Sunday, February 27, 2011

Barley Hall, York

Saturday last I was telling in Barley Hall in York . Hidden down a tiny alley between Stonegate and Swinegate and a mere stones throw from York Minster, it is a reconstructed and renovated Medieval Hall that is a veritable sweetshop of sensory delights. I particularly like it because I'm as interested in those whose hard work raised up these great structures and their skills that made rich men's dreams of immortality a reality.

And so I was like a kid in a sweetshop at the hall, because it has been rebuilt using ancient skills and techniques. It is also softly lit with low light, some horn windows & scented candles, and decorated with the flowers, herbs, and spices that made up the medicines so important to the cunning woman's craft long, long ago, it intoxicates the senses and transports the visitor back to times past.

But it is in its construction that I took most pleasure; enjoying the honey coloured rough hewn timbers that have yet to take on the dark hues of everyday use and touch. To run your fingers over the minute undulations of hill and valley created by the carpenter's adze, whether they be formed 700 or just 7 years ago, it really gives you a 'feel' for beautiful buildings and the sheer skill and effort that went into creating them. I wrote on my last post about Dragon Hall in Norwich, which is also a rebuilt and renovated medieval building, that I don't much like reconstruction's that are 'fixed' in one time period, but I do have to make an exception for Barley Hall. It really does give you a small window through which to look into life in a rich man's town house long ago. That said, because the place is run by the York Archaeological Trust, there are plenty of great exhibits that do for example look at death, disease and medicine in York as well as crime and punishment in medieval times. Barley Hall is very like Dragon Hall in many ways. Both share a similar history with once great houses being sub divided and hidden behind later alterations, only to be rediscovered late last century. And like Dragon Hall there is a nod to the modern at Barley Hall, with a floor to ceiling window that separates the main hall from the passageway outside, allowing even the passer by intent on shopping in the nearby 'Shambles' or on the market, at least a brief insight into the life of the medieval elite!

Looking in on the main Hall from the covered alley outside

Thanks to Chris Tuckley of the York Archological Trust for giving me the chance to tell in this beautiful building and also Stuart and Gemma who looked after me on the day....

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Here be Dragons! The Guildhall & Dragon Hall, Norwich

Last week I was telling at Dragon Hall in Norwich and the Norwich Guildhall and all of it part of the Norwich Dragon Festival in association with Ghent.

Dragon Hall, Norwich

Norwich Guildhall

Norwich is a City steeped in dragons and both these buildings have a strong link to them and the St Gorges Guild that inspired much of the monstrous symbolism in and around Norwich. They are also two of the oldest buildings left in Norwich and both date back to the fifteenth century. Dragon Hall which was built as a merchant's house and shop in the 1400s by Robert Topps, a merchant with strong links to both Norwich and London, although apparently its heyday was short and after Toppe's death in 1467 the hall was divided up. Over a very short time the magnificent roof beams and the carved dragon spandrel (Which gives the hall its name) were hidden and by the nineteenth century buried beneath numerous partitions and false walls that made up a maze of very poor quality housing.

Toppe's 'Crown Post Roof'
A serious case of 15th century showing off!

The Dragon Spandrel, which gives the hall its name

Toppe's Hall with dragon spandrel top left of the picture
Awaiting cubs and scouts who having a sleepover at the hall.

It did at least protect the medieval building until it was exposed again in the 19702 and 80s. Its a restoration project that continues on to this day with the reconstruction and repair of both internal and external features. And what I really like is that the building is continuing to evolve. The worse thing that they could have done was try and 'fix' the building in one particular time period; ignoring all those later phases of pub, shop and poor housing and also ignoring its continuing use into the 21st century. Luckily they did not do that and the building also has a very modern new wing to cater for schools and other events and also a very modern glass gallery at the back of the property which is a beautiful thing in its own right and allows people outside to see the fantastic original wooden arches that help support the great hall.

