Pipe Music from Underground

About seven years ago, around the same time I got hooked into bagpipes and their music, I was preparing an exhibition looking at Cheshire writers and the links to the landscape.  It was at that time that I first met Alan Garner and began to explore the many tangents in his work which reflect the land, folklore and legend of the area.
Though I personally enjoy his later works far more, Garner is perhaps best known for his first book published back in 1960.  Entitled The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, it develops the legend of Alderley, with its account of sleeping knights and great treasure under the hill and the ensuing action plays out across real landscapes of woods, cliffs and mines of Alderley Edge in Cheshire.  You can still go there any day and see families and walkers wandering around and looking for features from Garner's books as well as the myriad other legends on the Edge.  Even on a busy day it still has an otherworldly feel and it is easy to see why so many curiosities and folk tales have emerged there over the centuries.
A couple of years ago I came across a reference which connected my interests in legend as well as bagpipes.  I've written about this elsewhere before, but not on this blog, so I felt it was about time I did so.  And if it provokes some to explore the Edge, then so much the better.  I feel it is at its best in winter.

In 1843, Elizabeth Stanley, of the family of local landowners, wrote in Alderley Edge and its Neighbourhood, “The people living on the Edge persuade themselves that they hear music under the ground”. I’d been aware of this already, and also that Alan Garner’s cousin Eric had described hearing music underground on the Edge when he was a boy. But looking into it further I was intrigued to hear a recording of him describing what he actually heard.

At the age of 7, which would make this event in 1941, Eric Garner had been playing with two friends on the Edge, when they stopped to rest at the place called Stormy Point. He remembers it being a dull, murky, drizzly winter’s day. There they heard music underground, moving in a line beneath them at Stormy Point. They were terrified and ran home.

This much I had heard before, but what I hadn’t realised was that Eric had described the music as “a set of bagpipes started wailing, on Stormy Point”. Suddenly I was greatly intrigued. If you were going to imagine, or create a story about ethereal music from underground where sleeping knights await the day to rise and save England, then surely you would suggest heavenly singing, or a harp? But bagpipes..?

I then tried to think about what the sound would be that he was describing. Being a 7-year-old boy in Cheshire, in 1941, I doubted he’d come across anything other than the Great Highland Bagpipes, so assume that was the sort of sound he heard. Eric had described “wailing” and presumably this resembled a reedy noise, along with some kind of a droning.

If we exclude the very unlikely chance of a Highland piper having a practice in the cramped tunnels in the rock under Stormy Point at that moment, we could perhaps consider the possibility that the sound was created by the passage of air through those very tunnels and disused mines. Maybe, under certain climatic conditions causing the air pressure in the tunnels to change could create a bagpipe like sound?

As far as I can tell, no-one else living today has heard this sound. According to Alan Garner, his cousin Eric has lived very close to this spot all his life and walks to Stormy Point almost every day, but has never heard the same music since. Music from underground had been heard more regularly there in the 19th century, but then there was far less tree cover on the Edge which may have allowed the air pressures above and below ground to change more regularly – I don’t know, I’m not technically minded like that.

But I tried a quick internet search anyway, and whilst I found no more mention of bagpipes underground at Alderley, I did come across another intriguing clue. In 1980, some local geologists were trying to find the location of some lost mine workings in Mottram St Andrew, near Alderley Edge, where the rare vanadium mineral “Mottramite” had been recorded in 1876. They had drawn a blank, until one night in the pub they overheard a local woodsman talking about how, in certain weather conditions, he heard bagpipes playing in his garden. The geologists went to investigate and duly found the shaft of the mine.

So, to me at least, it does seem likely that with certain atmospheric conditions, disused mine workings can produce a sound suggestive of bagpipes. It also reminds me of the folktales from around Scotland of pipers descending into a tunnel and playing as they progress along so their companions above ground can follow the track of the tunnels – at some point the pipes go silent and the piper is never seen again. This particular legend is not found at Alderley, though the landscape is rich in other folktales.  There are many legends from across Britain of pipers disappearing into fairy hills to play for the little people, occasionally re-appearing many years after they were last seen by friends, though to the piper only a couple of hours have passed.  Many of the locations of these "fairy hills" are today identified as Bronze Age burial mounds, and there are many such burial mounds around the Edge, including one right next to the very spot where the bagpipes were heard underground.

