Traditional Skills Part 1 – Preparing Vellum

vellum4I have for many years past had an interest in medieval illumination and calligraphy and as a historian I have a particular interest in the wonderful manuscripts produced in medieval times.  I’d already been lucky enough to attend an illumination course at the Princes School of Traditional Arts with Helen White, an eminent calligrapher and illuminator and when my friend Alison told me of a vacant place on a Traditional Skills course with the Sussex Scribes and Illuminators, I jumped at the chance.

The course, run by our teacher Josie Brown, is split into 4 days divided over a year and the first part was about vellum.  The day started with an explanation of what the difference is between parchment and vellum.  Parchment has become a generic term for any prepared animal skin.  In fact William Horman, Headmaster at Eton College in the early Sixteenth Century described it as –

‘That stouffe that we wrytte upon: and is made of beestis skynnes: is somtyme called parchment, somtyme velem’.

Vellum is in fact specifically made of calf skins.  There is a wonderful array of different types of vellum available, such as uterine vellum made from the skin of aborted calves, which may sound particularly cruel but when you think that the skin and probably the carcass would be wasted anyway, as would all calf skins, it takes on the form of that infamous saying ‘waste not, want not’.  Uterine vellum is particularly fine, as the animal was never exposed to the harsh environment of the outside world.

Many of the skins are produced by William Cowley’s, an old family firm from Buckinghamshire who have been in business since the 1870s. Everyone in the class was astonished by the high cost of vellum (my small roughly A4 sized piece cost £31.50) but after looking at photos of the lengthy process involved in preparing a vellum, the cost became understandable.  According to Christopher De Hamel’s book ‘Medieval Craftsmen – Scribes and Illuminators’, the cost for a skin in the early to mid 14th C was 3d per sheet.  Which probably sounds extremely cheap but relative to a peasants earnings, which might only be a 1 a day it was very expensive and was the second most expensive material, next to gold in the production of a book.

vellum9Vellum is a remarkable material and Josie demonstrated to us how strong it is by showing how it had bowed a piece of hardboard that she had prepared.  The board had bowed under the pull of the vellum.  Vellum responds to the different atmospheres that it is stored in and she showed us another of her works that had ‘exploded’ off it’s board after being moved from the cool, damp atmosphere of an old house into a warm, sunny library for 3 weeks.  This I thought was a wonderful part of Josie’s teaching.  It can be very intimidating to have a perfect teacher, who never appears to have made an error and it was reassuring to see that experts made errors too.  Which greatly put us at ease.

Historically for medieval book and scroll making, parchment was not stretched as we were doing on the course.   During its life the vellum would be shut inside a weighted book, thus there wouldn’t be so many problems with it curling as there might be in a modern framed piece of work.

Josie showed us how to stretch our vellum over a piece of MDF.  The boards had been coated with PVA glue and then sanded.  We measured round our boards and marked out the parchment as directed.   The vellum was then placed under teabag paper (yes really, the stuff they use to make teabags, bought from a scrap store) and damped over with a light sponging and left under a weight for 5 minutes.  A piece of cartridge paper, slightly smaller than the board was very lightly glued in place, then the vellum placed on top and the whole turned over.  We glued the flaps we had cut on the sides and back in place with more PVA.  Handmade natural paper was then glued on as backing.

After lunch the manuscripts had dried perfectly flat.  A few of us were a little nervous that we would get it wrong and waste the precious vellum but all turned out just fine and we had worried needlessly.

vellum5The afternoon was spent learning how to prepare the vellum.  We applied ground pumice to our left over pieces of skin to remove natural grease and then sanded some areas of the vellum with fine sand paper, leaving other areas un-sanded. We used various materials on the skin in different test patches such as pumice, cuttlefish bone and gum sandarac.  This was so that we could see what it was like to write on the different surfaces.  Having sanded my skin too lightly at first, I had to sand it further, to give it a good nap until it had a suede like texture.  Josie explained that trying to write on an unprepared skin would feel a bit like skating on ice, the pen would be trying to slip everywhere.  Sanding and applying these powders gave something for the pen and ink to grip and bite into, so that the letters would be nice and crisp with no bleeding. We had great fun shaking the powders on and off our vellum and I felt a little like I had been transported back in time to a playtime afternoon at infants school, as I was having such fun. Josie also educated us that any vellum which was to be painted and not written on need not be prepared in this way.

vellumkNext we looked at how to make an erasure with a curved knife.  I have grown very fond of oak gall ink recently and used it on my vellum but found out the hard way that although authentically medieval scribes may have used oak gall ink, it is extremely hard to erase from vellum and it can sink deep into the material and be visible from the other side.  This is why medieval scribes are often shown with quill in the right hand and pen knife in the left, so it was at hand to immediately scrape away any errors.  My letters written in gouache were much more successful.  We practised correcting a letter.  In my case I changed an italic a to a letter u and was very pleased with the result. Vellum is such a marvellous material to work with and I found myself instantly falling in love with it.

vellumuAt the end of the day, we all compared works to see what had worked and what hadn’t.  My only regret of the day was that it went by too quickly, the day was well thought out and planned, with lots of information. I came away with the inspiration and knowledge to feel that I could prepare my own skins in the future. I am very much looking forward to part 2.  Roll on June!