The 21st century glass walkway at the back of the 15th century hall

Inside the glass paneled walkway

Some people may not approve of this mix of old and new, but I bet you anything you like that Robert Toppes would have marveled at it. He came from a time when glass was hard to produce in any great size and quantity and was an expensive status symbol. Just think what he would have thought of glass panels that reached from floor to ceiling, I feel certain he would have been willing to spend much of his fortune on such a thing and the carved dragon spandrels, well they would have been old news!

The Guildhall also has a carved dragon as one of the bench ends of the Mayor's throne and Alderman's seating in the Council Chamber, otherwise known as the Mayor's Court where many a petty crime of 'ill rule' and 'evil behaviour' was dealt with and to find out more about these crimes , the people who committed them and their punishments, just click here...

The Guildhall Council Chamber & Mayor's Court

Detail of the late medieval/early 16th century Mayor's and Alderman's seating

Carved dragon bench end in Mayors Court

Unfortunately I couldn't tell in the Council Chamber because of ongoing restoration and repairs, and so I told in the Assembly Chamber where the Councilmen of Norwich met and also was the room where the Sheriffs Court took place (There were many courts in Norwich as everyone wanted their fair share of the fines handed out!)

The Assembly Chamber

The Guildhall was built on the site of an earlier Norman tollhouse from where the early market place was administered . The Guildhall itself was built in the early 1400s in recognition of the Charter that made Norwich self governing and replaced the Kings Bailiffs with Mayor, two Sheriffs and Alderman. These men were typically rich merchants and also members of the Guild of St George and prior to the reformation they would celebrate St Georges day by processing about the City with a St George and 'Snap' dragon who made battle. And whilst St George didn't survive the reformation Norwich Snap did as part of the annual Mayor Making celebrations, thus ensuring the close connection between the City and dragons! The Guildhall was then a perfect place for telling tales of the 'Dickfools' who led Norwich Snap about the City and also tales of Death and the Nature of Women. Certainly they knew the nature of women well enough in the Mayor's Court, for one of their main preoccupations trying to control it!

Stairs leading down to undercrofts (storage and prison cells)
Also parts of earlier Norman Tollhouse

An eighteenth century version of the Norwich 'Snap" dragon

Another carved dragon
In the Erpingham Gate that leads into the Cathedral

St Margaret (The patron saint of women in childbirth) bursting out of a dragon
St Helen's Church at the Great Hospital, Norwich

Early 16th century St George mural at St Gregory's church, Norwich

Thanks to Sarah at Dragon Hall for the hot dogs and letting me tell there, and both Laura and Sophie of Norwich 'HEART' for all the work at the Guildhall.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Joules Yard, Market Harborough

Last night I went and told a tale at Kevin Walker’s Yard of Tales storytelling club at Joules Yard in Market Harborough. As part of National Storytelling Week Kevin opened up the floor to ten or so storytellers - professionals, club members and beginners and what a great mix it was. I have to admit that I have avoided storytelling clubs till now and concentrated on telling to those outside the typical storytelling audience. But a change is as good as a rest and to be honest it’s always good to tell to an audience who know what to expect and who don’t assume it’s all ‘once upon a time’!

The club is held at the back of Joules Yard - which boasts a restaurant, an antiques centre a garden center and even a laundry service which means that there is something for most people! It also regularly hosts folk and acoustic evenings as well as Kevin’s monthly storytelling club. The club itself takes place in what can only be described as an old outbuilding. I don’t mean that in a bad way, because with the high winds that night coupled with the creaking of timbers and rattling of glass it certainly lent some atmosphere to the whole event. And although it was cold you could get a great big mug of tea (Or alcohol if you wanted) and have some of Kevin's home made cake to take your mind off it!