Earlier this year, on International Bagpipe Day, a group of pipers from across Cheshire walked out to Stormy Point on the Edge, to the spot where the bagpipes were heard underground so we could play some tunes to celebrate the connection between this place of mystery and our instrument.  It was very cold indeed with gusts blowing our drones in all directions and we withstood this for twenty minutes or so before piping our way back to the warmth of the Wizard Inn, but feeling we had reunited music with legend.

Signs from Shrines

I recently spoke to the very friendly bunch at the Crewe and Nantwich Metal Detecting Society on the theme of Pilgrimage in Medieval England.  From time to time their members come across tiny artefacts with clues about pilgrims and their travels.

These little pewter badges, or signs as they were called in the period, are some of my favourite artefacts from medieval times .  They combine in one small space themes of piety and devotion to Christ and the saints as well as folk belief.  The craftsmanship of these items was often of a very high standard and details were sometimes closely detailed and frequently showed vitality in movement.

These signs were sold at shrines so pilgrims could return home with a memento of their travels, a journey which would often have made an enormous impact on their life, as well as bringing an element of the saint's holiness with them. 

In Cheshire there is evidence of pilgrim souvenirs from the early Christian period, ampullae or holy water flasks brought from the shrine of St Menas in Egypt and dating to the 6th century AD.  These pottery finds have been found across Europe, but rare in Britain, though there are two finds in Cheshire, close to the Mersey, showing the importance of the river as a trade route.  One was found at Meols at the northern end of the Wirral (the artefact is now in the collections of the Grosvenor Museum) and another discovered at Runcorn (now in the collections of Norton Priory).  Though the image is rather worn it depicts St Menas standing betwixt two camels.

Signs became more popular in the later medieval period with the increase in pilgrim travel to the Holy Land.  Some of the earlier souvenirs were simple, such as palm leaves for Jerusalem in memory of Christ's triumphal entry into the city, an emblem which remained popular for centuries and indeed giving rise to the name, (and subsequently the surname), Palmer, which denoted someone who had been to Jerusalem on pilgrimage.  More na├»ve pilgrims to the Holy Land might also be sold some of the clay from which God made Adam, or a bottle containing air which had been breathed by Jesus.

Pilgrims would often want to take away parts of the shrines as souvenirs, breaking off parts of the structure or scraping away at the stone and taking away the dust.  Naturally, the feretrars, those monks in charge of the shrines, did not wish the shrines to be so defaced and a solution developed in producing pilgrim signs which could be sold at official mementoes and thereby protect the shrine as well as satisfying the pilgrim's desire for a souvenir.  These signs could also be blessed and even touched to the shrine in the hope they might absorb some of its sanctity.

In 1492 a plumber in the city of Chester agreed to make a mould depicting an image of St John, presumably for pilgrims attending the nearby church of St John the Baptist.  Maybe his experiences in working with lead gave him the skills necessary to produce a mould for the pewter pilgrim signs.  Pewter, an alloy of lead and tin would give a shiny silver-like appearance.  Lead was very rarely used for these badges, but was commonly used for the ampullae, those holy water flasks, as the pewter's granular structure would crumble if crimped shut, whilst lead could be bent and allow the holy water to be kept inside.

Ampullae in the form of scallop shells, the symbol of St James the Greater, whose shrine was at Compostela in Northern Spain, have been found in a few locations in Cheshire, including the example shown here, discovered near Davenham, and another from a field below the Church of St Mary and All Saints, Great Budworth.  It seems that the pictured example was accidentally lost as one of the loops for hanging this around the pilgrim's neck has snapped.

However in the example below from Nantwich it seems that this has been deliberately deposited, as the loops are still intact but the top of the flask had been snapped off to allow the water to escape.  Ampullae were sometimes deposited in fields to bless the crops, or also to bless or protect a water source.  This particular example was found in a field with three springs.  In a similar fashion, pilgrim signs might also be fastened to barns or stable doors to protect livestock, elements of an ancient folk custom being carried out in parallel with devotions to the established church.
This example was brought back to Cheshire from the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, one of the most popular in medieval England.  To date it is the only ampulla from St Thomas' shrine discovered in this particular form, though there are dozens of holy water flasks from Canterbury in other forms and this particular design is also well know as a flat badge.  The top of the ampulla would have come to a point as it is Becket's mitre, but had been snapped open to allow the water to escape.

Naturally, as a Cestrian, one of my favourite of all signs has to be that depicting one of the miracles of St Werburgh, patron saint of Chester.  The badge shows the penning in of the wild geese, whereby Werburgh averted a famine.  Later elaboration of the story had Werburgh restoring to life one of these geese which had been killed by a servant of hers. 

