Making natural inks & paints from plants

As you might be aware from reading my blogs, crafting is one of my other hobbies and when crafting and history meet, I’m even happier!  This week (May 8th & 9th 2018),  I attended a 2 day workshop on how to make natural inks and paints from plants at the Botanic Gardens in Cambridge.  The course was run by artist Nabil Ali and I think was one of the best workshops I’ve ever done.

We started the first day by looking at some of the historical texts that mention the making of inks.  These included texts from Roman times, through medieval and even a recipe to make oak gall ink by Sir Isaac Newton.

We looked briefly at how to make our own charcoal from willow or peach stones.  Willow can be put in an old biscuit tin with holes in the lid and heated for a couple of hours.  Using peach stones for charcoal was mentioned by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini a 15th century Florentine artist in his book ‘Il Libro dell’ Arte’  but Nabil told us to beware as burning the stones gives off poisonous arsenic, so must be done outdoors!!!

Oak Gall Ink
Ink makingWe then moved on to one of the most famous of natural inks, oak gall ink.  The earliest reference to the use of oak gall ink was fom a very old formula written by a Greek called Philo of Byzantium (280-220 BCE) and Nabil told us oak gall ink was used right up to the 1970s in Germany.    It is made from a growth on oak trees caused by the gall wasp.  Nabil showed us 3 different types of gall, the Portugese gall was huge, the Turkish gall was the next biggest and then the British gall, which is quite small.  Newtons recipe for oak gall ink was made with ale and  Nabil had tried recreating his recipe but didn’t find it to be a good one so we used wine to make our ink.  Oak gall ink is very permanent and in a previous workshops where I’d used it on vellum, I was unable to completely scrape the ink off the page.  This is due to the high tannin content in the ink.  For this reason Nabil told us that it was often used in legal documents such as laws, so that the script could not be altered or changed in any way.   Modern British laws are still printed on vellum for archival purposes as vellum (prepared calf skin) can last a 1000 years or more.

Nabil showed us how to make the ink.  We first needed to smash the galls, which we did by stomping on them, then we weighed them.  The galls were then heated in wine.  To make the oak gall ink we used the following formula:

Number of oak galls (say 6 for example)  x  12 = the amount of wine needed in grams (so for 6 galls that would be 72grams of wine ).
We also needed to add gum arabic to the mix.  GA is a tree resin from the Acacia tree. It acts as a binder in the ink.  The binder helps the ink stick to the paper and disperses the pigment through the ink.

The weight of gum Arabic that we needed was the same weight as the oak galls.

Once all this was added to the pan we heated it up on an electric portable cooker ring to reduce it down for about 20-30 minutes.  The GA made the ink froth up so it is important to only half fill the pan.   We then added iron sulphate to the pan.  Iron sulphate is a mordant used in the natural textile dyeing industry.   In the textile industry a mordant would be used to help fix the colour in when washed but although this is not so important for inks, the mordant did help to bring out the colour of the ink.  Nabil preferred to call them additives.  Grapefruit seed extract can be added to the ink in a 1% ratio to help prevent mould.  This was done in a well ventilated room so the fumes from the alcohol or the additives weren’t overwhelming.

The left over galls can be dried and crushed and will give a dark brown pigment.

imageViola Lutea ink
This beautiful mountain pansy gives the most wonderful yellow colour and was next on our agenda.  To make it we used 50 ml wine, 50 flowers and a teaspoon of aluminium sulphate (alum) as a mordant.  Again it was allowed to reduce for about 20 minutes or so.  To change the colour from an ink to a paint, 3g of chalk dust was added.  This acted as a filler. Yellows are the least stable colours, Weld makes the most stable colour.

Fillers for paint making
– cat litter (mineral clay)
– cuttle fish bone
– chalk
– gesso white
– marble dust
– egg shell white
– lead white
– talc
– flour

Additives (mordants)
– Iron sulphate
– Aluminium sulphate (alum)
– Carbonate of soda
– Tin
– Chrome
– Copper sulphate
– Potash

Be careful, these additives can be toxic and should not be allowed near children.  So ink making should be done outside or in a well ventilated room.  Don’t stand over the pot too much.

– Grapefruit seed extract
– Cloves
– Preventol
– Rosemary extract
– Vinegar

– Gum arabic
– Gum tragacanth
– Rabbit skin glue
– Isinglass
– egg white/yolk

imagePurple Iris
We used purple iris flowers next to make an ink, Nabil asked us what colour we thought it would yield and were surprised to find that if alum was used as the mordant and chalk as the filler, it gave a lovely green paint.

Onion skins
I’d used onion skins on a dyeing course before so was familiar with the sort of colour that they gave.  It makes a lovely orange paint.  The recipe was as follows:
– 3 g onion skins
– 10g alum
– 100g white wine
– 3g powdered chalk

It was made in a similar way to the oak gall and viola ink by reducing the liquid down by about half once the onion skins were added to the wine.  Then adding the alum and then chalk if you want paint rather than ink.

