A Year of Stories

At 2014 draws to a close, I realise I've done more storytelling this past year than ever before.  It's been great fun to share these old tales with new friends.  
In January I started the year with some tale-telling at the Apple Tree Wassail at Stretton Watermill, Cheshire.
February brought a return to the lovely new Atkinson arts centre in Southport, Lancashire to share fairy tales for children.  It's always lovely to share some very familiar folk tales with young people hearing them for the first time.
As International Bagpipe Day is in March, I'd been involved in several events around that week to celebrate and my Piper's Tale set found its way to Northwich, Chester and Astbury.
In April, I opened my exhibition exploring the life and work of Robert Westall, one of the 20th century's greatest writers for young adults.  Aside from his excellent novels, he really was master of the short story, particularly creepy tales, and studying his work so closely has taught me a lot.
At the end of May I was back at the wonderful Chester Folk Festival to do a few storytelling performances on Cheshire Myths and Legends and also the Piper's Tale got another outing.
June was a real treat for storytelling, I loved sharing stories and music in the sun at the enormous Tatton Medieval Festival and the following week was a treat in telling a range of medieval tales from the borderlands with some other fantastic storytellers, Tom Goodale, Richard York and Chris Baglin, at the Minstrels' Court in Chester.
In July I was delighted to have the opportunity to have a storytelling show in the atmospheric St Mary's Church on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.  This really is a special place and it was a wonderful experience.  Later in the month we were at the greatest storytelling event of all - Festival at the Edge - having lots of fun and getting filled up with inspiration.
With the summer holidays underway in August, I found myself telling medieval tales in Northwich, Cheshire folk tales in Macclefield, Viking stories at Norton Priory and then sharing more bagpiper folk tales to a packed tent at Shrewsbury Folk Festival, all great fun.
In September, it was back at Stretton Watermill, sharing some harvest-tide tales for their Victorian weekend and some music too.  And I was lucky enough to deliver a few days of workshops for schools to help them develop their own stories, always a richly rewarding experience.
October was a particularly intense week for storytelling, starting with my first ever full-hour performance of Greek Myths to a packed house at West Park Museum.  I've struggled for a long time to find the real human side of these tales and so never really made anything of them, but earlier in the year I'd been inspired by Yannis Pantazis at the Bagpipe Society's Blowout, from meeting the inspiring Yannis Pantazis at the Bagpipe Society's Blowout who brought Ancient Greek tales to life and encouraged me to take my storytelling further, then at FatE, Daniel Morden's retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice was so powerful it changed my outlook on these Greek tales completely.  Anyway, my first proper Greek storytelling show was a great success and a wonderfully supportive audience.
The next few days I was busy telling more myths and legends from my native Cheshire, then Halloween daytime was filled with four performances of creepy tales for children at Chester's Grosvenor Museum followed by three sell-out performances of dark tales for Halloween at Port Sunlight museum, luckily the experience was more exhilarating than exhausting.
November always starts with soul caking for me, sort of storytelling if you want, but what the story is I'm none too sure.  I've been performing these folk plays for a long time, this was my 20th year.  It's also a busy time for doing storytelling for local history groups and societies and I was out and about several times with my Cheshire Legends and Piper's Tale shows.
As the nights grew longer in December and Christmas approached, I was telling festive folk tales and Victorian ghost stories for family events at Quarry Bank Mill, Styal and the Old Sunday School, Macclesfield, both in Cheshire.
I've missed out a lot here, I know, but that's more than enough to read through for now. It's been a very enjoyable twelve months for tale telling, here's all best wishes from us at Pilgrims & Posies for your New Year.