Here's the story from a mid-14th century misericord in the quire of the Abbey of St Werburgh (today's Chester Cathedral).

And here it is as a replica of one of the pilgrim signs, this example having been made by Colin Torode of Lionheart Replicas.

The discoveries of original St Werburgh signs show just how far some of the pilgrims had travelled.  Two have been found in Salisbury, Wiltshire, and another on the Thames foreshore in Southwark.  None have so far been found in Cheshire, but we might perhaps expect them more usually to be bought and taken away further from the place of manufacture.  Maybe one day a mould might be found in Chester...

When these pilgrim signs are discovered they cause us to reflect on the piety, devotion and bravery of our ancestors, who set off to places unknown to them, often with no more equipment than a bag and a staff, and certainly without maps or insurance.  I wonder how many of us might be able to do that today?

In Comes I That Never Came Yet...

It's getting close to the time of year for soul caking in Cheshire.  The swift passing of the seasons and the sudden arrival of the autumn's tradition never fails to surprise us, but I'm glad it's here again.  I've been doing the play for 19 years now, which means that for as much as it is about keeping a tradition alive, it's also great to have the occasion to bring together friends that we only see at this time.
Helsby Soul Cakers, circa 1920
We always get asked what it's all about, and there isn't a straightforward answer.  When I first started performing in the plays, I was a keen archaeology student and did a lot of reading around wanting to know more about the tradition.  The books then were full of writings about the plays being an enactment of a pre-Christian ritual, the triumph of spring over winter, the death of the old year and birth of the new.  Sounds great, but even then I knew that wasn't quite right.  These days, there are thankfully many more considered works and much detailed study has taken place, it's essentially a seasonal folk play of a form that seems to stretch back to the mid-18th century, (If you're so inclined to read more you could begin with the website of the Traditional Drama Research Group.)  But my short answer when I'm asked in the pub after a performance is that it's an old Cheshire tradition and a bit of a spectacle so that the performers can do a collection at the end. 
Soul caking is one of those seasonal mummers' plays where a hero, St George in our case, challenges his enemies to a fight and slays one of them who is then revived by a quack doctor before a host of odd characters appear and collect money from the audience.  The plays are fairly widespread across England and crop up in some parts of Wales and Scotland too being performed at different times of the year in different regions.  The Cheshire versions, with the exception of Alderley, are performed around All Souls' Day, 2nd November and from that they derive their name.  In earlier times the performers would receive a soul cake, a spiced bun, in memory of those that had died in the past year.  These days we collect money for charities instead, and whilst sometimes soul cakes are presented we more usually receive a round of drinks instead from the landlords in the pubs we perform in.
A particular element of the Cheshire version of these plays is the presence of a wild horse character, a cloaked figure with a horse skull and there are stories of a tradition that if a gang of soulers didn't have the horse skull with them they couldn't collect, so rival gangs would try to steal each other's horse.  Thankfully we've managed to keep hold of our horse, Young Ball, all the time I've been with the group.

Our lot are called Jones' Ale Soul Cakers as they emerged from Jones' Ale Folk Club more than forty years ago.  Some of us, myself included, inherited the roles from our dads or fathers-in-law, others have been roped in after they showed passing interest at the end of a performance.  There's about eight characters in the play, but on occasion it has been tricky to get everyone along to each performance, so I know it can be done with four people and some speedy costume changes.  We'll have a full ensemble this year, but as I type I've no idea who I'll end up being, I've done all the parts over the years. 
The first generation of Jones' Ale Soul Cakers
If you want to catch us we'll be out and about on Friday 1st November around Lower Bridge Street area of Chester and over the river in Handbridge on Saturday 2nd November.  The timings and those for the other groups going out and about usually get listed on the Master Mummers website.  One of them, Antrobus Soulcakers, are supposed to be the folk play group with the longest unbroken tradition in Britain.  They perform not too far from us, but I've never yet seen them, though I hope to one day.  Then again I say that each year, and our failure to catch them is becoming a tradition in itself.

Life in the Medieval Castle

We recently organised an event at Chester Castle as part of the Discover Medieval Chester project.  It was the first time the castle had been open to the public for several years and probably the only living history event that has ever taken place there.  There were a good many Cestrians who didn't know there was a medieval part to the castle, and worryingly a few who didn't know there was a castle at all.  But hopefully the event has done something to address this.  We had excellent coverage in the local press and radio in advance and ended up with over 1000 visitors in the space of the five hour event.

