Friday, December 30, 2011

December venues - From the Atrium Arts Centre to Pontefract Castle

It was a busier December than usual for storytelling and I told from the Atrium Arts Centre in North Walsham to Pontefract Castle by way of Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings near Birmingham.

The Avoncroft session was an evening event telling tales to the volunteers as part of their Xmas party. There and back in one night, so little time to look around. It was a great evening though so hopefully some summertime sessions there in 2012!

The Atrium was a real surprise. It's hidden away in the depths of a housing estate, but well worth the effort of finding. Not only does it have its own cinema and cafe, but also huge kitchens and other workshops, music rooms and dance studios like the one I wandered into below. Although thinking upon it now I should have removed my medieval style wooden pattens before stomping across the brand new floor! My negligence aside, the Atrium is a great local resource for NorthWalsham - lets just hope the people use it.

One of the dance studios at the Atrium and me
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I told at Pontefract Castle on a freezing December day as part of a small Medieval event. In truth there is not much of the medieval ruins left, although the remains of the kitchen were interesting with the layout of fireplaces and other features still discernible and well interpreted. Another feature that caught my eye was the cellar and magazine store, which I didn't get to go down, but there was an interpretation panel near the entrance and on my arrival I was shown exactly where to drive for fear my van disappeared into the stoney depths! Not many castles seem to have such features, although I did see something similar when I told at Knaresborough Castle in 2009 (Although they were tunnels, so even better!)

Beneath Pontefract Castle

As the panel confirms it is basically a small Norman Cellar that was extended out and down in the 13th, 14th and 15th century and perhaps its most interesting use was as a prison during the Civil War, with many of the prisoners leaving their mark. I love graffiti and am part of a growing group surveying churches for tell tale marks. When you stumble upon a name or some other mark it makes you wonder about who the author was and why they left their mark. Of course in most cases we will never know and that's why it's so great - You can let your imagination run riot! That's certainly the case with tunnels as well, even short ones like this. There is something spooky, but also exciting about descending into the depths to who knows where. And there's sure to be treasure hidden some where in one of those nooks and crannies. I fancy the little incomplete gallery on the far right!

My storytelling tent in the inner bailey of the ruinous castle
Just below the remains of the Keep

Thanks for all the invites to tell in 2011 and I look forward to some new venues and maybe even more hidden tunnels in 2012...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Settle, Yorkshire Dales

On the 8th of October I traveled up to Settle in Yorkshire to tell at the 2nd Settle Storytelling Festival.

I got my first impressions of Settle whilst leading a story walk about the beautiful market town, although the continual rain meant that we didn't hang about for too long! What really stood out for me was just how friendly everyone was in Settle - Interested in the festival, storytelling and the storytellers. I also found out that the locals, many of whom were volunteering for the festival made some superb cakes for events like 'Tea and Tales'. Settle itself is a great mix of old and new and is clearly prospering with shops to cater for tastes and purses. There are loads of tea rooms and cafes for all the walkers, but good and cheap and on Sunday I spent the best part of an hour wading through a huge all day breakfast, finished off with a delicious piece of home made lemon meringue pie and all for a fiver. It kept me going throughout the whole of Sunday and well beyond my storytelling session at the festival club night at the Folly.

The Folly in Settle

It's a Seventeenth Century House house built by Richard Preston, a local lawyer and as with all ancient houses it has had many different uses during its lifetime. Like all old buildings it also has its fair share of stories; my favourite being that it was called 'the Folly' because Preston spent so much money building it in order to demonstrate his wealth, that he actually bankrupted himself. A piece of fiction, but a great one and I for one don't think that we should let fact get in the way of a good story! It is a very grand residence for its time and the fire place in the hall is so big I could happily tell my stories, whilst standing under the fireplace arch. The fire was lit and I was half afraid I would burst into flames, but it was just the thing to drive out the damp weather. The Folly is also home to the local museum and it is set out just the way I like it with lots of interesting objects and exhibits scattered here and there.

