We are very lucky to work at Bodiam Castle in East Sussex every year. Bodiam was our first ever job and we were so excited and nervous when we got the phone call all those years ago, booking us to run some workshops for visiting schools. I can’t recall now if that first year was just a few days or a whole week but year on year the weeks have built up to 5 school weeks and sometimes other work for the event team. We are brought in to deal with the larger schools that don’t fit in the castles own school room, as the tower rooms aren’t very big.
This week was the first of 3 autumn weeks this year and my blog is about the last day, the Friday.
It dawned a very bright and pleasant morning and we decided to get in early to work at about 8.30AM, although the school was not due to start till 10.30. We are set up in tents to one side of the castle. Two of the tents belong to the castle and are new this year. They looked very splendid in their new setting. The other tent is our own. On many days of the year it is the most wonderful place in the world to work but on a stormy day, working in tents can be quite a challenge.
One of the loveliest things about working at the castle is it’s wonderful surroundings. The castle itself is the perfect childs image of a castle. Four round towers with a moat. It’s in the most peaceful and beautiful setting, with the river Rother running close by. Just beyond the river is the Kent & East Sussex Steam railway which runs from Tenterden in Kent to Bodiam. Often as we’re working, we hear the merry whistles of the train as it pulls into the station. Above the castle is a Vineyard owned by Sedlescombe winery, an award winning winery. All around it are green & fruitful fields and on the surrounding hills various oast houses can be seen. The grounds of the castle itself are very leafy and full of many trees, oaks, hollies and hazels amongst others. It’s also a great habitat for wildlife, which I think is one of the castles greatest assets.
One of my favourite views is a framed scene across the farmers field next door. It changes with the seasons and the years. One year, he might be growing rape, this year I think it was wheat. It’s framed with oak leaves and has the wooden fence that surrounds the grounds running along the edge of it. Squirrels can often be seen sitting on it, munching their acorns. For me, it always feels like a view of old England. This photo could have been taken a 100 years ago.
It was a very peaceful morning and I took the time as we waited for our school to arrive, to sit and listen to the beautiful serenity. Sometimes I find it pleasurable to shut off one of my senses and let my remaining senses drink in what surrounds me. Despite being the last day of September the sun still had plenty of lovely warmth in it and it was wonderful to feel it on my face. I sat on the ground wrapped in my medieval cloak and shut my eyes. All around me, in every direction church bells seemed to be ringing joyously. It was wonderful to hear their gentle tolling against the sounds of nature. The moat is full of the most enormous carp. At this time of year in particular they seem to love jumping out of the water to catch the flies and I could hear splashing as they leaped out of the water. I even saw one this week, leap absolutely clear of the water, with just the very tip of it’s tail skimming the surface. There are also a host of different varieties of birds that live in the grounds and I could make out some of their songs. My favourite is Britain’s national bird, the Robin. The only thing that woke me from my reverie was a host of ducks that decided to swarm around me. They make that loud honking noise to each other every so often. If anyone can explain to me what it means, I’d love to know. Whether it’s a territorial thing or a warning of humans approaching I’m not sure. The ducks are very tame and will take your sandwich from your hand if you’re not watching but today they were gorging on the many acorns which fall around the tents. I opened my eyes to watch them. There must have been about 20 ducks. They waited and waddled around patiently but every few minutes an acorn would drop and there was a mad scramble between the ducks to get the acorn and the whole thing would be swallowed in one large gulp. I never knew ducks liked acorns. We collected some up to feed them but these were roundly rejected, probably because they were brown we decided and not green like the ones that had just fallen. Perhaps they were less digestible. This acorn eating explained something that I had seen earlier in the week, where the ducks had been parading in lines through the encampment and under the fence that I mentioned, and into the farmers field. The field is all now ploughed and probably replanted. I had thought that perhaps they were gleaning wheat from the Summers crop but I now think that they were probably eating the acorns that had fallen there. Huge guzzling hordes of ducks had made their way through there.
