Travel back in time with me - to 1981. My last year at University and a friend and I see a tiny advert in 'The Grauniad' calling for people to take part in a historical re-enactment for two weeks in the summer. We thought it might be fun to find out more and during the Easter holidays, we went along to find out what was involved. Quite a lot, as it turned out!
At the end of June and our degree course, Lucinda and I set off, costumes carefully completed and our characters beginning to develop, to a village called Long Melford on the Essex/Suffolk border. A chocolate box place, full of quaint pubs, timbered houses, thatched cottages and antique shops. The jewel in its crown is a beautiful, red-bricked and moated Tudor manor house called Kentwell Hall.
And this is where - after walking up the mile-long grove of lime trees and passing through a hessian 'time tunnel' - we were catapulted from the twentieth century into the year 1600. Emerging from the cool of the shady grove and the darkness of the time tunnel into bright sunshine, it really was as if we had been transported into another era completely.
Although we were there to make the magic for the many groups of school children who were due to visit during the next two weeks, at least once, I abandoned my character and clothes and returned to 1981 so that I could go through the time tunnel and experience the thrill and amazement that met my eyes once they adjusted to the sunshine.
Just through the tunnel and to the left, a group of rowdy soldiers on leave from the wars in Ireland had set up camp. They spent two weeks arguing, drinking, fighting and demonstrating the handling and mishandling of weapons for their own and the visitors' amusement. Sir Miles Standish was the only one who ventured into the house itself from time to time when he was sober enough to join the gentry for lunch. The rest remained just less than sober at all times (or so it appeared; maybe it was method acting.)
Also to the left, but nearer the house there was a field of wheat where a number of peasants with scythes were making hay - and lots of other business - including much downing of tools, joining in with the goose girl in making music and dancing. It took them almost a week to cut the hay so committed they were to engaging with those who passed.
|Andrew in his two roles at Kentwell|
On the right of the house and near the entrance, the shepherd tended his flock. Andrew, the shepherd, was a redhead with freckles, a burnt nose and a strong Suffolk accent. He spent much of the time looking for a potential wife from the many young 'wenches' (by no means a derogatory term in Elizabethan times) who visited. As one of the lowliest of jobs, Andrew was made the 'Lord of Misrule' at the final outdoor feast, held after the last of the visitors had left.
(Dreadful photos, I know, but I have only a few very precious ones that a friend shared with me after the event. Not one of me or Lucinda in costume has survived the years. Amazing that these have survived at all - considering what fate befell my photograph albums after a long-term relationship finally ended...)
As we approach the house, the bridge over the moat was often inhabited by Mummers
performing some noisy play or generally larking around in silly costumes. They travelled from place to place in a big cart that some of them pulled, whilst the rest of the troupe continued their performances from on top or dancing around the cart.
Crossing the moat into the courtyard is where you would meet my alter ego - let's call her Annie (whose own words appear in italics as I know she will butt in constantly during my reminiscences). She was the assistant housekeeper at the manor and as such was in a very privileged and responsible role, especially as the person playing the housekeeper actually WAS the housekeeper and kept being called away to answer the telephone and other modern day inconveniences, such as a blocked toilet somewhere in a not-to-be-entered part of the house - Tush! Aye, responsible indeed with Sir Francis calling my mistress Maureen to his special service many a time, leaving me with all the work. What special service - that's what I want to know! -
The housekeeper's frequent absences gave me great 'business' to use as part of the daily lives we all had to create for ourselves. It also explained why I had less formal clothes - I was dressed in quite lowly clothes, whereas the housekeeper had a smart dress - I was just a glorified wench with a gift of the gab and a distaste for the hard work of the kitchen. I spent my time meeting and greeting the many and frequent visitors - schoolchildren during the week and the general public at the weekends - moving them gently on from one room to the next, ostensibly in search of Sir Francis or the Lady of the Manor, though in reality, providing the first part of the 'tour'.