P.S.  Any errors in this work are entirely my own and nothing to do with Josie’s fab teaching!
Posted in Crafts, Illuminations, Just for fun, Medieval

Dickens Christmas Carol

imageSo what do people who dress up in historical costume do for fun during their time off over Crhristmas?  Dress up in historical costume of course!  That, and visit a wonderful, interactive production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at The Core Theatre  in Corby Cube.

We were visiting our best friends in Northamptonshire.  We are God parents to their children. We were looking for something exciting to do with them for Xmas and we were super pleased to find a performance of this great story on at the Cube.  Christmas ghost stories were a huge thing in Victorian times.  Every Christmas, through the long cold wintry nights families would gather around the fire and tell each other scarey ghost stories.  There are more Xmas ghost stories out there, Dickens is not the only one but nobody knows them any more.  What killed this wonderful tradition?  I’m not sure, perhaps the advent of the cinema.

As our Godsons are quite small, only 4 & 6, we thought that it might be less scarey for them if Wel and I dressed up in Victorian costume.  It would also help us get into the spirit of the thing and make it less scarey for them.  Our Godsons both joined in too by donning some Derby Hats.  Our youngest Godson was doffing his hat in a most charming fashion, looking every inch the Artful Dodger.  We were a little nervous that the kids might be frightened of the ghosts but we had explained to them both before hand what they’d see and I have to say they were completely enthralled.

imageThe Core is a small and intimate theatre and nowhere is very far from the stage.  We had elected to sit on the stage when booking our seats,  as we thought that this was a rare honour and a very exciting thing to do. We took our seats near the front and placed the boys between us so they wouldn’t feel too scared.  The stage area was literally only a couple of feet away from us.  The actors were already on the stage, with Scrooge at his writing desk covetously counting his money, a lone candle burning away.  The theatre was dark and lit mainly by small twinkly candle like lights.

Before the play commenced, we were all handed fake snowballs by the actors to use later on in the performance.  The other actors apart from Scrooge then left the stage and the story began.  I think we all know the story quite well so I won’t describe it in full details, just our favourite bits.  Like many productions the play was put on with the actors each playing several parts, which is something I’ve always enjoyed about the theatre.

The first ghost Jacob Marley appeared ominously behind a curtain of  cobwebs, pushing and groaning his way through towards Scrooge.  He put on a hackle raising performance as the  chain encumbered Marley and I looked to my youngest Godson to offer him support if he needed it but he was absolutely fascinated and barely sat in his own seat throughout the whole performance.

The next ghost was the ghost of Christas Past, reminding Scrooge of Christmases long gone.  During the scene reminiscing on his school days we all got to take part in a snowball fight with the actors and other audience members, which the children loved immensely.

When Scrooge was taken to Fezziwhigs we were invited to come up and join in some dancing with the actors on the stage.  Our oldest Godson was straight up there and needed no 2nd invitation!  We’d have loved to go ourselves but our youngest was a little scared and we didn’t feel that we could leave him on his own.  I think my enormous bustle might have squashed him if I pushed past!  They did some Regency style group dancing, the kind of thing that you might see in a Jane Austen story.  We were so proud of our Godson joining in, and the actors managed it very well, pairing him up with another little girl to send them dancing merrily down the line. He looked so endearing, it made his Godmothers heart melt.

When the  ghost of Christmas Present came on he was quite jolly and not too scarey.  The children were astonished at the flying through the air scene, cleverly achieved with some orange boxes and an enormous undulating white sheet, to represent the snowy fields below.  This was adults make believing on a big scale!  Who could ask for more!

I had always loved the film  version of the story with Alister  Simms, where  the two children, ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’  appear under the ghosts cloak.    We were treated to the  ghostly appearance of these two on the stage and they were very  scarey, in fact for our kids it was the scariest part.  It was brilliant  to see  children in the  production, particularly because  I hoped it  would inspire & empower our God children with what they  might also be capable of.  The children all acted stunningly well.

Next was the ghost I was fearing all along, the ghost of Christmas yet to come.  An enormously tall, black shrouded ghost silently entered the stage.  The kids were awe struck as it moved slowly around each part of the theatre. I feared that they would be terrified to the bone but instead they were fascinated.

Srooge of course realised the error of his ways and appeared in one of the balconys above, asking what day it was and could the boy  run and get him the prize turkey from the butchers shop.  Then there was much making merry as he visited his nephews house.  There was opportunity to join in singing Christmas carols throughout the play.

At the end of the play there was the usual applause for the actors but they also kindly thanked Wel and I for dressing up, and we even had our own small piece of applause!  It may suprise some of you to know, I’m actually very shy but inside every shy person is an extrovert waiting to bust out at every opportunity.  I’ve read before that many actors are the same.