Nabil told us about making madder paint.  Madder is a root from the plant ‘Rubia Tinctorum’, which is part of the coffee family.  It is used in dyeing and can also be used to make an ink/paint.  Nabil said it was important not to let the mixture boil but to keep it to 60-70 degrees, or it releases a brown from inside the root.

Ornamental currant
This lovely bush is covered in pink flowers in the spring, which the bees absolutely love and we’re lucky enough to have one in our garden.  It’s official name is Ribes sanguinem.  The currants are the part that’s used and can yield a blue paint.  When mixed with soda it gives a blue, with potash it gives a purple.  Potash and chalk gives a purple/grey.  Mixing with tin gives a lovely magenta.  Tin & egg shells gives a lovely pale lilacy colour.

Rue leaves
Ruta Graveolens (Rue) is a lesser known herb, getting the juice on the skin can cause terrible skin irritation, so gloves need to be worn to handle it.  It is mentioned in the Montpellier ‘Liber Diversarum Arcium’, a medieval handbook of painting from the early 15th century.    When mixed with verdigris, rue will give a lovely turquoise colour. Verdigris is the lovely green that you see on old copper.  Nabil explained that verdigris can be made by suspending copper plates over vinegar in a sealed container.  The copper will verdigris in a few weeks.  Care should be taken though as verdigris is poisonous.

To make the ink put fresh leaves in a mesh bag and whilst wearing protective gloves, squeeze the juice out. Then add a teaspoon of verdigris.    This makes ‘historic green’ and it is a very stable colour.  Personally I’m not sure of using this, some artists lick their paint brushes and I can’t image that could be good!  Artists beware!

We are all familiar with elderberries here in the UK, I’m not sure how widely spread they are around the world.  It’s a wonderful bush/tree.  The flowers yield elderflower cordial and wine.  The berries can be cooked and eaten, made into crumbles and sauces.  They should never be eaten raw as there are toxins in the berries.  I have also now found out that they make great ink and paint too and surprisingly produce a green colour.  However if alum and chalk are added, it will yield a purple.  This colour will fade quickly.

This lovely yellow flowered plant yields a red colour.  Like dyeing different additives will give different colours.

  • If mixed with chalk and GA it gives a terracotta colour.
  • If mixed with aluminium hydroxide it yields a deep orange.
  • With bicarbonate of soda it gives a deep reddish orange.

Paeony Ludlowii
I found this lovely poppy in the grounds of the botanic garden and it’s pictured here.  Nabil was lucky enough that they let him pick a few flowers to make ink.  The recipe that we used was :

– 100g water/wine
– 2 flowers (adding more flowers will make the colour stronger)
– 2 tsps. alum

Reduce to 30g then add 1 tsp of potash.
Using mineral clay (cat litter) as a filler yields a grey/yellow.  Adding fillers makes the colour much paler.

Ash Fungus
One of the other ladies on the workshop had brought in some ash fungus from home. Looking on the net, it appears to be ‘Daldinia Concentrica’.  Also known by the much more charming and memorable name of ‘King Alfred’s Cakes’.  For anyone that doesn’t know the famous tale of King Alfred, in the 9th century Alfred after losing to the Vikings and seeking refuge was put in charge of watching some cakes or loaves of bread to make sure they didn’t burn, but so distracted by his problems was he that he forgot the cakes, which burnt and he was roundly scolded.  Indeed this is exactly what the fungus looks like.  It has concentric black rings running through it when you cut one open.  It looks much like charcoal and indeed can be used as tinder to light fires.  Our recipe was as follows:

50 g of fungus
25g gum arabic
200g iron sulphate

It made a coffee brown colour which when china clay was added made a biscuit type colour.  Adding potash to it made a dark grey/green.

Purple Tulips
Purple tulip petals will yield a pale purple ink but various additives made different shades:

– 25g petals
– 100 g water or wine
– 1 tsp alum

Adding chalk as filler gives a pale green.  Adding potash makes a darker green.  Adding tin makes the purple more vibrant but adding chalk will make it turn green again.  Cat litter as a filler gives a browny colour.

Woad seeds
These were something that I had collected myself many moons ago. I had tried to make a medieval herb garden once and woad was one of the plants I had in it.  I found out that it is tremendously good at self seeding and I collected thousands of them.  I eventually, for reasons I don’t understand now eradicated the herb from my garden but I still have  a large wooden tub of seeds.  Nabil let me have a go at making an ink from them.

This ink I got to cook up myself as they were my seeds.  A good handful of seeds was added to the pot and some wine in similar quantities to the oak gall ink.  I was expecting a blue colour as I knew what colour woad gives in dye vats and indeed we did have a grey/blue.  We tried various test samples.  When we added alum to the ink we achieved a purple colour.  When we added potash as the additive we achieved a green.  By adding copper unsurprisingly we had turquoise.  Adding tin made it stay purple.

I used some of this ink recently in my calligraphy class and found it to be quite a pleasant ink to work with.  It was perhaps a little thin but presumably adding less wine/water to the mix would make a thicker ink.  The perfect ink for calligraphy should be like a thin cream.  I normally use gouache, which is easier to adjust if it starts to get too thin but I am trying to cut out plastic and cut down on waste generally so it struck me that this might be a good zero waste alternative to my usual paints.