I turned away from the ducks for a while to watch the other wildlife, a bunny scampered nearby. Huge blue dragonflies soared over the pond. The castle is thinking of making a dipping pond here, subject to surveys to see if it is suitable. Many squirrels were hurriedly grabbing acorns and burying them before the ducks ate them all. The grey squirrel is often much maligned but it is hard to dislike such an industrious little fellow who is so busy making provision for his Winter stores. Nearby, in the pond weed of the moat, two Robins were having a face off with each other. “This is my piece of weed!”, “No, you’re wrong, it’s my piece of weed!” It seemed an inconsequential argument to me, like two children bickering. Easy for me to say, sitting there with a full belly and a sure knowledge of my next meal but to a Robin, it can literally be life or death and these tenacious little birds, will sometimes fight to the death.
Looking the other way towards the castle, climbing up the Turkey oak, was a tree creeper! My first thought was it might be a wren but then I spotted it’s downward curved beak and white belly. It made it’s way slowly up the tree in a spiral towards the top as it searched for bugs. I was absolutely frilled to see this bird as it’s not one I ever see in my own garden.
Reality then returned with an announcement over the radio that our school was on site. Unusually it was a very small school today, only 18 children. We don’t normally have the luxury of such a small group. 60-150 in a day is more normal. Todays children were 5 & 6 years old and were from Cumnor House School. The school was a little bit late and the lovely Bodiam volunteers who were doing a tour after us were happy to let the workshop go first as planned. I had worried that with so many fewer children (normally 30 per workshop for KS1) we might struggle to fill the time but they had so many good questions and the teachers were really keen to enrich them with their knowledge too that in fact we overran a little (sorry volunteers!). We dressed one of the children up as a lord and one as a lady. It’s always hard to choose someone out of a group from the sea of hands that goes up. I guess sometimes I pick the quiet polite ones more, patiently putting their hand up, because that was me at school, hoping to be picked but sometimes overshadowed by the louder children. We looked at the clothing and what it was made from: wool, linen (from flax), silk and leather. We also handed out various hats and other items for the other children to try on whilst we disrobed our lord and lady. We then moved on to the armour and medicine section of the workshop. The children are split into two groups, taking it in turns to do each section. With me, we learnt about and mixed up some medieval medicines. We learnt how a doctor diagnosed what was wrong with his patients from their wee. We also had a look at some live leeches and learnt how they might have been used in the castle. With Wel they learnt about how to become a knight and what the armour was for. What it was made from and then were able to try on some of our specially made small armour. He finished by showing them a blunt sword and letting them take turns to hold it.
We then said goodbye to our young visitors as they went off for their castle tour. We had really enjoyed the visit from the school and were enchanted with the children who were a delight to teach. We hope to see the school again another year.
All that was left to do now was pack down and head home. I used the facilities in the staff room to make us a drink as I knew it would take at least 2 & a quarter hours to get home. I don’t feel too cheeky doing this as I often bring a homemade cake along to share. This Monday, it was a luscious citrus cake, made with lemon curd swirled through it. It had taken me all Sunday afternoon to make. I think it must have been good as it was all gone by lunchtime! Terry the groundsman wanted me to know that it wasn’t him that had eaten it all but that the cake was very nice!
We packed down as quick as we could and nearly got everything away before the heavens opened. With tent flooring lifted and tents securely tied up, we made our goodbyes and set off for home. There was one final treat waiting for us however on the way out. There, on the pathway in front of us, was a beautiful buzzard with prey in it’s claws. The prey was heavy and it could not fly properly. I feared at first it might be the ginger bunny that has been seen in the grounds. I’d not seen it this week. But it became apparent that it was in fact a wood pigeon. We needed to leave but the Buzzard was blocking the road, we inched slowly forward and it kept moving it’s prey a few yards further down the access road. I was worried it might head onto the road but as we got near it flew off sideways through a gap in the trees. This was not our last nature treat of the day, as not far away I saw a beautiful kestrel at the side of the road.
As we departed and drove home, the clouds dispersed and the sun started to shine again. I don’t think you can ask for a much better day than that in my book. This blog has been inspired by the books of Robert Gibbings, one of my favourite nature writers. If you like my blog, he is well worth a read as he is a far better writer than I.