The Folly Fireplace (Main Hall)

What really caught my eye was the great photographic collection of Victorian and early twentieth century local characters and notable worthies including a very imposing picture of Mrs William Perfect - Not the sort of lady to get on the wrong side of and I don't somehow think that she would have approved of my tales of drunkenness and thievery!

Mrs William Perfect (But was she?)

The other thing that caught my eye were the various exhibits relating to the building of the railway, in particular the Settle to Carlyle line that used over 6000 navvies, many of whom were Irish and many of whom suffered and died laying track and building viaducts. Not just the men, but also members of their families who eked out a hard existence in isolated shanty towns like Batty Green near Settle. The harsh conditions were captured by Betty Harrington in a collection of water colours now on display in the Folly.

Betty Harrington's
views of 'Life in the Ribblehead Shanty Town (1974)
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Settle is a beautiful place nestled as it is beneath the hills. Now Norfolk isn't as flat as some assume (That's the fens!) but we are starved of dramatic scenery so common place in Yorkshire. I love the way the houses climb up and seem to grow out of the side of the hills and also the organic steps and stairs built out of local stone that seem to have been grown rather than built.

Stairs to who knows where...

Thanks to Sita Brand for inviting me to tell at her fantastic Settle Festival and to all her friends & helpers who looked after me and all of the other tellers.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire

I have just one more day of telling medieval tales at Kenilworth Castle.

For two weeks I have been camped on site with my friend and co-founder of Past-Imagined, Historical Tale Tellers , Stewart Alexander. As always it's been a real privilege staying on site after the public have gone home.

The Castle at Sunset
Click on image to enlarge

I have spent many nights wandering the ruins and more than any other castle I have stayed at, Kenilworth seems sombre and brooding, menacing even. Although Stew thinks it is a place of melancholy. Certainly like any major historic site it's had it's fair share of ups and downs. It was once home to Robert Dudley - One time favourite of Elizabeth 1st, but spurned for his own political and personal failings. Prior to that the scene of death and destruction including a siege by HenryIII in 1266, the evidence for which can still be seen in the huge stone balls shot from trebuchets and other weapons at the castle long ago, but now no more than decorative tops for many a gate post of many a house in the older part of Kenilworth.

Recycled Trebuchet Balls

According to some, the harrowing history has lead to a few hauntings over the years, including a Grey Lady. I like many others enjoy a good ghost story, and there was one night late when walking to the loos that I did catch something out of the corner of my eye - just flitting across the entrance to the new Elizabethan Garden, but whether it was a Grey Lady, a local lad intend on mischief or maybe even a low flying owl, i'll never know!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Fieldgate Lawn,Kenilworth,United Kingdom

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Victorian Crafts at Renishaw Hall

Today I'm telling at Renishaw Hall.

A very grand Victorian house built around a much older 17th century hall. It's most famous for being the home of the Sitwells, all part of the 'bright young things' of the interwar years. Creative people from privileged backgrounds. The most famous of them was Edith Sitwell the poet.

That's all very interesting, but I was more taken by the crafts and other activities on display at the Victorian event here this day. In particular the man making lead toys - animals and the like, although now cast from lead free pewter.

Pouring 'lead' into a mould
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His moulds are brought at antique fairs so he can produce animals just like originals and then the children can have a go at painting them in the tent next door. The toymaker even makes his own moulds out of marble just as they would have originally been. I like that kind of ingenuity.

And by sheer coincidence the small museum at the hall houses some of the Sitwell children's own lead soldiers and animals, so children can get an idea just what it is they are painting.

Sitwell antique lead toys

A small thing perhaps, but many of the kids kept the animals they had watched being cast and then painted themselves, very close as they listened to stories. And they had something to take away that may last and remind them of the hall for many years to come!

Thanks to all for the friendly welcome and to some great audiences. Especially the older listeners who gave as good as they got!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Station Rd,,United Kingdom

Monday, August 8, 2011

Hidden Gems at Colchester Castle

I have returned to Colchester Castle to tell Medieval Tales and was again very taken with one of their temporary exhibitions. This one was all about buried treasures, from Anglo Saxon and English Civil War Hoards to unfinished neolithic flints and clothes and shoes secreted in the fire places, floors and walls of old houses. It was this group that really caught my eye. From mummified cats to witches pots and even this mid 17th century coat that had been hidden in a house in Malden in Essex....