2014-04-08 12.32.31Calendula
I was pleased to see that this was going to be one of the inks we were looking at as it grows in my garden in abundance.  It freely self seeds everywhere and I never have the heart to pull it up from all the cracks that it likes to seed in.  I’d used it before to make ointments as it’s very soothing for the skin.  

To make this ink we used 7 g of flowers, 100g water, 10g of alum, 3g of tin and 3g of powdered chalk.

It gives orange or red when mixed with dragon’s blood & gesso (Dragon’s blood is a plant resin).

To sum up, it was an amazing course, worth every penny, if I’m honest perhaps under-priced.  There was lots to do, learn and keep us occupied throughout the 2 days.  It opened up my eyes to the paint palette that is just waiting for me in my own garden. It probably sounds naïve but I had no idea before this course that so many colours could be made from plants. I certainly hope to make more paints in the future and I hope that if you’ve read all this you might give it a go too.




Posted in Uncategorized

School History Project Conference 2018

SHP 2018 1We have just returned from attending the 30th SHP teachers conference in Leeds this year.  We were feeling a bit frayed around the edges having been working away from home for the best part of the last month.  If I’m honest, having been a little unwell  recently in Cumbria, I just wanted my own bed and own things around me but we were extremely pleased we made the effort to attend as we have returned enthused and rejuvenated from the inspiring environment it provides.

We met some old friends, such as Anglia Tours, who I spoke about in last years blog and Ian Dawson, former Director of the SHP who so kindly let us attend that first year back in 2005.  We also made some new friends too.  We spoke to lots of teachers and attended various lectures.  It was great to find out that others had similar experiences whilst teaching and to find new ideas of how to teach.

I can only really speak of my own experience at one of the lectures which was run by Mary Brown, History teacher and Sacha Cinnamond, Vice Principal of St Josephs College in Ipswich whose workshop was entitled ‘The dead were once as real as we’ using contemporary culture to bring the dead to life in the history classroom!  The title had intrigued me as it’s very much connected to what I try to do within my own work, in bringing life to old bones and helping students understand that the people we are talking of were once warm, breathing, thinking people like them. It put me in mind of a tomb I had just seen that week in Wetheral Cumbria.  The arch over the tomb had once read:

‘Here lies Sir Richard Salkeld, that knight,
who in his land was mickle might,
the captain and keeper of Carlisle was he,
and also the Lord of Cozkebye,
and now he lies under this stane,
he and his lady Dame Jane,
The Eighteenth day of Februere,
this gentle knight was buried here.
I pray you all that this do see,
pray for their souls for charitie,
For as they are now – so must we all be.’

This seems to be a popular theme in medieval stories and put me in mind of the story of 3 dead kings.  Reading these lines  whilst standing next to their effigies, made me feel quite a profound connection to them.  Even as someone who is uncertain of  life after death, I found myself praying for their souls, because, it was what they had believed and wanted.  Sir Richard had died in 1500 but reading this contemporary poem had bought me a little closer to him.  This in essence is what the workshop was about.  It is easy to forget sometimes that children don’t have the years of life experience we all have and they can struggle  to relate to people that died a long time ago.  There is a widely held belief that people in the past were stupid as they don’t know what we know and we have always rallied over the years to change this way of thinking. Mary showed us a photo of Skara Brae, the Neolithic settlement in the Orkney Islands.  Mary asked what questions this photo bought to mind but we were of all of course, as adults, approaching it with a knowledge of exactly what it was and what life was like then.  One of her pupils when shown the same photo had said “But where do they plug in their ipad charger?”.  I had many times had similar responses from students. “No electricity?  But how did they watch TV?!”.  The concept that there was a time before television just didn’t exist in their mind.  The workshop moved on to ways of using contemporary culture from each period to help the students achieve a sense of period and understand the way that the people thought.  She used things such as The ballads of Robin Hood, which were very enlightening.   I learnt more about Robin Hood than I ever knew before, and found out in particular the scathing views of the church hierarchy at that time.    We looked at various other suggestions, such as the use of WW1 music hall songs, which helped to show how attitudes to the war changed from year to year.  It made me wonder if the WW1 postcards I own would be a valuable teaching resource. I already have some letters on our website sent to my granny during WW2, which openly show the feelings of her friends and relations on a range of subjects.  It was a well presented and thought provoking workshop.

SHP 2018 2We had this year decided not to bring so much stuff to display and not to dress up in costume, instead opting for our work t-shirts which clearly showed who we were and what we did.  I wish I had more time to put thought in to what else to bring but it has been such a busy year.

We made some new friends this year too.  We met Hannah from the Thackray medical museum in Leeds.  We had visited the museum some years earlier to chat about possible work and we had a look around whilst we were there.  The thing that stuck in our mind most was a very early video from the early 1900s of an amputation being performed.  Hannah had bought some curious artefacts from the museum for people to identify, which included a beautifully engineered cork press and a mid 18th century tooth pelican.