As we left there was some impromptu snowballing on the stage.  We were then really pleased to find the actors waiting in the bar outside to say gooddbye to everyone.  We had our photo taken with Scrooge who was played by Gary Sefton and didn’t notice till afterwards that we were photobombed by the actor playing young scrooge/Scrooges newphew!  Thank you guys!  A member of the public even asked to have her photo taken with us, which of course we didn’t mind,  as we have our photo taken all the time at historic sites.

The kids on being asked, said they enjoyed the ghosts of Christmas present and Christmas yet to come best of all.  We do interactive all the time in our job, with children and members of the public and we truly believe it’s what people love and remember best.  If only more plays were as fun and interactive as this one, I think the crowds would be knocking down the walls to get in.

 

 

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Dan Snow & the Anglo Saxons

2016-10-14-13-11-54It’s been an exciting week at Bodiam Castle in Sussex.  We have been running the last week of school workshops there this year.  We’ve met some lovely schools but we’ve also had some other excitements.

Today (14 October 2016) is the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.  Battle Abbey, which stands on the site of the battlefield (and is only 15 minutes from Bodiam),  is hosting a large re-enactment of the battle this weekend, with over a 1000 re-enactors on the field.   We attended the last big event, the 940th anniversary 10 years ago and Wel had a whale of a time.  I remember a great arrow storm and horses charging the Anglo Saxon line.

On Wednesday this week, our first bunch of Anglo Saxons appeared to have a look around the castle.  They were all dressed up in costume. They were German re-enactors and my German linguistic abilities consisting of Good afternoon and thank you, I didn’t go and engage with them.

The next day however, a whole load of Australian re-enactors appeared to have a look around the castle and take photos of themselves dressed in costume in the beautiful surroundings of Bodiam Castle.  The grounds are full of lovely spots to stop and take a photo.   They had come over all the way from Perth to take part in the Battle.

bodiam-anglo-saxonsLater in the day, there were further surprises as  we learnt that the re-enactors who had been recreating the walk from Stamford Bridge to Battle had arrived at the castle.  They started their walk at Clifford Tower in York on 25th September, walking up to 20 miles per day and on Thursday they had reached Bodiam.   The local press had arrived too and the Bodiam Staff had their photo taken with them.  We were really pleased for the school that had been visiting us  that day, Kingston Grammar School,  as it made their visit even more special.  They’ve been visiting us at the castle every year for the last ten years and it was a busy day for us with 4 workshops spread throughout the day.  They hurried over to meet the re-enactors too.  Every year the school children make their own shields and have a mock battle on the hill.  What a lovely bonus for them this year to meet some Anglo Saxons!

wel-hastings

Wel as a Saxon at Battle event in 2006

The final surprise came today.  Whilst sitting waiting for our school to arrive we heard over the sites radio that Dan Snow, the TV presenter and historian would be visiting the castle today.  The lady in charge of promoting the castle had been in touch with him, noticing that he was in the area and asked if he’d like to come visit and he had said yes! He arrived at lunch time and was shown around by Heather & Janet who work for the castle.  We bumped into Janet whilst having our lunch and asked if she thought he’d mind if we had our photo taken with him, she thought he wouldn’t as he’d been very friendly. Heather very kindly introduced us and we very cheekily asked for a photo with him. Thank you Dan!  He is reporting on the weekends events and looking at his Twitter feed, there will be an item on the One Show about it tonight.  Hopefully the castle might be mentioned!

 

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A day at Bodiam Castle, East Sussex

imageWe 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.

imageIt 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.

imageOne 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.

imageI 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.

imageAll 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.

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Bodiam Game of Medieval Life

File 04-09-2016 15 47 31I haven’t been blogging much recently, as apart from our usual busy Summer of work at historic sites, we have also been very busy creating a new game for Bodiam castle in East Sussex.  We had shown the events organiser one of our figures for a WW2 trail we had created which they liked, and so we were commissioned to make a game.  Several meetings took place to discuss various ideas.  Finally, after a couple of months of making, we went down to Bodiam on Friday to set the game up.

The basic premise is that on arrival at Visitor Reception, you spin the wheel of fortune to find out what you will be in life, lowly peasant, craftsman or noble.  You obtain your character sheet from VR and follow the game around the site making various choices.  Will you take the left or right path and what will happen to you if you go that way?  Your final fate awaits you within the castle itself, based on your choices throughout the game.  Will you marry Sir Edwards Daughter?  Will you become a nun?  If you’re a peasant will Sir Edward take you on as a servant or throw you back out in the gutter?  Your choices and a bit of luck will decide for you.

VRWe set off for Bodiam about 8.30am in the  morning so we could travel the other side of rush hour and arrived on site about 10.45.  After the obligatory cup of tea, we set off around the site to set up the game.  It was a lovely hot morning when we started and the first thing we set up was the wooden information boards that Wel had constructed. These were created to hold the information boards the castle had created.