Goodnight Mr Pepys

Aside from all of the goings-on I write about on here, my day job for the past twelve years has been working as education officer at Weaver Hall Museum.  I've just finished there and in a few days time will be starting at the lovely Norton Priory in Runcorn, Cheshire, where I'll be helping to create an amazing new museum.  With all of its links to medieval religion I'll no doubt be writing about aspects of that work in future, but for now I thought I'd write about one of the people I'm sorry to leave behind - my alter ego Samuel Pepys.
It wasn't really planned, a special event week for schools back in 2004 proved so popular that it took on a life of its own and I spent a decade donning the periwig to become Mr Pepys in schools workshops for the Great Fire of London, at least a couple of times a week.  These were really popular and I worked with around 30,000 pupils during that time and had some great fun. 
The workshop had pupils meeting Sam Pepys, finding out a little about his life, and acting out the events of the Great Fire.  Pepys is the only "real" historical character I've ever portrayed, rather than an invented Tudor, Victorian, or whatever and so took a fair bit of research to get him right.  Admittedly he was somewhat edited to be appropriate for 6 year olds, and also his love of music extended to include bagpipes...  But the details had to be there, and I remember suddenly thinking as I began the first workshop that I didn't know when my own birthday was.  Luckily that never came up, but I made sure I knew all the details after that.  I've had classes turning up with questions for Mr Pepys many times, in the early days they were quite simple, but now it's so easy for infants to do internet research they get quite detailed.  The session was set in 1667, looking back at the events of the fire, and so I've even had questions like 'How many of your brothers and sisters are still alive?' which thankfully I was able to answer.  When I started I was six years too young to portray the role and I finished being four years too old.
Reading so much about the character, I couldn't help but grow attached to him, and when wandering around some of Sam's haunts in London it almost felt as if I had been there before.  I've written a bit about that on this blog a couple of years back.
My schools' version of Samuel Pepys even got his own fan mail - sometimes arriving like this, (from the days when Weaver Hall was called the Salt Museum). 
With my departure he's been put into hibernation, who knows he might make a comeback for an event somewhere in September 2016 when we reach the 350th anniversary of the Fire.  In the meantime, my good friend and colleague, Colin Mann made me a miniature Mr Pepys as a memento.
And so to bed.

Yule Riding

A little late in writing this up, but then Christmas got in the way.  About a week ago we headed over to York for the Yule Riding procession around the city.  This is a recreation of a 16th century midwinter tradition bringing colour, music and pageantry to the longest night and today organised by The York Waits. 
The original Tudor procession had seen the characters of Yule and his wife riding through the streets of the city accompanied by loud music and throwing nuts into the crowds.  This was banned in 1572, though other seasonal rituals continued.  One of these was the Yoole-girthol where the city sheriffs  would welcome in the feast of Yule and proclaim to the crowds that certain misdemeanours were allowed during the twelve days. 
We hadn't been to the Yule Riding for a couple of years and so it was lovely to see that the crowds following the procession had grown enormously in the meantime with many people making a special trip to the city to be part of it.
As well as the York Waits themselves, there were also many city officials in their livery and carrying halberds, bows and lanterns.  The procession set off from Micklegate Bar to the rousing music of shawms, sackbut and drum, impossible not to fall in step with and so the whole crowd makes good progress marching through the streets.
It really is a great way to see this historic city, as the procession visits most of the historic entrances for the proclamations, as well as the market and the east end of the Minster.  The route also passes along some often overlooked roads and its great to see families hanging out from windows to see the musicians go past.  One of my favourite parts of the experience is the change in sound as the procession turns from wide street into a narrow alley. 
At the various stops, a horn is blown and a different civic official reads out the traditional proclamation, some rather nervously, and some with great theatricality, often embellishing the words.
"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! We command that the peace of our lady the Queen be well kept by night and day but that all manner of whores, thieves, dice players and other unthrifty folk be welcome to the city, whether they come late or early, at the reverence of the High Feast of Yule till the Twelve Days be past.  God save the Queen!"
The procession eventually ends up on the steps of York's Mansion House where the York Waits, accompanied by Deborah Catterall perform Gaudete to conclude the procession.  Here's a snippet.
It really is a great recreation of a centuries old tradition and an inspiring contrast to our midsummer Minstrels procession in Chester.  We'd highly recommend you make a trip to catch the Yule Riding next winter solstice.