SHP 2018 4We also met David & Dickie from Frontline Living History who had an amazing stand full of wonderful original WW1 items.  They provide WW1 workshops in schools like us.   I was fascinated with Dickies medical items in particular, the history of medicine has been a keen interest of mine ever since I worked at the Royal Society in London.  Some of Dickie’s items were particularly special as they belonged to his (I think) great grandfather who had been a surgeon during WW1, this included his military surgeons kit and sword.  His whole family had been surgeons or doctors and he was also a trained modern day army medic.  He helped satiate my never ending thirst for medical knowledge by talking me through the wonderful artefacts.   We talked about the great advances in medicine during WW1 and also he enlightened me of some of the new advances brought about in modern wars, such as the modern version of the first field dressing which doesn’t absorb blood but instead stops it from coming out in the first place.  It sounds so obvious when you think of it.

One of my favourite quotes from a student I once taught was “What will people think about us in a 100 years time?”  Indeed, if we think back on the great advances in medicine during the last 100 years or so, blood transfusion, antibiotics, heart transplants.  What wonders might the future yet hold?

David also very kindly helped me in my quest to find out more about my own grandfather John ‘Jack’ Jupp, who was only 17 when he joined up during WW1 and was an acting Captain by the end of the war.  He had received a military cross on 20 October 1918 at Briastre, for capturing 2 machine gun nests.  My ambition is to visit the spot that this happened in October this year.  David was searching for trench maps so I could locate where he might have been based, sadly there wasn’t one, which he worked out was probably due to the late stage of the war, only being a few weeks before the end.  But I shall write more about Jack if I make it there later this year.  I have found out since that he too made his own pilgrimage to France to find the grave of a relative who had died in the war.

And so with a few hand shakes and farewells we said goodbye to friends old and new and hope to return next year.


Posted in Uncategorized

Making Ships Biscuits

Ships biscuit 2While we sometimes moan about the very early ups in our job (4AM quite often), it is nonetheless a very varied job and there is never a chance to be bored.  The favourite part of my job is creating a new display.  Our latest project is a pirate display for schools, it’s something we’ve thought about for many years and finally decided to turn our attention to as we reckon it’ll be great fun.  One of the aspects that we’re going to cover is the kind of food that sailors and pirates might have to live on.  In the age of sail when everywhere was a long way from everywhere else, access to constant fresh supplies would have been difficult and voyages could be very long.  They needed to find ways to store food long term.  Until tinned food was invented (by the French) in the early 19th century, one of the most important foods was ships biscuits (which became known as hard tack later one).  These were basically 4oz unleavened rolled sized savoury bread biscuits that had been baked to within an inch of their lives, to drive out all the moisture.

You might have seen in one of my earlier blogs that I love baking, and I often bake my own bread, it’s something I’ve done since I was a child in my mums kitchen, helping to shape and bake milk bread rolls. The process for making ships biscuits is very simple.  My recipe was derived from Jas Townsend’s brilliant blog about baking & cooking in the 18th century, which I found originally on the Jane Austen Centre’s website:

I’m not going to go into the history of the ship biscuit here as Jas does it so well, I recommend watching the video.  This page is more about my experimenting with having a go at making them.

Ships biscuit 5The recipe he gives is a little loose by modern standards which outline every ingredient to the nearest gramme but I’m used to making bread so this didn’t phase me.  I started by measuring out 2lb of wholemeal flour, to which I added half an oz of salt.  This is about the same amount I’d normally  use to make the same quantity of leavened bread.  If you were baking them purely for show, I suppose you could use more to help preserve them longer, although they will last a long time on their own.  Normally at this juncture I would be adding dried yeast to just over a pint warm water and mixing it in.  I think I added about 2 thirds of a pint of cold water to make, as Jas suggests a stiff dough.  The amount you will need will depend on your flour, different flours will need differing amounts.  Normally in bread making, you don’t want too tight a dough or the bread won’t rise very well and you end up with a dense loaf.

I’m lucky enough to have a Kenwood Chef with a dough hook attachment. I used to knead all my dough by hand and I know how to do this well but in all honesty its so much easier with the machine, I let the machine knead the dough for a few minutes, until it had all come together and formed a cohesive dough that I could roll out.

Ships biscuit 6I had already greased a couple of baking trays, so the next step was to divide the dough into 8 equal portions.  Although I used 2lb of flour which would have yielded the suggested 4oz portion (there are 16oz in a lb), as salt and water had also been added the pieces weighed more than this.  I kneaded each piece a little more, formed it into balls and rolled it to about half an inch thick and placed them on the baking tray.  I then pricked the top as Jas suggested.  I didn’t have the lovely wire fork that he used so my tool was a cake decorating tool.  The heat range that he suggested cooking at worked out between 130 to 160 C on a fan oven like mine, so I chose 130 C as my oven seems to bake quite hot.  I then baked them for 3 hours, checking them regularly.

The final result was a little surprising as the biscuits had risen slightly in the oven.  Happy in my ignorance I hadn’t thought this possible without yeast or some other sort of raising agent.  I don’t know the science behind this but I put this down to natural yeasts in the environment.  I used to make sourdough bread, which is closer to bread that was made in medieval times.  Bakers would either keep a piece of the dough from the last batch as a starter for the next or they would use yeasts skimmed off during the ale brewing process.  You can make your own sourdough starter, which uses the natural yeasts in the air but it is a slow and in my experience unsuccessful process (my starter I used regularly came from my teacher).   I was therefore aware that there are natural yeasts around but didn’t expect the biscuits to rise at all as I’d not left the dough for any great length of time.