Next we made our way down to Visitor Reception to set up the start board.  This was our masterpiece and took us the longest time to complete.  Originally it was just supposed to be a plain spinner but we both felt that the game needed something eye catching to draw the visitors to it.  Wel had the idea of a castle but an idea popped into my head of the various books of hours that existed. Books of Hours were hand written File 04-09-2016 15 40 02illuminated books, usually created for a wealthy client.  They contain info such as the order of prayers and readings from the scriptures.  They also have some wonderful hand painted illuminations of different medieval scenes.  My two influences for the starter board were the Tres Riches heures du Duc du Berry and the Bedford Hours.  Both books date to the early 15th Century.  The painting alone on this board took me 6 days of working 9AM-6PM each day.  It was drawn completely freehand.  It also gave me a chance to practice some lettering.  I  do calligraphy as a hobby but hadn’t yet had a go at Gothic script, so this is my first attempt at gothic and at painting the letters rather than using a pen.  I enjoyed it a lot and am thinking of doing a sign writing course in the future to better my skills.

Wel also put in many days of work in creating the figures, scaling them up, cutting them out on the saw.  Every figure has had the edges PVA glued to help with waterproofing.  Each has 3 layers of acrylic paint and 3 layers of varnish to make really sure they’ll last.  The edges of each figure are painted with a continuation of the same colours used in the main image so that they blend in.  The blocks they stand in are made of solid oak and each one was pegged to the ground to make doubly sure that they shouldn’t fall over.

RobbersAs soon as we placed the board by VR, the public were queuing up to have a go!  We had a crowd thronging around us as we fixed it in place.  The spinner itself was hand made by our local engineering firm so should put up with some heavy duty spinning!

Next was the robbers.  For this, Wel had made a half pillory to act as sign board holder for the crime info.  We also made a cut out of a band of brigands, brandishing various weapons.  I shan’t explain what the dial decides on this blog, as I’d like you to go along and have a go.  It was actually very hard to find an illustration of medieval robbers.  This was the only one I found that was suitable.  Every image we used is based on an original medieval image.

File 04-09-2016 15 34 30.jpegNext was the wise woman, it was decided that it would be best to place her within the herb garden.  The castle has a herb garden created by one of their lovely volunteers, Jan, in conjunction with children from the local school.  We’ve seen it grow over the years to a truly wonderful thing.  There is a wide variety of herbs for everything including dyeing, medicine, strewing and cooking.  Jan herself often gives talks throughout the year about the herbs.  She’s a very humble lady, who claims to know little, but compared to the rest of us has now acquired a vast knowledge about herbs.   There are some very unusual herbs in this garden such as ‘Saw-Wort’ , along with the more common ones, so if you’re a plant lover, it’s well worth a visit.

priestWe stopped for a short 20 minute lunch then on with the setting up.  The priest was next in line to be set up.  This was placed on the path near where the castles own chapel used to be.  Wel particularly loves the nun with her eyes shut, seemingly in a bout of happy fervour.  In reality the original drawing was very roughly drawn and so I had to make the faces up out of my head.

We had some unexpected work in cutting out and creating some ply boards to back some of the Foamex signs the castle had ordered, which worked well on the flat boards but not on things like the pillories.  We spent a happy hour or so cutting these out.  By this point however, the heavens had decided to open and it turned Nunsinto a truly wet afternoon.  Waterproofs were needed!

The Grim Reaper was the next to be set up.  He was placed on the bridge across the moat, where the barbican used to stand.  The original idea being that as about a third of those alive in Europe died of the plague, the spinner is split into 2/3 live and 1/3 die.  The castle has embellished this part of the game slightly with their own added rule.

We finished the day by fitting in the fingerpost which was placed at a crossroads in the path, it’s up to the public to choose which way to go.  Wel had made this all himself.  The letters are hand carved.  He had been on a wood carving course previously and was keen to use his new learnt knowledge.  Time now was nearly 6.00PM and we were some of the last people on site.  To avoid the dreaded Friday rush hour on the M25 Deathand as a reward for working outside in the rain for half the afternoon, we decided to make our way to the village pub, also called ‘The Castle’.  It has a wonderful painting on it’s ceiling of Bodiam Castle.   It’s enormous and having spent the Summer painting I can appreciate how long it must have taken someone to paint, and on the ceiling too!  Eventually we made our way home by about 9.00PM.

Launch day for the game is Monday 5 September and it costs a £1.00 to play.  Pop along and have a play, let us know what you think, as we’re keen to get feedback for future productions.  The game will be out till November and if successful, may well appear another year.

It was very hard leaving my creations out in the open air, when you spend so long making something they definitely take on something of yourself.  Most of them had been in my living room before delivery!  We were pleased however with the excitement and enthusiasm with which it was received, apart from the golden deposit that I saw a Highland Terrier leave on our new board!  Ah well, at least it was raining!

Posted in Uncategorized

Needle Felting Workshop

Needle Felt 1Ok, I have absolutely no historical ground at all for including this on a historical website as needle felting was apparently only invented in the 1980s but hey, it’s just nice to write a blog about something different, so let’s call this a history and crafting blog site.  There are only so many KS1 castle workshop visits you can write about.