The Pilgrim's Staff of Faith

One of the essential pieces of kit for the medieval pilgrim was a staff to walk with.  Here's us in the quire of Chester Cathedral, formerly the Abbey of St Werburgh with our oaken friend the Chester Pilgrim between us, a 14th century bench end carving.  I'm holding one of my pilgrim staffs, with a cheeky little medieval chap as the finial at the top. 
The Chester Pilgrim carving itself has a hole cut through his fist to hold a staff, but the staff isn't there most days, sometimes a modern replacement is put there.
A staff proved very useful to a pilgrim, to help them climb hills, or ford streams and rivers in an age when bridges were rare.  They might also be used to fend off wild dogs.  Hieronymus Bosch depicted a wayfarer using his staff for just this purpose on the closed panels of his Haywain Triptych.  There are other hazards to the pilgrim in the picture; In the background, robbers attack another traveller whilst a bagpiper encourages another to a lusty dance with a woman.
Although the staff might scare off wild animals, it was little or no use against brigands, a perpetual problem for pilgrims.
 Before a pilgrim set off on their journey, a priest would bless their staff.  The Sarum Missal has the words of an appropriate prayer;
"Take this staff as a support during your journey and the toils of your pilgrimage, that you may be victorious against the bands of the enemy and safely arrive at the shrine of the saints to which you wish to go and, your journey being accomplished, may return to us in good health."
Along with his scrip bag, the staff was one of the ways by which a pilgrim might be recognised.  It was also so important to some pilgrims that they would keep it all their life.  The famous Worcester Pilgrim was buried with his staff.  In 1986, archaeologists undertaking work in the Cathedral discovered the body of a 15th century pilgrim, believed to be Robert Sutton, a wealthy dye merchant of that city who had been to Compostela on pilgrimage.  This was such a significant event in his life that he was buried with his long pilgrim boots, a cockleshell in lieu of the scallop shell of St James and his staff complete with double pronged spike and ferrule.  I always think it is a shame that these items were separated from him for scholars and tourists of today to see, after he had been so determined that he should be buried with them.

It's a few years since we saw these items on display in the crypt of the cathedral, as in the photograph above, but they've been conserved since and were back in a new display earlier this year.  Maybe it's time we set off on a new pilgrimage to see them...


Ghost Stories

As the nights grow longer, it feels the perfect time to share creepy tales.  It's an odd thing that we find being unsettled so comforting.  But perhaps it's our ancient way of dealing with those troubling fears, whilst we're in company and then within a story which ends and we're safe.
Tom telling creepy tales from the past at the Water Tower, Chester
Through our historical work, spanning the ages from medieval to Victorian, we've come across many different approaches to the ghost story.  In medieval times they are often a vision of souls trapped in purgatory, urging their loved ones to make amends for some small demeanour they committed in life.  The spirits in these instances are not terrifying, but sad reminders of what people felt could happen if sins were not atoned for.  A moving tale from Hulme, near Haydock in south Lancashire, from 1373 tells how a man met a beautiful red-haired woman, fell in love with her and they lived together out of wedlock.  Some years later the woman died and was buried.  The man then saw her ghost, appearing exactly as in life, except with black hair.  She told her lover she was suffering in purgatory and that he should pluck hairs from her head and arrange a mass to be said for each hair he held.  The man took the hair and fixed them with a pin to his door frame.  He paid priests to say masses for her soul, and as they completed each mass he witnessed each hair turn back to the original red.  When they were all red, he knew his lover was in heaven.
After the Reformation these ideas of purgatory changed and with the religious tensions that continued right through the later 16th and into the 17th century, the ghost and spirits seem to become malevolent, bringers of ill-will, perhaps connected to witches.  In dealing with these threats, people used all sorts of apotropaia, protective devices such as "witch bottles", markings on doorways, holly bushes in hedgerows, and so on.  I'll write up some thoughts of these apotropaic objects in Cheshire at some point, there are many!  One of the more curious ghostly tales from our area involves a ghostly duck (!) which is trapped in a bottle by a priest, then walled up, all of which might have been inspired by the discovery of one of these witch bottles.
From those times and on into the 18th century we get the ghost stories we're more familiar with in folk tales.  In my native Cheshire ghosts were called boggarts, and for someone to be frightened we might have said they "took boggart", rather as we might say a horse was spooked today.  Some of my favourite stories from this time try to explain how such things are made, what they do and how they might be dealt with.
Tom emerging as a ghostly tale teller just before three sell-out performances at Port Sunlight on Halloween night.
Moving into the 19th century everything gets a bit more gothic and leave you thinking after the tale is done.  When most people think of ghost stories today, they tend to think of this era, and when I'm telling creepy tales I do find it makes things a lot easier to do it in Victorian gear.  These ghost stories are particularly well suited to Christmas and the depths of winter, so I'll be out telling tales in various historic buildings around that time, do come along if you like goosebumps and spinetingles.