Ships biscuit 3Once baked the biscuits were left to cool.  They are extremely hard and made a dry knocking noise when tapped.  Wel was keen to try one to see what it was like, he picked the fattest biscuit.  He tried eating it with his teeth but this wasn’t possible so he cut one in half and then tried dipping it in soup. This sort of worked but the biscuit was still very hard.  Jas mentioned that they were dipped often in sack (fortified wine), brandy or wine or ground up like flour and I can quite understand why.  It was not an enjoyable eat and we didn’t finish eating the whole biscuit.

The biscuit we chose was still a little moist in the middle.  For my next batch I will roll them thinner and bake them on a slightly higher temperature to ensure that they cook all the way through. I will probably bake this lot again, which fits with the term biscuit which means ‘twice baked’.  Their final weight was still more than 4oz but this may be because I made them too thick and they still contain some water but overall I was pleased with our experiment.

Ships biscuit 1





Posted in Uncategorized

Franklin – ‘Death in the Ice’

Franklin2Start the year as you mean to go on, is a saying one often hears.  Our year has started with a visit to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.   We were visiting to undertake some research  for a possible future nautical related display and gain some inspiration.    We arrived in Greenwich quite early at 9.30am as we wanted to secure our parking for the day and the museum was not yet open.  As we waited outside the front of the museum we came across a sort of memorial to the crew of the Franklin exhibition, it was very peaceful there at that time of day.  As we approached we could hear the sound of waves crashing and in front of us on banners were the names of the 129 crew who died on Franklin’s expedition to find the North West Passage.  It was quite a moving memorial.

I’d been fascinated with the story since the 1990s when I owned a book about mummies, which included photos of 3 of the crew who had died early in the mission and were buried on route.  Their perfectly preserved bodies were found in 1984, still with whiskers, clothing and even eyeballs intact.  The cold conditions had worked as a freezer to perfectly preserve their bodies for all that time.

The discovery of a north-west passage was a 19th century obsession as it would have meant an immense boost to trade if there was a quicker way to get to the East.  Franklin set off in May of 1845 with enough provisions for 3 years.    Sadly it was not meant to be and most of the crew who set off from England died (A few were sent back for some reason).  Many expeditions were sent to try to find Franklin and his crew.  A few of which found clues but no trace of the ships.    That was until 2014 when explorers following the information that the native Inuit people had provided finally found the wreck of the Erebus.  Terror was found 2 years later.    The words of the Inuit had been discounted in the 19th century by many people, most famously by Charles Dickens.

The exhibition is a masterpiece and wonderfully conveys the tale of this ill fated expedition.  Unlike our 19th century ancestors it is respectful of Inuit traditions and knowledge.  There are replicas of Inuit clothing and a canoe to view as well as tools that they use and some that were made from abandoned items they found from the expedition, metal and wood being scarce resources in that part of the world.

The story is told through many personal objects, and opens with a single shoe of a crew member found on one of the wrecks.  It is displayed against a moving underwater scene.  There are many other personal objects of the crew, dinner plates they ate off, cutlery, tin cans, the surgeons medicine chest, even a piece of meat.  The most poignant and moving objects for me were items taken from the graves of the 3 crew members found in 1984, John Torrington, John Hartnell & William Braine.  Photos of them as they were found were very respectfully displayed next to each other with items from their grave, part of the shirt sleeve of one, the scarf that covered the face of another etc.  It felt very moving to be so close to these objects that were so personal to those crew members and had been buried with them for so long in the ice.  To see the individual stitching and the weave of the material are something that no photo can convey.  It conveyed very respectfully a sense of what it must have been like standing at those grave sides as they were buried and later discovered.

One of the other very touching objects in the exhibition was a letter written by a family of one of the missing crew to their son.  They still had hope that their son was still alive.  It was immensely moving to read their words of hope knowing now the fate that he befell.

There was an interesting section on what may have killed the various crew members and how various diseases like scurvy & tuberculosis may have affected them.  It’s also thought that lead poisoning either from their food tins or water supply may have killed many as many of the corpses found contained high levels of lead.  This section also included the doctors medicine chest.

The exhibition also covered the various expeditions that tried to find Franklin and a section on how the ships were found in 2014 & 2016.

The exhibition started in July 2017 and only runs now till the 7 January 2018, so if you want to see it,  you’d better get your skates on and get down to Greenwich this week.

If you believe you are a descendant of one of the crew of the Franklin expedition, DNA research is currently being carried out to find out who the skeletons found in the region belong to.  Your DNA might help name them and fill in an important piece of the puzzle.  You never know, it might also help lay a few ghosts to rest at last.

Posted in Uncategorized

18th Century Crime & Punishment

Colchester8Crime is fast becoming one of our specialities and on Tuesday, Wel was running our 18th century crime & punishment trials at Colchester Castle in Essex.  Some of you might be familiar with our medieval crime & punishment trials, which Wel has run innumerable times, portraying a medieval sheriff.  In these 18th c trials, Wel plays a bewigged and bespectacled magistrate.