On Saturday my friend and I went for a needle felting workshop in Warwickshire with needle felting artist Sophie Wheatley.  The course is run in a lovely garden workshop at her parents house.  As you’ll see from one of my previous blogs this is not the first time that my friend Lenny and I had tried our hand at needle felting but it is the first time we had a professional teacher guiding us and showing us what to do and I think this really shows in what we produced.

Needle Felt2Sophie specialises in needle felted portraits of peoples dogs but she was happy for us to come along and have a go at recreating whatever we fancied.  As I’ve never owned a dog, only cats and I’m lately becoming something of a twitcher after installing bird feeders in my garden, I asked her if it was ok for me to make a Goldfinch as my piece of work.  Sophie had never made a bird before but was happy for me to have a go.  Why a goldfinch I was asked. Simply because until I started feeding the birds a year or two ago, I never even knew that there were goldfinches in the area.  They’re such vibrant little birds.  They look like they should be living in Africa not England!  They’re common visitors to my bird table.

I learnt so much in my first half hour there that I already felt that I’d received my moneys worth of teaching.  We discovered that the wool used is very important.  Most books seem to advise using Merino wool which is very fine but apart from ethical reasons to do with the way the wool is harvested from the sheep, she finds a lot of the other sheep wools better as they form a shape much quicker.  She said merino wool was Needle Felt3good to use for finishing touches.  She passed around different types of wool for us to feel.  All very different to each other, some are very tough and woolly, others much softer.  The wool we mainly used was Jacob wool from Jacob sheep.

We started by forming the bodies of the various animals we were making.   Three people were making dog portraits and Lenny and another lady were making teddy bears.  The fibres are loose to start with and rolled up into the basic shape wanted and then the needle is used to repeatedly stab gently into the wool and it gradually starts to pull together and form the shape.  The needles themselves have tiny barbs on them and come in different grades of thickness.  Finer needles being for finer shaping work.  Sophie herself only uses a few different types of needle out of the many that are available as she doesn’t think it necessary to use so many different types.  The loose fibres of wool very quickly form quite a firm body shape, rather like a fat sausage.

Needle Felt4The next step was to add the legs.  The legs of my bid were wired, I believe that she said that this was florist wire.  A simple loop of wire was laid over the wool sausage and more wool felted over the top to hold it in place.  The next step for me was to cover the legs with more wool.  This was felted on the body and then wrapped and felted around the legs.  Admittedly neither of us were sure how to create the feet, never having done this before but I think I’ve thought of a way to create realistic feet for my next bird.  The head was formed next by taking more loose fleece and gradually adding and moulding it on to the body.  Similar with the beak which was formed rather like the ears of the teddies.

Then we moved on to details, which for me was the wings and tail and the colouring.  The wings were formed individually, I Needle Felt5had to remember to create them opposite with opposite patterns.  The colours of the wings were felted directly on to the wings and then the whole wings felted on to the body.  Mine are just joined on the top so that they can flap like normal bird wings.  I then made and added a tail in a similar way.  I then added colours over the head and the eyes.  As she had no glass eyes, mine were also made from felt.

Lenny and I were both really pleased with our finished animals.  It was a fantastic day and Sophie was a very informative and helpful teacher. We were kept well fed throughout the day with cakes and wonderful food cooked by her mum, including a lovely pavlova.  I’d really recommend the course to anyone interested in the subject.

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Posted in Uncategorized

‘Craeftiga’ Craft Show – Sutton Hoo

imageIt was lovely for us today to be the people visiting an event, rather than demonstrating at one. Today we visited ‘Craeftiga’ craft show at Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ground. It was our first ever visit to the site. ‘Craeftiga’ is old English and means craftsman.  The event is only in its second year but I hope that it will continue to grow year on year as we really enjoyed the day. We arrived as it opened at 10.30am and didn’t leave till 4.30am.

After 11 years working in the history business and 15 years in re-enactment generally, I don’t like to say ‘I’ve seen it all before’ but to a certain extent it’s true, however today we really felt like we learnt a lot. Admittedly it’s not a time period we cover but many elements of life are not dissimilar to medieval.

imageThe most interesting craftsperson I think for Wel and I today was the lady demonstrating linen production from flax. I’d seen medieval pictures before of the process but it was really interesting to have somebody walk you through all the different processes. I’d never realised that there were so many different stages in the process. She explained that the flax was pulled out of the ground, to keep the strands as long as possible. The flax is then dragged through a comb to remove as many of the seed heads as possible, to use to grow next years harvest. This process is called ‘Rippling’. The flax is then ‘retted’, which is a way of rotting away the woody tissue of the plant so that the fibres in inside it can be extracted. This is done either by ‘dew retting’, which seems to be laying it out on the grass for the dew to rot it or in special ponds which I believe she set imagewas called ‘water retting’. Micro organisms cause the rot. I think she said that it was similar to the organism that causes botulism. It has to be checked daily to see how rotted it is. The flax produced from dew wetting is darker in colour than water retted flax. Once this is done it is then dried. Next the flax is pulled through a ‘breaking machine’ which breaks the inner woody stalk up. Bits of the stalk are still left in the flax and these have to be removed by ‘Shiving’. A wooden Scotching knife is used to do this by dragging it down the flax. The pieces of wood fall out. The next stage is ‘Hackling’ where the flax is pulled through nailed combs. The hackle she had was very sharp indeed! Hackles could be various sizes, the first for removing the woody bits and finer toothed combs for smoothing fibres. Next she showed us how the fibres were spun into thread using a distaff and drop spindle. These were the precursor to the spinning wheel and it really showed how when the wheel came along, the great speed of it compared to the drop spindle must have seemed astonishing. In fact I was told that many medieval people feared the spinning wheel when it came, as people always fear new technologies even today! We were astonished to find out that there is a 96% wastage in producing linen like this! She said that left over bits could be used to light fires, make string or for stuffing but the fibres were shorter and not so good for spinning.  I must say it was one of the best and most informative re-enactment displays I’ve seen in a very long time and a big thanks to the lady for giving so much of her time to explain it to us.