As we passed through the kitchen, we would observe the cook, Lettys, permanently perspiring and anxiously flustering around the difficult task of preparing the extravagant lunch for the gentry with no more than a few young and inexperienced wenches for help. (I SO did not envy this role!)
Leaving the kitchen, we'd go upstairs to the calm of the Still Room, where potions, herbs and pomades provided a most wonderful, background scent to the work that was going on. I swear by the potion given to me one day - I had awoken with a terrible sore throat and was worried I was going to be ill. As part of the morning's business, I mentioned this to Mistress Elizabeth of the Still Room and she made me take one of her potions - honey and onion mixed together - and within a very short period, my throat was absolutely fine!
After the Still Room, I'd usher the guests through into the Broidery room, another haven of peace and gentle womenfolk, then down some steps and outside to visit the Bakery. Here, fresh breads were made daily and on this visit, I took the opportunity to sample the latest creations of Mistress Cyd - a woman so committed to authenticity that she didn't wear her false teeth or her glasses and happily and myopically grinned into the face of her surprised visitors. A child once pointed out that her bread was covered in flies - Mistress Cyd replied that they were raisins, not flies - at which moment, the raisins all flew away. The saffron bread was out of this world...I'm pretty sure it contained raisins, not flies too.
The children, by this time, would have usually fallen under the spell of the place absolutely and also became more talkative. This is when my hard work would start. As we walked the distance to the Alchemist's tower, I would almost inevitably be bombarded with information about what was going to happen in the 'future' - interestingly and almost without exception, the children from all different schools and backgrounds, talked about what happened after 1600 most possessively, claiming 'we did this, we found that ' and I would have to show my astonishment at the things they had done and discovered - (and such scandalous tales they tell me - of men on the moon, great fires in London, carriages without horses! Marry; 'tis beyond my wit to know of what they speak!)
Occasionally, for one reason or another, we'd get a backlog and the smooth transfer of my current group to their next destination would have to wait awhile and it was during this time that some of the best conversations were had. Some of the children were completely caught up in the idea of us being real and living in the year 1600 and I was even asked if, when they went home, we were all dead...quite a mind-blowing concept for a young child to have had. I was treated to all the important discoveries of modern times, including being shown wristwatches (for telling the hour they say),
the car, (they do insist they travel from London this very morn, 'tho' even poor I know London be two days travel away),
television (they say this thing be like pictures that move and sing and dance and other strange things I cannot understand)
and space travel (nay, some other things they say show them for fools, I believe not a word.)
Usually, I'd leave a group at the Alchemist and head back to collect the next group of visitors, but occasionally, I got to do a full tour with a group and so saw everything that was going on and all the different business that people were making. At the moat, a small group of washerwomen were based - including the wonderful Caroline of Effingham, who hid her punky orange and black hair under her Elizabethan cap, but who had a tumultuous love life, the dramas of which led her to throw herself into the murky moat waters on a regular basis. Unfortunately, this resulted in a rather nasty rash, whereon Mistress Elizabeth suggested she leave her lover and stay dry.
It seemed the gentry folk spent their mornings walking rather distractedly around the gardens, chatting politely, dancing a little or throwing wooden balls into wooden cups. I think they had much less fun than us lower classes and they also became rather disturbed that we would insist on curtseying to them - even when there were no visitors to witness it. Their big event each day was gentry lunch. More of which in a moment.
The bellows boy was a most handsome young lad called Leaf, whose job it was to tend the various fires both inside and outside the house. One day, his fires smelt particularly good - turns out he chopped up and burnt a very rare and precious trunk of applewood that had been specially curing/drying for many years in order to be made into musical instruments. It had the most wonderful smell but Leaf kept out of the estate manager's way for a little while...He was often to be found snoozing near the logpiles and almost always surrounded by a group of young girls who were totally mesmerized by his beauty.
We had lots of poppets with us. This little poppet spent the whole fortnight running around in her bare feet - I had no idea who she belonged to.