The Maldon Coat

This old coat in particular really fires my imagination. Why was it hidden there? Many think they know but no one can be certain. There are those who will tell you that shoes were hidden to trap witches, for it is said they they can't walk backwards! A great story if nothing else. And the coat it too has a story to tell. It was oft times repaired and the fancy cuffs later added. Many owners perhaps each with a story. And that's the point about museum exhibits - they are far more than the sum of their interpretation panels. Don't be afraid when you see things like this coat to let loose and imagine what sights, sounds and scrapes it's wearers once got into. These tattered rags tell of its owners status, but might also hint at their aspirations, their hopes and dreams. We can all be tellers of tales and so too a raggedy old coat!

For more information of hidden clothing visit the Deliberately Concealed Garments Website here...

16th century shoes, witches pots and a mummified cat
From various Essex houses

Roman cow bells buried in a circle

Saxon through to 17th century Civil War Hoards

Thanks to Clive for another invite to the castle and the great staff, especially the two who helped me push start my car today!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

WI ROCKS at Music at the Crossroads!

Have just returned from a weekend of telling at both Music at the Crossroads at Hook Norton and the Cornbury Festival; both in Oxfordshire. Both fantastic music festivals and the Cornbury festival had a comedy tent and all the stuff you'd expect at a modern event. Something for everyone. But what really stood out at Hook Norton was the WI ladies serving delicious tea in proper cups and saucers and some great cake - just like me mum used to make. I have to admit to liking a mug of tea normally, but cup, saucer and well made cake just seem to go together somehow. Not very rock and roll you might say and you might even complain that festivals aren't what they used to be. That's certainly true. There was however a beer tent and all the usual for those who wanted it, but for me tea and cake are the perfect end to a days hard telling!

The ladies of the Hook Norton WI and their festival wares

Proper cups and saucers

Proper cakes!

Pro active peddling of festival cakes

Thanks to Phil for another invite and to the WI for their superb cakes!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Oulton Box Day

Just a few days ago I was telling at Oulton - At their annual Box Day Celebration. The village is very dispersed, but the villagers came up with an excellent way of bringing the community together. As part of the Millennium celebrations they asked every household to donate a box of bits and pieces that represented their family and the boxes were then stored in a purpose built metal chest that was encased in wood and held in Oulton Chapel. There they will stay in the Oulton Chapel Chest for 100 years before being handed back to the houses from whence they came. What a fantastic idea! Not only does that help unite the villages now, but should also unite them in the future. Even the storing of the boxes at the chapel has resonances with the past when all important documents relating to village life were stored in the parish church chest, for the simple reason it was often the most secure place to do so. Thus they have linked the villages together in the past, the present and hopefully the future.

Oulton Chapel
Not a typical parish church, rather an 18th century non-conformist place of worship
Well worth a visit and more details can be found on the parish council website here...
Also on Simon Knott's Norfolk Churches website

A great idea that is remembered each year at the Box Day celebration with photos adorning the main tent of all those who have come to live in the village since at least the early 2000s, including a traveller and his dog who camped up on the roadside for a while. As I said Oulton is a dispersed village, spread out here and there and so I did have trouble finding the celebration, but in many ways it has a far greater sense of community than many a 'traditional' village!

Thanks to Zoe for inviting me and everyone else who enjoyed a good tale!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Arundel Castle and Colchester Oyster Fayre

A busy week last week and one that took me from the Bishop's Palace in Wells, to Christchurch Mansion House in Ipswich and then onto Arundel Castle in West Sussex.

The Yarnsmith
In the original early medieval keep at Arundel

Arundel is a huge castle with lots of history and like all major fortifications it has suffered over the years and also been restored and added to many, many times. It's that that still stands out about the place, for having just arrived and set up with my storytelling apprentice Kim, we decided to have an explore before I started telling and we stumbled upon a what I can only describe as a fantasy garden.