As we opened the gates there were already twenty or so people waiting keenly to get in and it didn't let up through the day with people flocking in to find out more about this bit of Chester's history.  We're hoping to be able to do it all again, but in the meantime I though we would share some of the happenings here.

Chester's castle is one of the oldest in Britain, being founded in 1069/70 with the Norman motte still standing today.  The sturdy Agricola tower is the main surviving medieval element of the castle, and that's where we were based though visitors were also able to wander the wall walk past the medieval Flag Tower and Half Moon Tower.
With Chester being an important border city the castle has continued in use through the centuries and so changes have taken place, with some of the medieval defences being removed and replaced in the 18th and 19th century, especially with the Thomas Harrison's neoclassical redesign of the castle at the end of the 18th century.

But happily enough of the medieval structure remains, hidden behind the later sprawl of the castle, and along with a merry band we set up displays outside in the courtyard to reflect life in the castle in the 14th and 15th century.

Sue was exploring the food that might have been prepared in the castle kitchen, now sadly lost but which had been just feet from where she set up a table packed with spices, medieval gingerbread, a tart on ember day, hipocras, cherry pudding, different cheeses and girdle cakes and almond milk.

There was also a chance to find out about the work involved behind the scenes in a medieval castle including cleaning, keeping away pests and doing the laundry.
The monk Lucian, writing at the end of the 12th century in his work De Laude Cestriae, (In Praise of Chester) said that "the Castle was a nuisance, but the church was a consolation".  In keeping with his feelings the Reverend Mother was present to give the pious a chance to learn more about religion and relics.
Upstairs in the Agricola Tower, there is the chapel of St Mary de Castro with its remains of wall paintings from 1220.  Gerry Tighe, from Chester Guild of Guides, worked tirelessly throughout the day to reveal their story to the hundreds of visitors who ventured up the spiral stone steps to the chapel.
In the 14th century, the Chamberlain of Chester Castle was responsible for equipping the famed Cheshire Archers with their striking green-and-white livery and their arrows.  An archer was on hand to reveal the story of these soldiers and their role as royal bodyguard.

Fortunately no arrow injuries were sustained, but the surgeon was present just in case...
Many important visitors, including several monarchs, were entertained at Chester Castle in medieval times and so we felt that entertaining our visitors should be just as important.

I was charged with storytelling for the day, with tales of the castle, along with some Cheshire myths and legends and as usual I squeezed in some piper's tales.
But the real treat of the day were the performances by Piva.  From the blast of rauschfeifen which echoed off the castle walls and across the city through the beautifully played tunes in the atmosphere of the Agricola Tower chamber to their rousing finish of pipes and drum they were as inspiring as always.

All too soon it was time to wrap up for the day, but we'd had a great time introducing so many Cestrians and visitors to the city to a little known but still important part of our heritage.  I do hope we can bring the medieval castle to life again.

I Have a Little Bottle in my Pocket...

A large part of what we do in our history presentations is concerned with herbs and their use in medicine, cooking, dyeing and in folklore but I haven't written much on here about that so, as the elecampane is showing its vibrant flowers in our garden, I've been inspired to change that.

Our first few years of growing it were without much success, but in the past few summers the plant has burst forth, reaching about six foot in height and spreading out along the fence, I've noticed that it seems to like being against a wall or fence, though doesn't need the support.

Sadly, elecampane is not described by John Gerard, the famed Elizabethan herbalist who we refer to a lot, (especially as he came from Cheshire), but Culpeper writing a little later in the mid-17th century relates how it was used for a multitude of ills.

He says "It is hot and dry in the third degree, wholesome for the stomach, resists poison, helps old coughs, and shortness of breath, helps ruptures and provokes lust; in ointments it is good against scabs and itch".  He also writes "The decoction of the roots in wine, or the juice taken therein, kills and drives forth all manner of worms in the belly, stomach and maw".

By the 18th century it had become a standard cure-all and made its way into the cure of the quack doctor of the mummers plays which began to appear in the middle of the 1700s.  Just as the plays began to spread through the oral tradition so the plants name got mangled.  I've seen ellicupane, alimcumpane and in the version I've been performing around Chester for 18 years now with Jones' Ale Soul Cakers it is 'I have a bottle in my pocket called alec and plain'.

Recently I discovered that in Cheshire a way to silence persistent questioners was to just say 'alimcumpane' as if answering the query "What's your name?" no doubt derived from the Doctor's entering lines in these plays.

The root does seem to work when made up as a cough mixture, but it's worth growing just for being an attractive plant, and the bees like it too!