Crime, the law & some of the punishments had changed a lot since medieval times.  During the 18th century, broadsheets (like the Sun newspaper of their day) had whipped people up into such a frenzy of fear about crime that the number of crimes which carried the death penalty dramatically increased.  In reality, the crime rate actually fell during this period.  In 1688 there were only 50 crimes that carried the death sentence (bad enough you might think!), yet by 1815, 225 crimes could be punished by death.  Crimes such as arson, poaching, forgery, even cutting down trees could lead to execution.  The name given to the English legal system at this time was ‘the bloody code’, because of the high number of crimes which could result in the death penalty.

Colchester9We ran the trials in the Charles Gray room, which we had used many times before for other displays but it seemed to lend a wonderful presence to the proceedings.  Behind Wel stood a stone fireplace dating to 1500 and a wonderful carved wooden mantelpiece dating to about 1600.  We were also allowed to use a piece of furniture in the room for Wel to stand behind, which gave an air of authority.  The room started to fill up quickly and very soon an audience of about 50 people filled the room.  We were immensely pleased as a large audience always makes for a good atmosphere.    The room filled with hush as Wel  called for order in the court.

Various cases were brought before him, notorious highway robbers, body snatchers, anglers and thieves.  Unlike a modern court, in the 18th century the defendant had to bring forward witnesses and character references and should be able to prove his innocence of the crime.  Almost a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ scenario which is the opposite of the way that English courts work nowadays.    The 18th century trials are always very exciting for Wel to run, as we never know what the audience will do in response to their accusations or what character references they will bring forward.  Sometimes complete strangers in real life are brought forward as character references or as alibis for the defendant, who very willingly often testify to the defendants innocence and good character!  In other cases a true son will say his mother is of bad character.   I’m sure that this happened in the real cases too.  The defendant in an 18th c trial did not yet have to swear on oath that what he was saying was the truth, unlike the witnesses he brought forward.

An 18th century jury would be made up of moneyed and land owning men, as this would preclude a large part of our audience, our jury was made up of men, women and children.  As was the case at the time, our jury’s were generally speaking very lenient and death sentences were commuted to transportation instead (about 70% of cases).  There were several things that a defendant could do to help themselves.  A woman could ‘Plead her belly’, in other words state that she was pregnant.  If this was proved to be true, she could not be hanged as the innocent life inside her would also die and the child would need a mother once it was born.

Colchester3They could also plead ‘Benefit of clergy’.  This was a hangover from medieval times, originally designed to protect the clergy but by the 18th century any first time offender could read the ‘neck verse’ which could save them from being hung.  It involved reading Psalm 51 from the bible in Latin.  The psalm starts: ‘Miserere mei, Deus, secundum misericordiam tuam (“O God, have mercy upon me, according to thine heartfelt mercifulness”).   Many people, even the non literate memorized the verse to use but if it was found that they were not clergy, they could be branded on the thumb with  a “T” for theft, “F” for felon, or “M” for murder), so that they were unable to obtain this benefit again.  In some cases, they were even made to read other parts of the bible to prove that they were not clergy and get round this loophole.

They might also appeal to the king for leniency in their case who could also commute their punishments.

Colchester6At the end of the trials, the convicted were taken down to the castles original 18th c prison cells for their punishments and to obtain a small feeling of what it must have been like for the prisoners kept there.

Posted in Uncategorized

Medieval Milling and bread making

Medieval BreadLast weekend we were running our medieval milling display at Dover Castle in Kent.  As part of the display we bake some medieval breads to show the public so on Thursday last I set about baking some of the breads that we need.

As nowadays, there was a vast array of different breads in medieval times, although not every bread was available to every pocket.  Wheat bread was largely a preserve of the wealthier folk of society.  The whiter the wheat bread, the higher status and more costly it would be.  The flour would have to be sieved several times to achieve a fine white flour.  The rich had various different loaves, manchets a type of large roll were the first bread that I baked.  I used a recipe Manchet Makingfrom Peter Brierly’s wonderful book ‘Cooking & dining in Medieval England’ although Elizabeth David also has a recipe for Manchets in her 1977 book ‘English Bread and Yeast Cookery’, hers is for a richer recipe requiring butter and milk.  Her recipe is a modernised version of a 17th century recipe for manchets by Lady Arundel.  The dough was wonderful to work.  Although I learnt to make bread purely by hand, I admit to cheating and using my Kenwood mixer as I was making such a quantity of bread, to save me time and my muscles from getting tired.  I then finished off the kneading myself.   It was a wonderful dough to work with and it rose beautifully.  It’s enticing smell filled the house and when they were baked, we could not resist cutting one to try.  It was absolutely delicious and ‘Mmmm’ was the only noise to be heard as we munched on the still warm buttered bread.