imageWhat was really lovely about the event was that the crafts were grouped into areas together. The potters were all together, so were most of the spinning and weaving people, the calligraphers etc. As with many National Trust events it had a very relaxed, friendly and informal feel to it and we loved the fact that it was not just about purest historical craft but about the crafts that were around at the time and how they have evolved in the modern world too, making them feel like living, breathing crafts, not just ghosts from long ago.

Another craftsperson who must have special mention, is Tillerman beads. I’d seen their stand at the re-enactment markets before but if I’m honest, never really stopped to chat as it wasn’t my time period. It was nice to be free of that restriction, being just a general craft show and chat to people that I might not ordinarily do so. He asked if we’d like to see how imagea bead was made and we said “We’d love to!”. It was fascinating to see how the little bead was produced and learn about the history of glass beads. He even very kindly gave Wel the glass bead he’d made and explained to us how glass itself, rather than the things made from it, is produced. He uses Murano glass as it’s the closest to the original glass that was used.

We also met a beekeeper from Honey Bee Natural Beauty who very patiently explained a lot of info to us on beekeeping (as it’s something we’d love to do). I purchased some of his beeswax which is much more natural as it has no turps in, which normal recipes do, which he explained could dry out the wood. I have just opened it to have a whiff and it smells absolutely divine. His wife next to him makes and sells natural, herbal cosmetics. The two crafts tie together quite well.  I think some of the herbal remedies may find their way into birthday presents for me in a month or two as Wel went off shopping for half an hour.

imageThe Society of Scribes and Illuminators were there and amongst them my own calligraphy teacher Jan. They were demonstrating calligraphy and there was also a stone mason there, who specialised in letter carving. It was fascinating to see him delicately chipping away at the stone.  Outside there was a pyrographer, stone mason, black smith, boat builder, jewellery maker, tapestry weaver and children were allowed to enter the sites replica of the Sutton Hoo ship called ‘Sae Wylfing’. We also got chatting to a gentleman, who was telling us about the regeneration of Woodbridge Waterfront where in the future they will be building a full size reconstruction of the ship! They hope he said to run ferries from the Wharf across to the burial site. There will also be a museum and I think he said that courses might be run there.  You can read more about it here: www.woodbridgewaterfront.co.uk/

The Anglian Potters association were there, with a large tent full of many wonderful and varied potters, extremely well set out with lots of different styles of potting, all very individual. We had a lovely time chatting to them all. There were also wood turners, re-enactors and much more!

imageThe sites museum is brilliantly set out and explained. The centre piece of it is a recreation of what they think the burial might have looked like, it looked amazing and even had the sound effects to make you feel like you really might have been there on that night in 600 & something AD when King Raedwald was buried! There was also a chance to handle some of the extraordinary high quality replica artefacts that the museum owns. For kids there are also lovely sets of Anglo Saxons clothes and armour for them to try on. A LOT of thought has been put into the museum and I’d recommend other sites looking for a revamp to visit it and see what a great job they’ve done. Even the info boards were well thought out with large bits of text for people who just like to scan and read a little bit and more indepth text for those that like to know a little more. The detail of the craftsmanship of the items found with him were astonishing. An extremely good and modern museum but without losing the feel of the time period it’s portraying.

Thanks to all staff, re-enactors and demonstrators for making it such a great day and for letting me take their photos. We stayed for 6 hours in total.

In short I really hope that the Trust runs the event next year and I hope that you will all take time to visit it. It’s a lovely site and a great event, just don’t forget to take your woolies, it gets a tad drafty at times, especially round the burial site.

Posted in Crafts, Just for fun

Craft Day

Needle felting5Not much historical value in this article. It’s mostly for fun.  About Christmas time, chatting with my friends, I said I thought it’d be a great idea to have a craft day, where we all got together to teach each other lots of new crafty skills.  This weekend it happened.  We were at my friends house in Sussex and it was an amazing weekend.  Very relaxing and we all came away I think feeling like we’d learnt some of the basics of a new skill.

