Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Barton Turf bio diversity event

Last Sunday I was telling at an annual environmental event run at Barton Turf in Norfolk by the Broads Authority and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. It's an event that promotes not only the bio diversity of the Norfolk broads, but also local crafts and voluntary organisations who are committed to protecting the environment and wildlife. And on the advice of a friend in heritage I also suggest that you check out http://www.commonground.org.uk/ which celebrates both the heritage, the environment and local custom, which fits in very well with the subject of this post and many others!

There was plenty going on for both adults and kids, from tours of Barton Broad upon a state of the art solar powered catamaran/boat thingy (I know very little about boats!) Also pond dipping, ringing birds, making bat boxes, making wildlife sculptures out of recycled materials and one of my favourites; dissecting owl pellets. After the initial "uuuurgh" by some kids and the realisation that they were not dealing with poo, boys, girls and the occasional adult like me were more than happy to prod and poke about in the pellets to find all sorts of small animal bones. When I was a kid, I found a shrew's jawbone in a pellet. I took it into school, only to find that Jason Hatch who had been to Africa with his really rich parents, had brought in an elephant tooth. They made a great contrast to each other and our teacher's obvious pleasure in the comparison between shrew jaw and elephant tooth went a good way to alleviating my feelings of inadequacy and it didn't put me off owl pellets.

Dissecting owl pellets
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All of these very worthwhile activities were great, but to be honest the one that really caught my attention was the worm charming. It was a competition to see who could 'charm' or more precisely lure worms to the surface in allotted two meter square sections. Adults and kids alike spent 45 minutes using their own individual and sometimes bizarre techniques to encourage the worms upwards. Although most involved some kind of rhythmic banging and thumping which as one veteran worm charmer told me are meant to sound like rain, which encourages worms to the surface so that they don't drown! I'm not sure about that one, but one thing was for certain, every one had their work cut out because it was very hot and the ground was baked hard. None the less the final winners did manage a very respectable 27 worms, although last year the more moist conditions resulted in a winning amount of 50 worms. That's over one a minuet!

Worm Charmers charming

That's impressive, but not the reason I enjoyed it so much. For me it was the fact that everyone got involved and that for once health and safety was not top of the agenda. Kids were swinging garden forks about like no bodies business. I watched one girl stabbing the ground very close to her dad's hand, whilst at the same time gazing over her shoulder to her mum. Her dad didn't notice for he was just far too busy gently drumming the ground with his fingers. A different approach to worm charming and one I think that deserved a mention, but alas far to subtle when all about were jumping up and down and beating the earth with bits of two by two!

Worm Charmers using the traditional fork method...

The other reason I enjoyed it was because it fits in well with many of the other events and activities I stumble upon, from the Town Crier competition, to black faced boarder Morris Dancers. I can't help feeling that only in England could you find such an unusual mix of the silly and bizarre. It's a fact made all the more apparent by the bus load of Chinese tourists to Barton who couldn't quite understand what was going on. They certainly enjoyed the spectacle, although one of the organisers who tried to explain what was happening got the distinct feeling that they thought the worms were going to be eaten!

A combination of fork and drumming techniques

Thanks to Holly and the rest of the team who kept me in cold drinks on what was a very hot day...

Monday, May 3, 2010

Hear ye, hear ye...Town Crier competition at Ely Eel Day

After a great day of May Day storytelling at this years Ely Eel day festival I was happily ensconced in my tent taking down my bits and pieces and thinking about the various sights and sounds I had seen and heard that day. Sights like the dancing of the eel, which was like a Chinese dragon, but an eel propelled by schoolchildren in seventeenth century dress (Presumably in honour of Oliver Cromwell who had a house in the town, and which now houses a museum) There was also a local man still making traditional eel nets just like a roman one found in the fens near Ely. It should be hardly surprising really as it was of course eel day and so a celebration of Ely's link with the slippery fish (At least I think its a fish) Even the name Ely is said to derive from the words meaning island and eel. The importance of Eels to Ely is shown in the fact that even the monks of the City were said to have used eels to pay their taxes.

There was however much more going on than the worship of the eel and I was also remembering the fantastic and very loud local samba drumming group and the obligatory reenactment group, although I was a bit disappointed that they had come as Saracens and not not the local folk hero Hereward the Wake and his loyal band of Saxon Rebels. Not that it bothered most people and everyone seemed to have a good time. As did I, although now I was looking forward to packing up and getting home, when all of a sudden I heard a the ring of many a bell and the crisp, clear and loud cry of "Oyez, Oyez" coming from just outside my tent. As I peered out through a gap in the opening I saw that I had been surrounded by a a great mass of Town Criers. I suppose you might call them a 'Cry' or perhaps a 'Shout' of Criers and all were in there finest liveries. Some were accompanied by equally well dressed escorts, although women were not just present as mere window dressing, for there were at least three female Criers amongst the group.

The first of many town criers and his escort
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It turns out that I was trapped by the annual Ely Town crier competition, one of many that take place all over Britain at fairs, festivals and fetes. But don't get me wrong I was honored to have them doing their Crier thing outside my tent, for as one of them told me the first Town Crier competitions were held in Greece in 396 BC. to find the person who could best announce winners of the games. If its good enough for the Greeks, then its good enough for me!

That's what I like about what I do, for you never know quite what you are going to see and what unusual characters you will meet as you go about your business, telling tales. And certainly although like many I knew that there were the odd town crier doing their thing up and down the country, I didn't realise that there were so many of them and that they competed for titles. They had traveled from all over the UK and I'm told that in other competitions they come from as far a field as Australia and America and many of them although attracted by tradition are also happy to give some very modern performances.

A town crier in Early Police mans livery

Town crier in typical civic livery

Town crier and escort being judged by the great and the good of Ely

It was this that caught my interest, because on one level the criers simply look to be harking back to a now lost past, but that's not the case. Certainly all had a passion for history, not just for town criers. One contestant was an ex policeman and so had created a crier's livery based on the uniform of one of Robert Peel's early 'peelers'. Another had a passion for steam railways and so based his costume on the livery of one of the early railway companies. And even the more traditional Criers costumes of tricorne hat, frock coat etc were open to some very colorful interpretation!

There was also a great deal of variation in the performances. In the morning they had to 'cry' a message from their own town or city, but in the afternoon and outside my tent they could perform a 'cry' about a set theme, which at Ely was 'their perfect day'. As such all were judged on volume, diction, clarity etc and also on the content, which resulted in some of the criers being very creative. One of the female criers, who has been a carer for many years was waiting for the day when the government would care for carers. For another it was being out immersed in nature, whilst the winner, the town crier from Alnwick, 'cried' that any day was perfect when at the end of it he got to climb under the duvet with his wife. I liked that one best!

Town crier in early railway livery

The winning crier from Alnwick and his escort

Spot the criers relaxing with a pint!

It was good to see that such a traditional pursuit had been brought up to date and that these town criers were much like modern storytellers; willing to grow new corn from old fields. It was also good to see how much the audience enjoyed the performances especially when you consider that long ago and more often than not criers were not very popular, because they were of course in the pay of the civic elites and so often the bearers of bad news for the common people. But that was then and this is now and if I wasn't busy storytelling I'd probably have a go myself!

A 'shout' of criers and escorts giving a good 'bells-up'

Thanks to Aileen and her assistants for inviting me back!