Stone Drone - some Bagpiper Imagery in Cheshire Churches

Regular readers of our blog will realise that there are many connections between pilgrims and bagpipes.  The instrument is a great passion of mine.  Like many keen pipers, I always keep an eye out for carvings or pictures of bagpipes on my travels, but I've made an attempt to try to find examples closer to home, which for me is Cheshire.  In recent years I have visited nearly all of the surviving medieval churches in the county to explore them for images of bagpipers.  Many of these medieval churches are now bare of carvings or paintings, following reformation, civil war and the heavy hand of Victorian restorers, but still I found eight examples in the area.  There are two churches, not in regular use, which I have not been able to gain access to yet, and despite long explorations, I would not be so bold as to believe I have not missed any carvings in those churches I have visited.  

Following a discussion about bagpipes with Dr Jane Laughton, an expert in medieval Cheshire, I received an email from her recommending I visit St Mary’s church in Astbury and have a look in the porch.  Before too long I was there, but unable to gain access, but not too disappointed as there were several interesting historic features on the outside of the building and in the churchyard.  I discovered that, aside from services, the church was only open to visitors on a Sunday afternoon.  I duly returned and was able to see the four figures in the 15th century porchway; one is unclear, perhaps a fool or a devil, but the others are musicians, playing an oud, a harp and a bagpipe.  The piper is very clear, there is a single chanter but no drone.  In fact, as it turned out, most of the Cheshire examples are droneless.  

The piper seemed very well preserved to me, but I feel he has not been reworked, but has been cleaned and has been worked in millstone grit, unusual in this area, which may account for its preservation.  Though the porch itself is late 15th century, the musician figures are quite different in style and of a different stone.  The churchwarden and historian of the building believes that these were reclaimed from an earlier building and he thinks them to be early 14th century.  If this is the case, this is a very early example of a bagpiper stone carving.  And there are many other fascinating features at this wonderful church, well worth popping into, they are open on Sunday afternoons from 2-4pm and the ladies there make you welcome with tea and cake!

Over in Bunbury is the 15th century church of St Boniface, also well worth a visit for its historic interest but in this case regular open in daylight hours.  On the columns of the north aisle are several angelic musicians, playing psaltery, rote, fiddle, shawm and bagpipes.  All survive intact, except the unfortunate bagpiper which has had its head knocked off.  Sue says she can understand why someone might have done this to the piper!  Despite the decapitation, the bag, single chanter and a single drone can still be seen.  

At Chester Cathedral, which in medieval times was the Abbey of St Werburgh, are two bagpipers, both playing double chanter bagpipes.  In one of the corners of the cloisters is a very worn sandstone carving of a piper playing a double chanter bagpipe.  Although most of the features have been eroded since he was carved in the early 16th century, it is apparent that the bagpipe has two parallel chanters, but no drone nor even a blowpipe, though his bag hasn’t doesn’t seem to have deflated over the centuries!

In the quire of the cathedral are some wonderful late 14th century misericords and bench end carvings.  One of these depicts a piper with another double-chanter set being swallowed by a lion-like beast but boldly continuing to play as he slides down the beast’s gullet.  I must here declare that I had despite examining the misericords many times, I had repeatedly missed the bagpiper, and it was finally brought to my attention by a friend and fellow piper Vanessa Ryall.  The appearance of the piper is strange, seemingly covered in feathers, or hair, or leaves – perhaps he is a wodwo or wild man.  The bagpipe itself is clearer, again without any drones, but with parallel chanters and the piper hugs the bag in front of his chest, rather than squeezing under the arm. 