Oberon's Palace based on Inigo Jones 17th century design

For it turns out that the present owners (Still the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk) are still adding to the castle and it's estates and this new garden was inspired by the work of the famous early modern architect and stage designer, Inigo Jones and taken from a painting inside the main house.

Looking into the Oberon's Palace

Jones was well known for his innovative theatrical designs and clever inventions & effects, many used at court masques. This is reflected in the center piece of the garden - Oberon's Palace which was designed for Prince Henry's Masque in 1611 (Henry was the elder brother of Charles the 1st, but died whilst still a youth) And inside a crown neatly balancing on top of a fountain, which spins and bounces and bobs, but does not fall off.

The crown balancing on top of the fountain In Oberon's Palace

In that respect then the recreation of Jones design is fantastical, for just as some today might look down their noses at special effects, there were those who did the very same some 400 years ago. Ben Johnson, who wrote many of the masques that Jones designed stage sets for, regularly mocked Jones work saying that the literature was more important to theatre than the sets. Alas for Johnson there were many who disagreed and came to see Jones stunning effects, which must have galled Johnson no end!

Looking up in Oberon's Palace

I would have been one of those coming to see what wonders Jones came up with next and for me the fact that I first thought the garden at Arundel was a fantasy garden was not then a criticism. . I thought it was fantastic! A stunning recreation of the work of a creative genius of 400 years ago.

Detail of the main arch of Oberon's Palace

Another of Inigo Jones designs - the Park Temple

Inside the Park Temple

Part of huge Inigo Jones garden

Having told at Arundel on the Thursday I then went back to Ipswich on the Friday and in the evening I continued my storytelling journey onto the Colchester Oyster Fayre. The Oyster Fayer is my favorite historical fair in the whole country and anyone wanting to buy authentically made goods, from shoes to swords, to horn cups and phallic pewter badges, they would best be served by coming to the Oyster Fayre.

For me though it's the entertainment that really stands out and not just because I'm part of it! And this Year it was Melford hys Companie who really entertained one and all. They are part of the now famous living history group who have their base at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk. There are many offshoots and individuals who started at Kentwell and like the Melford players now travel all over the country to schools, museums and heritage sites, demonstrating and entertaining.

The cast of the St George mummers play including the Devil himself and a dragon with real smoke!

The Melfords put on mummers and other plays as they would have been in medieval and Tudor times - all very colorful, bawdy and with lots of interaction with the audience and crowd participation. This year they performed the St George mummers play which even featured a smoking dragon and the kids helping the quack Dr pull out George's guts! Jack Green who as 'Dr John Green' featured in an earlier blog on Nottingham Robin Hood Pageant that can be seen by going here... He played the 'evil' Saracen

Jack Green as the 'evil' Saracen

The boastful Dr of Physic attempting to cure St George

Kill or cure, with the help of some kids!

Finally out come his guts or is it sausages!

They then went on to perform the Reeve's Tale from Chaucer about two lusty students who get one over on a greedy miller. The tale is a bawdy one already, but Jack addedan extra earthy feel by playing a Chaucer type narrator who had to be dragged off stage for getting carried away with the dirty bits!

A case of mistaken identities and mixed up beds in the miller's mill From Chaucer's Reeves Tale

Jack Green again as a very bawdy Chaucer
Being dragged off before he went too far!

And finally they performed Chanticleer, inspired by Chaucer again and that involved everyone in the crowd being animals and giving chase to Reynard the fox when he took hold of Chanticleer the Cockerel. I really enjoyed the plays as did the huge crowds they drew in. From tiny kids to old people - everyone got the stories and jokes, which is something modern theatre could do with taking note of!

Chanticleer the Cockerel strutting his stuff!

Perching with his beautiful hens

Giving chase to Reynard the fox who has Chanticleer in his clutches
Even the audience joined the pursuit!

Thanks To Paul Ullson for inviting me to Arundel and Ted Loyde at the Oyster Fayre..