Horse Bread 1 croppedNext I made ‘Cheat’ bread.  Cheat was made from wheat flour that had the worst of the bran (skin of the wheat seed) sieved out.  Again I used a recipe from Peter Brierly’s book.  It was also a nice dough to work and rose tremendously big.  The recipe used a modern dried yeast as brewers yeast which was used commonly in medieval times to make bread is not easy to obtain and I had recently lost my sourdough culture through lack of use (reason being I am intolerant of gluten).  The main difference between using modern yeast and sourdough yeast is that the rising process takes longer and it imparts more flavour to the bread.  The slow rising breaks down the gluten in the bread more and is therefore supposed to make it more digestible than dried yeast loaves.  The recipe required 3lb (1.4kg) of flour so you can imagine how big the loaf was.  It is the loaf at the back of the basket in the photo above.

That took most of the morning, so after lunch I set about making ‘Maslin’, a bread made from a mix of wheat and rye.   I found no recipe in my books for this, the only guide being in E Davids book that it would be made from 85-90 % wheatmeal.  I made my loaf however on a 50/50 ratio of flours and it produced quite a nice loaf, though rather denser than the wheat loaves.  I was used to working with rye and wholemeal as generally when I make bread for myself, these are the flours that I use.  I went through a phase of making sourdoughs after a course I attended but it was hard to maintain a sourdough with my job, although my teacher did advise that sourdoughs could be frozen and suffer no great harm.  The dough was much looser and less formed than the wheat loaves.

Horse Bread 2Next, the final loaf I made was horse bread.  Horse bread as the name suggests was originally made for animal use but when times were hard and the crops were failing this too could become a bread of the poor.  It was made from peas, beans or whatever else was to hand such as bran.  The dough was more like a paste,  I added a small amount of wheat flour to make the bread stick together more it was a curious sticky dough and reminded me of the first story I wrote at secondary school for my English teacher, which was called ‘A nasty sticky mess’.  As I used pea flour, it was a wonderful vibrant green colour.  There was very little in the way of rising and the loaf it made was small and dense. I tried a piece that broke off but it was very unpleasant to taste.  I could see that it’d keep you alive but it afforded no pleasure to the taste buds.  The pea used in medieval times was the field pea, a close relation of the garden pea.  Yellow split peas are a modern 19th century invention to remove the outer skin.

I admit to buying my rye loaf as it was a sourdough and I could not have made a better loaf than a sourdough.  Rye was one of the main bread grains for the poor.  Although in the north of England, oat and barley were favoured.  Oat cakes being a northern speciality.

Medieval grainsOn Saturday morning, we trundled down to set up for the weekend.  The bread looked beautiful set out in its basket with ears of the different grains surrounding it.  We also brought along various different grains and the flours that they make to show everyone.  Some years back we had a woodturning friend of ours make some bowls for the display with the names of the various seeds and flours.

Weevil 1We also had our ‘horrid things you’d find in medieval bread’ box.  This displays some of the things which either went in by accident or on purpose by millers and bakers to bulk out the flour such as sawdust or chalk.   A dishonest baker would suffer the punishment of being dragged around the town with a loaf of his bread around his neck so that all might see he was a dishonest baker.   We also have an enlarged model of what the grain weevil looks like.  The adult female chews a hole in a grain and lays a single egg.  The larvae then grows and feeds on the inside of the wheat berry.  I once made a loaf of bread without realising that weevils had got into my flour, the bread tasted awful!!

Quern 1There was opportunity too to make flour on our hand quern.  Making flour this way is a curiously satisfying thing to do and the children were fascinated by it.  Many coming back several times throughout the two days to make more flour.

The only damper on the weekend was the atrocious weather, heavy rains on Saturday and gale force 6 winds on Sunday, which did not mix very well with flour making!




Posted in Uncategorized

SHP Teachers Conference

SHP1We recently made a return to the School History Project Conference in Leeds.  We first attended the event many moons ago, back when we were first starting out, under our original name of Discovering Medieval.  They very kindly gave us a free spot that first year, as we were so new to the business and didn’t have many funds.  We attended for 2 years, but then, as circumstance had it, our work increased at Bodiam Castle and we were no longer able to attend the conference.

SHP2This year however, Bodiam had moved one of its school weeks to the autumn and we were free to attend again.  The exhibition area seemed to have grown a lot in the 10 years since we’d last been and there were now many other exhibitors with stands promoting their various activities.

As strange circumstance would have it, we made a new friend this week.  We had met Dickie Knight at a school fete in Winchester that week.  He was promoting Anglia tours who run trips to the WW1 battlefields.  Low and behold, who should be placed next to us in the exhibition but Dickie again, along with his friend and work colleague Ian.  The world being a much tinier place than we think, it turned out that he knew a friend from my old home town who is a WW1 re-enactor.  A phrase he had said rang in my mind as familiar and so I asked if he knew Jim.  Six degrees of separation indeed!  It was pleasant to have similar minded people to chatter with in the breaks between busy periods and it was interesting to find so many parallels between our lives.