On The Edge

Just a short post this one as I've written about this place several times in the past but wanted to share a few new pictures...
I hadn't been up to The Edge at Alderley for a couple of months so was happy to find an occasion to wander the woods there the other day.  I can't think of another place which has so many legends and stories associated with such a small area.  The setting has been the stimulus for tales since people started shaping the landscape there, way back in the Early Bronze Age.  You can't wander a few paces without stumbling across something to inspire a new tale, and I've a few more ideas myself now.

A Writer and his World

Over the past year I have been getting very close to the works of Robert Westall, one of the 20th century's most important writers for children and young adults.  He's a writer I first encountered as a 12-year-old, picking a book in the school library, when I discovered The Wind Eye.  The opening pages of that particular book stayed with me from that day on; Westall is definitely an author who makes an impact with his openings. 
Back in 2007 I was working on an exhibition exploring Cheshire Writers who reflected the landscape of the county from the 14th century to the present day and this gave me occasion to revisit many of the works of Robert Westall.  Though he was born in North Shields on Tyneside and many of his works are set in that area, most notably The Machine Gunners, it was in Northwich, Cheshire, where his writing career began and lots of his novels and short stories are set in the Cheshire region.  But Westall was only one of many authors featured in that exhibition with limited space available and I felt that there was much more to be told.
Then a couple of years ago I came across a Westall novel which I'd never heard about before, Falling Into Glory, it contained the most convincing, and heartbreaking, depiction of a relationship I've ever read.  I couldn't believe it wasn't better known.  Westall was a high profile author in his day, and had twice won the Carnegie Medal, but this particular book was published a month or so after his death in 1993 and publishers seemingly found this tale of a teacher-student affair troublesome to promote, and less inclined to do so without the author himself to advertise it.  A small tragedy of timing, but a greater loss to the literary world.  Michael Morpurgo wrote "Westall was a writer of rare talent.  We shall miss him but he has left us such a wonderful legacy."
I discovered and read the other lesser known Westall novels, not quite realising the scale of the task at first.  He wrote 48 books in total and, unusually for such a prolific author, they are of a consistently high standard and span a wide range of genres from wartime adventures and bleak science fiction to unsettling ghost stories and tales of the struggles of young love. 
One of his greatest books is The Promise - a tale of honouring a vow even beyond death.  The opening chapter is a miniature masterpiece in itself, exploring our varied attitudes to death and the impact of stories on a young mind.  Within this is one of the most striking pieces of writing I've encountered in children's fiction;
"I only ever saw two dead creatures.  On a day out to a lighthouse up the Northumbrian coast, I saw a dead seagull; a pretty little thing, a kittiwake I think.  Somebody had made a nest for it, from seaweed on a ledge in the cliff.  Its eyes were shut, but every soft feather was in place.  I stroked them.
'It just looks asleep,' said my mother.
'It'll get a good rest now,' said my Dad.
The whole place seemed filled with love.
The other dead thing was the ginger cat in Billing's Mill.  Billing's Mill dominated our skyline, up on its hill.  All its sails gone, a squat empty milk-bottle of blackened stone.  A sort of castle keep, in which the tom-cat's body lay, a thing of terror and challenge to every boy in the district.  You went alone to see it .  You approached it, the flies rose in swarms.  You looked into the black fathomless sockets where the eyes had been, and then you walked quickly and stiff-backed to the gaping doorway and off out to pleasanter things, hugging inside yourself the bitter black wild magic of it, and the warm proof of your own courage.  Alive, that cat had been nothing; dead, it was a living god of power, our strongest thing.  Every time you saw the shape of the mill on the skyline, you went under the power of the cat."
As I started to find out more about Robert Westall, I realised just how talented a man he was outside his writing.  A skilled artist, he became Head of Art at Sir John Deane's Grammar School in Northwich in 1960, later also becoming Head of Careers there.  He always saw the best in his pupils, even those which fellow teachers had given up on, a colleague said of this, "All of Bob's geese are swans", a comment which he felt he'd like as his epitaph, which, paraphrased, it is.  He wrote to connect with his son, and his first novel, The Machine Gunners, which explored the sort of adventures he'd had in his own wartime childhood was published in 1975 winning the Carnegie Medal.  As well as fitting in writing his novels in the school holidays, Westall also wrote for the local press and regional magazines and founded the local branch of The Samaritans.  After retiring from teaching in 1985 he opened an antiques shop, which in itself proved an inspiration for several books and gave more time to writing and encouraging students.  Bob Westall died in 1993 aged 63.
I felt that his work deserved greater recognition and seeing so many links to the Northwich area, suggested that an exhibition be staged at Weaver Hall Museum in the town.  It was only in the preparation of that exhibition that I discovered Robert Westall was the person who saved the museum building, the old Northwich Union Workhouse, from demolition in 1969 in that iconoclastic era which sought to do away with anything of a previous age.  It was the perfect place to celebrate the achievements of such an important figure.  The exhibition has been on a good while now, and only has a couple of weeks left, ending on 14th September 2014.  Thereafter much of the archive material and original manuscripts will return to their home at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's Books.  It's in Newcastle, just five miles from Westall's birthplace, where there is a Robert Westall gallery, and a project which was kickstarted with the donation of the funds of his estate.  It's a wonderful place, who do excellent work in developing literacy, inspiring creativity, and something with which Bob Westall would no doubt have been delighted to be associated.
The exhibition gave me opportunity to get to know the places of Westall's books, from childhood haunts of Tynemouth so vividly portrayed in his books to revisiting the Cheshire locations and folklore.  And I've picked up a few good stories to share too.