The church of St James at Gawsworth has many detailed carvings of a range of characters on the exterior.  I have a suspicion that there may once have been paintings or carvings of musicians inside this church, as such things are hinted at in a Vicar’s notes, but they are now lost after an overzealous restoration in 1851.  On the exterior of the church is a carving of a piper, my favourite of all the Cheshire bagpipers on account of his vitality in playing with puffed up cheeks and seeming enjoyment.  He plays a single chanter, droneless bagpipe.  There is quite a bit of detail on the carving, including how the chanter stock fits to the bag, not just a loose merging as is more common elsewhere.  The bagpiper frames a window with his companion playing pipe & tabor with equal enthusiasm, they both date to the late 15th century.
At the church of St Mary & All Saints in Great Budworth is another piper I had seen several times, but was tricky to photograph, being very high up on the south side of the nave, just below the clerestory.  A helpful church volunteer with a better camera took an image and emailed it to me, where I could see the piper’s face clearly for the first time.  It seems, to me at least, that this he is actually an ape.  The carving is 15th century and shows a single chanter, droneless bagpipe.
In Nantwich, St Mary’s Church is well known for its quire stall carvings of mythical beasts and proverbs.  There are also several musicians depicted, playing lute, organ, box fiddles, symphony/gurdy and two bagpipers.  The pipers are mirror images of each other and play single chanter pipes, again without drones.  All of the musicians here are depicted as angels with wings.  Although I’d seen these carvings many times before, it was only when I was flicking quickly through these photos that I realised that all of the other musicians seem as heavenly angels with feathered wings, whilst the two pipers have leathery, bat-like wings, perhaps more suited to the other place! 
At St Bridget's, West Kirby, on the Wirral, (modern Merseyside, but historically Cheshire), the stone carvings include a fine Viking 'hogback' tombstone and many Victorian carvings of musicians, though no bagpiper amongst them.  But a stained glass window depicting the nativity shows a shepherd with bagpipes.  This is one of many by the studio of Charles Kempe who seemed to have a specialism for the nativity and usually gave bagpipes to his shepherds.  The presence of bagpipes in Victorian art and the shape of these pipes suggests he had a medieval or Renaissance source to base them on.  However those in the window at St Bridget's were not accurately observed as they have two drones but no chanter, maybe not much of a challenge to play, but not too much fun to listen to.

What can we conclude from all of this?  Certainly not enough to reconstruct a medieval “Cheshire bagpipe” or tell us much about bagpipers in the county.  But that wasn’t the point for me.  I was simply very pleased to see just how many bagpipe carvings there were in my local area, in most cases unknown even to the volunteer guides in the churches.  And, yes, I am still trying to get into those last couple of churches…

How the Minstrels' Court Began

Oh, it was well before my time, back in the year of 1204 and Ranulf, Earl of Chester, was at the castle of Rhuddlan, besieged by the Welsh who were none too keen to have the Earl and his men laying claim to the land there, well Rhuddlan is in Wales after all.  The siege had lasted some time and was not nearing an end.  Then, one evening, a messenger crept out from the castle and headed to Chester Castle to seek more soldiers from Roger de Lacy, the constable there. 
Twthill, the old motte at Rhuddlan where the siege took place.
But he was not in luck as it was the time of the Midsummer Fair in Chester and all the soldiers had left the castle for the taverns and were already worse for wear.  Instead, Roger de Lacy rounded up all the minstrels and players who were in the city to ply their trade during the fair and sent them off to Rhuddlan in place of soldiers.  They played their instruments as they went and made such a noise as they approached the castle that the Welsh feared it was a great army and fled.

Recreation of the Minstrels' March
Earl Ranulf showed his gratitude to the minstrels by granting them his protection and freedom to play in the county of Cheshire without fear of arrest.  Their licences were to be renewed each Midsummer on the annivesary of their march to save the Earl and would be granted in the church of St John the Baptist, the most ancient church in the city.
Granting of licences to minstrels
And so the Minstrels' Court was born, and continued each year until 1756.  Then after five-and-a-half centuries of tradition it disappeared from the city.  But it was too good a story to disappear forever, so with David Chesters, Rector of Chester, we revived it in 2008 and it has taken place each year since, growing each time.  And now, it is the biggest medieval music event in Britain.

You can see it for yourself on Saturday 11th June 2016, from 10.30am -4.30pm in it's original and authentic location of St John's Church, just outside the city walls of Chester, next to the Amphitheatre ruins.  There will be performances from many musicians, living history displays, mummers plays and Renaissance dance workshops and it's all free! 

So, do try to get along to Chester and join us for this wonderful recreation of an ancient tradition.

Faded Beauty

A while ago we were at a fair in the midlands and took advice from a friend to take a diversion on the way home to go to see the church of St Leodegarius and that we would find it well worthwhile.

Now, being a storyteller, I know that you should always follow advice like this.  And it was worth it.  Ashby St Ledgers takes its name from the saint to which the church is dedicated.  The whole village was deserted, and the church open. 

It was late on an autumn afternoon and the windows spared us just enough light to see the magnificent remains of the wall paintings.

As you entered there was a magnificent St Christopher.
Here was the Passion from around 1500.

And even earlier, St Margaret from around 1325. 

There were brasses,

A beautiful painted rood screen,

A skeleton reminding us of our mortality,

And a harpy atop this later memorial.

The church must have dazzled once, but even this faded glory left us speechless.