The first thing that we tried having a go at was needle felting.  I’d seen this done before by Kirsty Allsop and thought, “Well that looks kinda fun”.  At Christmas, I’d bought a book and kit for my friend, who also fancied trying it.  It starts with bits of coloured fleece that you form by Needle felting1felting it with a needle into the shape of various animals.  We all had basic starter kits and no experience of doing it before so my hopes weren’t especially high but we did all produce animal like creatures!  With the rabbit, you make a ball for the head and a longer shape for the body.  It’s simply stabbing the special needle in and out of the wool multiple times until it felts.  You join the pieces together by leaving the ends looser un felted, then where you want them to join stabbing the needle through the looser pieces to join them together.  It’s quite nice in that if you think it needs a bit more shape here or there, you can just felt a bit more on to it.  We didn’t have glass eyes to use but we did have some beads.  We did think the people visiting the church opposite must have been wondering  what on earth we were doing, vigorously stabbing our needles into these tiny animals!   I only drew blood once as I accidentally stabbed my finder instead of my animal!

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My bunny, looks more like a fawn!

The next stage for me and one of my friends is to go on a needle felting course in April with a professional needle felter.  We’ll probably find out that we have been doing it all wrong but we had a lovely day anyway.

This was how we spent most of Saturday, felting animals, drinking tea, eating lots of cake and putting the world to rights.

Needle felting7On Saturday night, I started showing my friends some of the basics of illumination with gold leaf.  I’d decided it might be fun to make our names.  We traced some letters and then rubbed red bole on the back (a type of clay).  We then traced over the letters again, which gave us an outline of the letters.  We could have used pencil to do this but red bole is more traditional and I thought it’d be nice to try something Illumination1different.    We then all filled the inside of the first letter with gum ammoniac.  Gum ammoniac is a kind of tree resin and it acts like a glue for the gold to stick to.  We left our letters overnight and then this morning we gilded, painted and embellished the letters.  We were using transfer gold, which is gold leaf stuck to a kind of paper.  You revive GA by breathing on it, this makes it tacky enough for the gold to stick to.  You quickly lay the gold over it and rub the back gently,  The gold will peel away from the sheet and if you’ve applied enough GA, hopefully it will stick to the paper.  You then use a really soft squirrel hair brush to remove any excess gold.  Squirrel hair is used as it doesn’t scratch the gold.  We Illumination4then used gouache paint to colour the other letters and put some tracery embellishments around the letters.  Finally we used some shell gold, which is powdered gold mixed with GA to add some highlights.  Considering especially that  it was everyones first ever attempt, I think we achieved some brilliant results and everyone seemed very pleased with their creations.

Thanks so much to my friend for hosting the day and I’m sure that more crafting days will follow in the future.  I’m sure that there will also be plenty more tea and cake too!

 

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Illumination2

Posted in Illuminations, Just for fun

Burton End Primary -WW2 workshop

Another new school for us, and pretty close to home too.  Also a new topic for this age group.  We were running our Year 9 workshop for Year 6.  We’d run the workshop for Year 7s before and they’d seemed to love it, even more than the Year 9s, so when Mr Murray asked if the workshop would work for that age group, we thought it probably would.

Everyone was very friendly and helpful on arrival and directed us to the small hall which we were running the workshop in.  This was preferable to the lunch hall as it meant that we wouldn’t have to pack down before lunch, which would have been impossible for this workshop as it was not designed to be shoved in a corner or packed down quickly as our KS1 castle workshop was.  It was a small hall but we managed to fit everything in just about.  We didn’t bring the Morrison shelter for this workshop but everything else was there.  I was wearing some 1940s trousers and knitwear.  I bought these clothes 5 years ago but had gained weight and not been able to fit them again till recently.  It felt so odd to be wearing trousers whilst running a school workshop.  The dress normally dominates all historic clothing for women.

The first workshop was soon upon us and I was feeling a little nervous, having never run the workshop for this age group before.    I often have nerves before a workshop but it’s always the good kind of excited that an actor feels before going on stage.  The workshop covers lots of home front topics in an hour, rationing, black out, ARP wardens, home guards, fire bombs, military such as RAF & home guards, salvage and lots more.  It’s presented through a format of crime. Many things were made a crime during WW2 which would not normally be a crime such as feeding the birds (wasting food).  The children are given identity cards and roles.  Some of them are then put on trial for various crimes and the children have to guess if the crime presented is real or not.  An example is the lady who threw away a bus ticket and received a £100 fine for wasting paper.  Considering that a woman might only earn £2 or £3 per week, this was a phenomenal sum.  She had obviously been made an example of.  It was important to salvage every thing possible during the war, even a bus ticket could make the wadding for a bullet.    I think we blew their mind a little with the incredible fines and punishments that the people were given, even for seemingly minor things such as falling asleep on the train and ending up in Hastings on the South Coast.  We use a swingometer in the workshop.  When the majority of students guess correctly, it moves towards victory and if most of them guess wrong, it moves towards invasion. In both workshops I think we got on to ‘Invasion avoided’ so perhaps to about 1943/44.

There was time at the end of the workshops for the children to come up and have a look at the artefacts such as the 100 year old Lewis gun, which might have been used by the Home guard, our table of wartime rations, or our original gas masks, (all now cleaned and certified safe by an asbestos removal company).