Green Grow the Rushes,O!

Today we went along to St Stephen's Church in Wildboarclough in Macclesfield Forest for the annual rushbearing ceremony.  St Stephen's is usually known as the Forest Chapel, and is pretty high up and remote, being 1282 feet above sea level.  Macclesfield Forest isn't a wooded space, rather a mix of moorland, peaks and valleys.  It's windswept, sparsely populated and you can easily see how ancient ceremonies survive.  The atmosphere of this landscape is masterly conjured in Alan Garner's powerful work Thursbitch. 
Arriving in driving rain, along twisting, climbing paths, you could be fooled into thinking few people would be there.  But the chapel was packed inside with many people gathering outside.
The ceremony of rushbearing goes back to medieval times when churches had beaten earth floors and would be strewn with freshly gathered rushes each August creating a lush and fragrant green carpet.
Rushbearing also still takes place in Cheshire at Tilston and is perhaps a little more common in Lancashire and Cumbria.  But the ceremony at the Forest Chapel is believed to be the oldest unbroken tradition, as distinct from a revival, stretching back to the 18th century in this location.
The church door is decorated with bunches of green rushes, freshly gathered from the surrounding valleys.
The altar and pulpit are also hung with garlands of rushes and flowers.
After a ceremony of hymns and readings the congregation made their way outside for a concluding sermon given this time by the Archdeacon of Macclesfield, standing on top of a table tomb.  At this point the winds grew stronger and rain lashed down, though the Archdeacon neatly dovetailed this into his words and it was all taken in good humour.
Then it was done.  Speaking with the Vicar afterwards it seems that the future for this tradition is safe for now, not so much as part of the church calendar, but instead in terms of the way it brings people together with a determination to keep an ancient gathering happening.