep

Rochester Castle Keep

The three floors of the Keep

Door and tunnel set into Keep wall

View of my tent and other traders/performers from top of Keep
Also Victorian Bridges and Medway

Late seventeenth century grave from Egerton churchyard

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A bullet from the blue at the British Museum

Last Saturday I was telling again at the British Museum. I wouldn't normally blog about a place I posted on before, but the museum is so big and so full of wonderful objects from all over the world that I set myself the task of finding something I'd never seen before. It led me to the Ancient Greece gallery and amidst all the urns and other classical antiquities I found these lead sling bullets which date from the 4th century BC....

Now this is a museum filled with priceless and sometimes unique objects, from the Anglo Saxon Sutton Hoo Helmet, to the Egyptian Rosetta Stone and the beautifully crafted Elgin Marbles, which I suppose stand out far more than these sling bullets. In fact they are quite common and can be found for sale on the Internet. But what appealed to me was the markings on one of them.. On one side is a winged thunderbolt and on the other the inscription "take that"!

It is that inscription that caught my eye, because it made me laugh and that's the point. It just confirms what I have found with stories and storytelling; that people in the past were not that different to us and I'm sure that the person who made the bullet over 2300 years ago enjoyed the sentiment just as much as I did last Saturday.

Thanks to Alice and her volunteers...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Fossilized Journeys at Thornborough Bridge

Last weekend (The 4th-6th June) I was telling at the Wychwood Festival in Cheltenham and on route I stopped at Thornborough bridge which I blogged about last year... For photos and blog click here.

Its a great stop off point for anyone going to or coming from Oxford from the east, for not only is there the history of the medieval bridge and much earlier Roman and pre-Roman archeology, but also its a real beauty spot and surprisingly relaxing when you take into account the roaring traffic on the nearby A421. But what caught my eye this time as I walked the length of the old bridge was the deep scoring that covers the two inside walls of the bridge and it seems to me that it can only have been made by many generations of carts that crossed the bridge long, long ago. Certainly the marks were made after the bridge was built, because many of them cross multiple stones and some must be fairly old because they are now encrusted with lichens.

Wavy scoring across the stones
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Some very deep grooves

Lichen covering the scoring, suggesting its been there some time

Some of the marks even follow a wavy pattern, up and down and suggest that the cart wheel was perhaps damaged and a bit wonky! That's' what really caught my imagination about these marks; they really are fossilized journeys. I'm used to looking for graffiti on old structures; words and pictures scratched on stone long, long ago, and sometimes we can tell a lot about the ideas and beliefs of the people who deliberately left these marks. But what of this accidental scoring, who knows? Perhaps some were caused by an unruly horse reacting to an overzealous whip. Maybe some represent a carters attempts to avoid a drunk stumbling across the bridge who didn't have the sense to stop in one of the 3 V shaped stopping places built into the medieval bridge for that purpose. Or perhaps some were simply caused by weary travellers whose overloaded carts were too big for the bridge or who were in a hurry to get home for their tea; we simply can't know for sure. It's fair to say that many of these marks were made by local traveller. Perhaps they were peddlers, merchants and farmers taking goods to and from the local market, but other than that we can only wonder about these journeys from long, long ago. We can only wonder about these travelers and their travels set in stone!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Bishops Palace, Wells and Newark Castle

Last weekend was a busy one and I took itinerant storytelling to new extremes, by telling at both the Bishops Palace in Wells, Somerset and Newark Castle in Nottinghamshire on two successive days. It was six hundred miles of telling and traveling in all.

The Medieval Gatehouses
The Cathedral gate to the left, the Palace gate to the right
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Wells Bishop's Palace is like no other Cathedral complex I've ever been before, which is probably because of the moat that still surrounds the Palace.

The second defensive gate which passes over the moat

Its that moat which not only gives you a real sense of the past, but also gives the whole of the Palace a real sense of peace and isolation. Its ironic that I was telling there to draw in visitors, but there was just a little bit of me that wanted to keep it all to myself; the way it was when I was setting up.

The Medieval Moat

The back of the Palace

Obviously many of the Bishops who lived in the Palace adapted the building and rebuilt them to suit changing tastes and all put their individual stamp on the place - Men like Bishop Beckynton who built the late medieval well house and topped it off with a sculpture of his favourite hunting dog. The importance of the residence can be seen in the fact that the gate leading to the Palace from the market is larger and more ornate than the corresponding gate leading to the Cathedral.

'Inside' the the remains of the great hall

My tent 'inside' the great hall

As new buildings were added older ones went out of use like the great hall which has now been given back to nature. My storytelling tent was pitched inside the remains of the great hall with a lone spiral staircase tower sticking out the ground immediately behind my tent and in front of me the remains of its huge walls, windows and first floor fire places that now hang in the air; now mere scars that hint at this buildings once lavish past.

Remains of the defensive moat wall

That said this building was not just about beauty, because many of the structures are still dominated by crenelations (battlements) and we should not forget that the medieval Bishops who dwelt here were landed magnates in their own right. Noble men who often imposed great burdens on the commoners and sometimes felt their wrath. In my home City of Norwich the Cathedral was sacked by the citizens in the thirteenth century and during Cade's Rebellion in 1450 the Bishop of Salisbury, Ayscough was murdered by the mob. At Wells it was Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury who was awarded a 'licence to crenelate' in 1329 and other defences included a portcullis in the inner gatehouse and also 'murder holes' used for casting down rocks and boiling water on attackers. Its a fact that many Bishop's Palaces and Cathedrals complexes were built with defense in mind, which says a lot about the medieval religious hierarchy.

The rebuilt well house
With Bishop Beckynton's favourite hunting hound on top

Looking into the well house

My tent inside the great hall with spiral staircase tower behind

The swarm (Look closely!)

That said I'm not going to overstate the defensive nature of the Bishops Palace. With its meandering moat of clear crisp water is really is a place of beauty and I recently came across a medieval poem which confirms that people long, long ago had a the same love of nature we do today....

Green turf amid silent trees and soft light airs

And a spring of running water in the grass
They freshen a jaded mind, they give me back to myself
They make me abide in myself
12th century French poem, Marbod of Rennes, Meditation Among Trees

I couldn't have put it better myself!

Thanks to Helen for booking me and Debbie and all the very friendly staff and volunteers who dealt so ably with a swarm of bees that engulfed my tent for a while and also looked after me so well.