As well as a wonderful silversmith called William, there was a brilliant calligrapher who scribed away all day, every day; some excellent musicians and singers, a potter - who at times forgot which century he belonged in and talked to the visitors about how 'ecologically sound' life was in the Elizabethan era - where did he learn words like that? The place was full of most knowledgeable and talented folk.
But this tour had to end as the time to serve gentry lunch approached. Annie was required in the kitchen to ensure the safe arrival of numerous heavy platters and bowls full of spiced meats, elegant breads and salads decorated with flowers. She would lead a group of young wenches, each with their platter, from the kitchen to the big dining room with just the right amount of pomp and circumstance to encourage stray visitors to join in the spectacle. And then...running the gauntlet of serving the food to the awaiting gentry - many of whom would whisper quietly, be careful with their dress, don't spill, don't give me any of that...and others - OK, one in particular - who took his role of lewd Scot a little too far at times. As chief wench, Annie took the groping and prodding with apparent good humour, though she made sure it was HIS foot that the wooden platter was accidentally dropped on...and at least she managed to keep the younger wenches away from his wandering hands. (May his hammer be brittle! May his plow seize! May his pigs be set upon by ravens and torne asunder leaving only bespecked bone and curdled fat for which the rats upon to feast!)
On returning to the kitchen, Annie often got to eat some of the leftovers of gentry lunch and could heartily recommend some of the wonderful flavour combinations many of which have remained favourites - such as meats with dried fruits and pine nuts and oh, that delicious saffron bread!
A key piece of business involved Annie's intended husband who was the head carpenter. In actual fact, he really was a carpenter and lived in the village. He was also about 75 years old. At the information meeting we had at Easter, we had decided between us that some good business would be for me - then 22 - and he to be a couple that would create plenty gossip. Annie would go to visit him at some point everyday and he made great business by wooing her excessively and publicly - feeding her strawberries from his garden and cackling as the juice ran down her chin and into her cleavage. It certainly caused plenty gossip.
It caused even more when Annie suddenly seemed to spend more time with a young ploughman with stronger arms and more teeth than her wiry old suitor. The young man so turned her head that she abandoned her post of assistant housekeeper and ran away with him to join the gypsy band that roamed the outer edges of the grounds. There, it turned out that Annie had a previously unknown skill - that of fortune telling and in the last weekend of this year of 1600, her palm was so crossed with silver that she was able to return to the present day with a fuller purse than she had left it.
There was more business going on than I will ever have room to tell - though some of the more serious stuff centred around the need to keep Sir Francis Clopton's involvement with the Catholics a secret. The gentry had more political gossip to amuse them and were often 'wagering' on the year of Elizabeth's death or involved in smear campaigns against Sir Walter Raleigh, who was staunchly anti-Catholic. For those of us frolicking in the undergrowth, these things went over our heads though I am sure there was a lot of very informed historical discussion going on - I just wasn't party to it. On the final day, there was a proper sword fight between Sir Miles and one of the gentry - I have no idea why but clearly a great deal of effort had been put in by the swordsmen as blood flowed and the crowds made a great deal of oohing and aahing. It was a clever ploy to get all the visitors into one place before ushering them out at the end of the day. Whereon we discovered the blood was not real. On the penultimate evening, we had a great feast where we all remained in costume, though not in character, and downed a goodly quantity of ale and food prepared by us all. Leaf was rather lovely, wasn't he?
I have never been as grubby, nor as lacking in vanity (no mirror!) or as very contented with the people I was with; for two whole weeks, we ate together, lived together, slept in a tents together, made great business together, learned together and had a wonderful, individual but shared experience together.
That was in 1981, just the third year of Kentwell Hall's historical re-enactments. Thirty two years later - that's 32 - they are still running and from what I have found on the internet, they are just as popular both for visitors and those who take part.
Time travelling. I can heartily recommend it.
Kentwell Hall website
A visitor's blog
- thanks to Anne-Marie at Life's Adventures blog who visited this year and took some wonderful photos.
Before it's news blog
- a travel blog that also captures some great photos
Living with the Tudors
- this is a wonderful set of little videos from more recent years.