It was just two workshops for us and we were packed up and on our way home by lunch.  We think that the workshop was quite successful and we’ll certainly be working on it and developing it more for this age group in the future.  If any other schools have some Year 6s and a spare hall for us to run the workshop in, we’d love to run it again.  Thanks Burton End and hopefully we’ll see you another year.  Good luck with your project.

Posted in School Workshops, WW2 workshop

Springwood High – GCSE Medieval Medicine

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I can’t recall exactly what we were talking about at this point but she was very interesting.  I look deep in thought!

How lovely it is to talk to older children for a change.  We love visiting primaries but it’s really nice to have a change of aspect and talk at a higher level.  This workshop is one of our favourites and we wish that we ran it more often.  Possibly we will in the future as I believe medicine will be a compulsory part of the history curriculum at this level.  I’m sounding like a stuck record here, but this was our first ever visit to Springwood High (we do have lots of repeat bookers honest!).  It’s spread over a huge site and we were a little lost on arrival as to where to go but were soon directed to where we were to set up.  The caretaker knew exactly who were and seemed to be expecting us, which was great.  I was very surprised to find on arrival that the school has it’s own cat.  A lovely ginger cat which was curled up asleep in reception for most of the day.  The first time I ever recall seeing a cat in a school.

imageAlthough this workshop was originally created for GCSE level, it seems that the way the GCSEs are taught is changing and Year 9 seems to be a more common age group for us to teach it too.  We were lucky to be running the workshop in a massive hall. Usually we run the workshop in a large classroom.  Although I do enjoy the more intimate feel of a classroom as I think it makes students less shy.  Year 9s are a notoriously shy Year group, loathe to volunteer for any task which can make running a workshop a little challenging.  As with an actor in say a panto, audience feedback and interaction really gives you something to feed on and work with and you can gage if your audience are enjoying the workshop or not.  The first ever time that we ran this workshop for Year 9 or 10, we were horrified that we’d created something that they didn’t enjoy but I recall afterwards that they’d all told their teachers how much they’d loved it, much to our surprise.  I think it was the same here.  The students were shy to come up but we heard lots of nice comments from them on their way out.

DSC_0122The workshop is designed to teach the cornerstone of early medicine, the 4 humours in a fun and memorable way.  To do this we bring students up to represent the humours of our medieval man and how they were related to the 4 seasons and the 4 elements.  We look at how humours could be put out of balance and how an imbalance of the humours might be treated.  We use some fun and memorable props to represent these things and even the teachers were wandering in at the beginning and asking why there was a firemans helmet and a Spring lamb on the table!  The whole idea is present a visual, audial trigger to their memories so that when they come to their exams, they can picture their friends in their mind and how they looked and recall how all the things were linked.  There were lots of photos being taken, so I’m sure they won’t forget.  A big thank you to the school for letting us use some of their photos here and on our webpage.

We also look at bleeding and purging.  We looked at how people were bled either with knife and bowl, cupping glasses or live leeches.  We looked at the vein man which would show where to be bled from.  We then looked at purging of the body using the clyster pipe.

imageOne of the newest parts of this workshop is the wise woman & physician debate.  Wel portrays Dr William Hobbs, physician & surgeon to King Richard and his brother Edward before him.  This is based on a real physician from the 15th Century, who was listed in a lovely book that I own called “Medical practitioners in Medieval England”, which lists all the known medical people from the period.  Hobbs is an old family name.  I picked William Hobbs in particular as he is correct for the period we portray and you never know, he may have been a relative.  I portray Matilda, a fictitious wise woman from the period but the cures we talk about are based on real cures from the time.  We debate whether each of us is more suitable to treat the medieval man and he must decide which of us he’d like to have treat us.  Surprisingly many of the students thought that as medieval people they would chose the wise woman but I think many would have picked the physician in that day and age as he was the doctor of his day, with all the latest knowledge.  Today, I agree, I’d rather put my life in the hands of the wise woman.  Interestingly, I have just been reading about ‘piss merchants’ who were very much maligned by the 19th C, whereas In the 15th century, uroscopy was a science and art form.  It would be interesting to run a comparative workshop to the 19th C and see how much had changed.

urineChartWe finish by looking at medieval surgery in all its gory detail!  Amputations, tooth pulling, tooth worms, arrow extractions, trepanning and the wound man.  Students were then allowed time at the end of the workshop to come up and view some of the replica items and ask us about them.  I had some great discussions with a couple of girls, both from eastern Europe, although I’m struggling to recall which countries now.  In particular about the modern use of cupping glasses.  It’s always very interesting to hear such information as it enriches our own knowledge and helps us build on it.  Her family were clearly strong believers in the use of dry cupping.  I’m very interested in alternative medicine myself but have never tried this.

Thanks so much to all the teachers and staff and the students too.  We loved our visit and we hope that they enjoyed the day too.  Thanks also very much for our lovely roast dinner, it was amazing and greatly appreciated!  We hope to see you again another year.

 

Posted in GCSE Medicine, School Workshops