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich

This week I am telling in the wonderful Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. Originally a Tudor hall it grew and developed as fashions changed and it is now a museum and gallery full of twists and turns, nooks and crannies, step ups and step downs and creaking floor boards. Lots of creaking floorboards! It is packed full of fantastic furniture stained with the dark hues of everyday use and touch. There are little rooms here and there, austere Tudor and Stuart portraits, their occupants sitting in judgement on all the meaner sort like me who pass by. There are all sorts and sizes of room, from rich men's closets to the scullery and kitchen where the meaner sort like me once turned spits and fetched water. It's a labyrinth because as fashions and tastes changed the house grew and in later times furniture and even whole building from elsewhere in Ipswich were absorbed into the structure. There is too much there to describe, from Georgian costume to Tudor bed warmers and cucking stools and so I have decided to focus on one object that caught my eye....

The joy of courtship...
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It's this small jug made in the late 18th century in the ceramics collection and it's subject reflects a major theme of many of the stories I tell. In truth I'm not really into ceramics, but this jug had a certain appeal because of my stories, namely the struggles between man and woman, husband and wife. Occasionally I have been challenged for telling such tales, but historically the subject had been a constant cause of both concern and jocularity. Clearly that's the case with the jug, for as it says...

When two fond fools together meet
Each look gives joy, each kiss as sweet
But Wed, how cold and cross they be
Turn upside down and then you'll see...

And then when you turn it upside down the message is complete!

The realities of Matrimony!

This is not an attack on men nor women, but simply a joke that makes people laugh and so hopefully lessens tension between men and women, husband and wife. Surely we all need a laugh every now and then!

Thanks to Caroline and all the staff and volunteers at the mansion house for looking after me so well and being so into storytelling!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Celtic Harmony, Hertfordshire

On May 2nd this year I told at a Beltane Celebration at Celtic Harmony Camp. It's a mix of Iron Age round houses and technology but overlaid with messages about the environment and sustainability. In essence using our Celtic heritage to promote harmony with the natural world, whilst providing natural & cultural heritage education.

One of two roundhouses at Celtic Harmony
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Inside and looking up at the smoke blackened roof of the roundhouse

The organic looking Iron Age roof

It was this that particularly attracted me to the site. Having worked recently at Center Parcs at Elveden in Norfolk where the access to nature is limited for the most part to cycling or walking through it, I have to be honest and say that the Celtic Harmony approach is much more hands on and I think better for it. That's not to say there is anything wrong with the center parcs approach - it does after all get people out and about who might not otherwise have access to nature; it's just that I like to see both kids and adults getting their hands dirty. That's precisely what happens at the camp, because at least one of its founders, Luca, is trained as a Forest School teacher where the emphasis is on positive learning through access to nature but also importantly through fun. And there can be no greater fun as far as I'm concerned that messing about with mud! One of the activities when I was there was creating Green man Clay faces at the mud pit and plastering them to a nearby tree.

Earth and water make mud and mud is fun!

The finished product -
Green Men al waiting to finally banish winter...

Its not just about nature though, because the hands on activities also include more historical sessions such as grinding grain to make flour and simple forms of bread and cakes. This was taking place in one of the roundhouses where anyone who wanted to could grind their own flour, make a simple 'cake and cook it over the fires. The smell of both smoke and cake was great and it was good to see that nothing was fenced off. Everyone was getting involved, getting their sleeves rolled up and using their own common sense!

The grindstones kept turning all day...

Cooking the cakes in the roundhouse

It was good to see, because like many people I sometimes worry that kids and adults for that matter are becoming detached for the world around them and that convience rules, especially when it comes to food. And at Celtic Harmony the message is clear that the animals had their many uses including meat. Its not forced down your throat, but its clear that the animals here were not just pets.

Messages about our Celtic past and sustainability are dotted here and there...

A Goat!

The emphasis was on fun and so hopefully learning by the back door. Even the ceremony at the end of the day where Queen Winter was banished by the May Queen and the Green Man, involved lots of shouting and audience participation and I think that it's precisely that pantomime element that will make everyone remember what happened and maybe take away just a little bit of a 'feel' for life long, long ago..

The May Queen (Middle) banishes Cruel Winter (Left)
with the help of the Celtic Harmony Chieftain and many, many kids!

Thanks to Luca and Clare and to the storyteller Molly for making me feel so welcome...