The night started with Dave Blake, father to the professional storyteller, Jo who was on form with some very dubious, but very funny puns to make for a very different version of the Norwegian tale, The Husband who was to Mind House. There were also a couple of husband and wife couples - Jill & Terry Jobson and Kath & Mike Chalk who all spun very different tales from all over the world and also managed to incorporate some of their own experiences. There was a veteran storyteller, Liza Watts, who has according to Kevin has been telling all over and everywhere for many, many years and she told a story about defeating Death himself (That's my kind of story!) Also Pete Castle a very well known teller and folk musician who had a very relaxed style and completely the opposite to Sophie Snell who was full of energy and took us all on a journey back to the time of pirates, headless corpses and squashed eyeballs. This theme was repeated in Jo Blake’s story which moved from beautiful images of flower petals spilling from a girls mouth, to the scooping out of eyeballs with a spoon - All the ingredients you need for a good story! New storytellers were represented by Tom Phillips, a teacher and budding teller who because it was Chinese New Year, took everyone back to ancient China with a moral tale of greed and magic choppers! There were as many different styles and energies as there were storytellers and it was good for me to see just how other tellers ply their trade.

As for Market Harborough itself, well I saw very little, because I went straight to the club and it was late when I came out and had to drive back to Norwich. It was also very cold and windy and not a night for standing about too long outside. I did however pass this amazing building with a date of 1608? on it, although I suspect parts of it are much older...

Market Harborough Guildhall/Tollhouse or was it a Grammar School?

I assume it’s the old Guildhall cum Tollhouse where the market and maybe the whole of Market Harborough was regulated from? As the history page on the Joules Yard website says.. Market Harborough was founded specifically with trade in mind, so a tollhouse would have been a necessary part of that plan. I shall hopefully be telling at the club again one day soon so will go and check it out. One thing's for certain though, it would be a great place to tell some medieval or Tudor tales in!

Thanks to Kevin for the invite and for a very appreciative audience...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Elveden Centre Parcs, Norfolk

I have worked at the Center Parcs at Elveden a few times now, telling to children and it was not as I expected. I suppose I thought it would be some cabins in the woods with a shop and perhaps a swimming pool, but no. It's very different and at first I have to admit to being a bit disappointed. That's because it's so busy with so much going on - With shops and restaurants it is a holiday park and not the forest hideaway that I expected.

Map of the many restaurants and shops in the woods!
Click on image to make larger

But that is of course down to my own bias and I suppose that because I am always amongst crowds that I like to get away from people when away on a break, but we are of course all different! There maybe roads everywhere criss-crossing the woods, but they do encourage access to the outside and a bit of nature with trails into the woods and whether you choose to walk or ride on the many bikes that cover the site. I imagine that for say someone who dwells in a town the park could seem like paradise.

Bikes placed everywhere for use by anyone

It's also good to see people of all ages from toddlers to the old being so active. There is plenty going on inside from typical holiday entertainment and any amount of indoor sports from badminton to bowls, but even so there were still more people outside. Even though it was a freezing cold February day there were plenty of people outside wrapped up well with wellies on (I like my wellies not only waterproof but just so convenient if you are too lazy to do up shoelaces like me) Its very much about getting out amongst nature albeit in a very 21st century kind of way with Quad biking and swinging on wires through the trees, but it's getting out none the less. There's also falconry and other outdoor stuff as well as getting out on the lake, rowing and they even have those big inflatable things you can walk on water in! As I sit here drinking tea in the warm Starbucks of all places I can see people walking, cycling and playing crazy golf together on treasure island!

Great crowds playing crazy golf on Treasure Island

I suppose that's what sticks out most; the large groups that come to Elveden, which must be good. We do after all live in a world dominated by twenty-four hour tv, computers and the smart phone like the one I have my face buried in now whilst I write this blog at Centre Parcs. You could say that when it comes to my phone I'm a good example of the inactive, isolated lifestyle, which leads me to type with some irony that you could do a lot worse than get you family or a group of mates together, get out there and perhaps and go to Centre Parcs!

Not many out sailing today as very cold

In the distance a giant inflatable walking on water thing!

One of the many indoor sports with healthy people putting me to shame!

Thanks to all the bar staff for helping set up today....