SHP4We arrived about 9.00am on the Friday to set up our stand, ready for the first teachers who were registering from about 11.30.  We’d been planning what to bring for ages and I’d been working on a video about what we do to display to the teachers.  My brother had some years previously sold me an old Bakelite TV casing, suggesting that it might come in useful one day to display a video, and so it did.  We made the video to look rather like a 1950s TV advert, which lasted for about 6 minutes and was on repeat.  It contained info, photos and testimonials for our displays.  If I say so myself it was very effective.  I bristled with pride as I heard one teachers say to another ‘what a clever idea’ it was.  It’s always nice to feel that your work has been appreciated.  The video was actually on an ipad held behind the glass window but it really did have the feel that it was being broadcast on the TV.

I was dressed as a WW1 Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse for the 2 days and Wel was dressed in WW2 clothes the first day and medieval the next.  It was a great pleasure talking to a teacher whilst walking to lunch one day, who was very interested in my uniform.  we discussed how I’d researched it and obtained info and permission from the Red Cross to recreate it.

We also had made a brand new brochure containing info on all our displays and we were giving away free A3 double sided posters we had made of a knight on one side and physician on the other.    We’d also had some new business cards made recently with photos of us in different outfits on the back.  The one drawback being if we bring the cards to historic sites, the kids there think of them like collectible album cards and try to get the whole set!  The posters were very popular and it was extremely gratifying to hear comments about how professional our posters, booklets and cards looked.  A lot of hard work had gone into them and not just by ourselves.

SHP3We brought along Wels harness of replica 15th c armour to display on a stand, we use it in our ‘War of the Roses’ A level workshop and also at the other end of the scale for Reception age children in our ‘Knight & Lady’ workshop.  We thought it added a bit of a wow factor, although surprisingly not as much as we thought it would.  We also had various other conversation pieces on our table such as an original WW2 baby gas hood, replica WW1 P Hood, live medical leeches and our branding irons, which were there to represent the broad range of topics and time periods we now cover.    Different objects caught different peoples eyes, depending on what subjects their school was covering.

SHP5We chatted to many teachers over the two days of the conference.  Only time will tell if work will follow on from our hard work but it was also a great place to network and meet other societies and people who work in the history industry.  We met people from the Battlefield Trust, the Holocaust museum, English Heritage, Thrackray Medical museum and the Historical Association to name but a few.   We also met a gentleman who worked for Edexcel and I think he said he might mention us in his newsletter.

One of the highlights of our visit was meeting Ian Dawson and his wife Pat again after so many years.  We last saw them I think whilst shooting some scenes for Hodders ‘Medicine Through Time’ CD. We had been up to the university for the day some years back.  It was lovely to catch up and we also attended Ian’s workshop on the Paston letters.  The Pastons were a family who lived in Norfolk during the 15th century and a large amount of their correspondence to each other survives until this day.  I’d read the letters when I first started re-enactment.  They are full of interesting information about what life was like then.  Some of the letters are very personal and show emotions that we all still feel today. Ian was keen for teachers to use them in the classroom to help students relate to people from the period.  There can be a great belief amongst children that all people in the past were ‘stupid’ or that their lives were so alien to their own.  I always try to dispel the stupid myth within our KS3 medieval life workshop, with some success I think.  They find the arrow puller used on Henry V particularly clever and I am keen to emphasise that the students only know the things they know now thanks to the discoveries that have been made over the years by people in the past.  There is a wonderful quote I once read by an 18th C MP called Edmund Burke which reads:

‘Society is a partnership not only between those who are living
but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born’.

It has always stuck in my mind, I see the past not as something that is dead and buried but a continuous thread of humanity, all linked together, working towards a common cause of bettering and improving all our lives.  If Alexander Fleming had not accidentally discovered penicillin in 1928, perhaps my dose of Quinsy as a child would have proved fatal?  Thus my life is directly linked to Alexander Fleming and his wonderful discovery.  Many of us can say the same thing.  It’s a subject I often talk about with the children during medical displays.  It often inspires the question ‘What will people think about us in the future?  Will they think of us as barbaric or backward?’.  It has got them thinking about people from the past and that they are little different, they just lived a little further back in time.  Often I find that the 5 & 6 year olds we teach, think that people in the past were clever, the quern for milling is clever, the butter churns are clever, armour is clever, so where does this idea of stupid people come from in the intervening years?

Anyway, soap box stepped off, let’s return to the SHP.  We were very lucky to be near the Hodder book stand, we had remembered from before how friendly they were and indeed their stand was very sleek and professional.  On the Friday night they hosted a drinks reception for the teachers and very kindly gave us all a drink too.  They’d also given us a free copy of their ‘Hindsight’ magazine about GCSE history and ‘Modern History review’, their A level magazine.  We’ve now subscribed to Hindsight which is a well made beautifully presented magazine, the issue we received included an article about medicine on the western front, one of our favourite topics as we run a workshop on ‘Medicine in the trenches’ for schools and also at historic sites.  It was great to look at their array of school history books.  I feel if I read them all, that I would have a good general knowledge of history.  Some of the them, such as their book on the War of the Roses are written by Ian Dawson, a copy of which we already own and would recommend.

Finally, I’d like to thank Liz & the university staff for organising the event and for the splendid array of hot drinks, yummy pastries and biscuits that appeared every day.  We’ll definitely be back next year.



Posted in Uncategorized

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.



Posted in Uncategorized

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 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!


Posted in Uncategorized