Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Shakespeare, Hexham, Hadrian's Wall and all points north...

Hadrian's Wall - a small garden ornament designed to keep out vast hoards of marauding Picts.  Surprisingly effective. Seen here in excellent weather and with a distinct lack of sheep poo.

It was to be an excursion north.  My sister Cathy, is a graphic designer and does a lot of work for a Shakespearean group who have their base in Northumberland.  She and her husband, Julian, had been invited up to this neck of the woods for a party to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday/death day (depending on how you look at it).  She had mentioned to them that I dress up as a big Tudor Jessie and they were keen for me to come along and join in the fun, as I was assured many other of the guests would similarly be dressed up.  Oh yes, I was assured...
We drove up on the Thursday morning, up along the A68 which was the very same route I took way back in 1987 on my first ever trip to the Edinburgh Festival.  Ah!  This time, instead of sharing a clapped out Ford Transit minibus, I was in my sister's humongous Jeep Grand Cherokee, a car roughly the same size as the USS Nimitz, which was lucky considering the vast amount of baggage we were bringing with us, as well as Cath and Julian's dogs, Charlie and Oona.  We were staying just outside Hexham in the delightful hamlet of Juniper in a restored pre-Victorian chapel nestling next to a flowing river.  Beautiful - even in the weather we endured, which was damp with a capital "splash".  Check it out here: http://www.theriversidechapel.co.uk/  and go and visit it!  It's lovely!  We had a lovely lazy first evening, drinking wine, and eating chicken and chips - very classy.
On the Friday we drove up to Hadrian's Wall, a site I have driven past so many times over the years but had yet to visit.  We headed up to Housesteads Roman Fort where you park up, and enter via the site shop.  You are lulled into a false sense of security by the gentle path that leads out of the back of the shop, this then slopes down before suddenly rearing up like the north face of the Eiger.  I was overtaken by one very pensionable looking chap which made me feel great about my current fitness levels. But we got there in the end and had a look round the interesting museum, then had a good wander round the site which had more sheep poo than you could honestly shake a stick at.  I did my usual trick of visiting an ancient monument by taking some time to kick over a few molehills to see if anything cropped up - and they did!  First I found a nice bit of Roman grey ware pottery, then a very nice fragment of Samian pottery and finally the remnant of a rusted nail - possibly too small to be a roof nail, but possibly from a Roman shoe.  I handed that one into the museum and they seemed genuinely pleased to receive it.  Little things...  We drove back to our chapel via the charming little town of Haltwhistle, where we picked up a very nice steak pie for our din dins that evening from a local butcher's.
Saturday was the day of the Shakespeare bash - in the nearby little town/village of Allendale.  As it turned out I was the only person in costume, nothing new for me to be honest, but I was also the youngest person there by about 20 years.  It was an interesting day - readings from various plays and sonnets, traditional songs and also some lovely folk music.  We were given almost industrial amounts of wine to drink, which was very welcome, and after about 3 hours it was time to leave, probably before we slipped into an alcohol induced coma.
Sunday was another day out, this time driving over to Temple Sowerby, near Penrith to visit my lovely friends Andy and Kate Blundell and their children Daisy and Dylan.  The drive over was via the town of Alston on the A686 which I can thoroughly recommend - stunning scenery and some beautiful houses.  It was great to see Andy and Kate again and we sat in their garden drinking tea and watching young Dylan demolish a chocolate cake all by himself.  Good lad.  Andy took us over to their antiques showroom later - such wonderful stuff!  Have a look here: http://www.phoenixantiquesbarn.co.uk/ at what they can offer.  We drove back to the Chapel for our last night, stopping on the way to pick up a take away curry and some more wine for our final blow out.
The drive back on the Monday morning was hard work for Julian, he did most of the driving.  I have to admit I slept most of the way!  The weather was mostly dreadful with heavy sheets of rain lashing down.  My plan to hurtle off back down to Somerset was thwarted as I had to come to Essex and look after James for a couple of days as Amanda is ill with severe bronchitis at the moment.  But, hey, any excuse to spend some happy time with my lovely son is to be cherished.  So I am not complaining!  It has been a lovely long weekend away, but I would really love to see Juniper and the Old Riverside Chapel in nice weather as it must be stunning.  It was good enough in filthy weather!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bishop's Down Primary, Tunbridge Wells

His Majesty, The King, suffering from a tremendous bout of Hampton Court. But then he shouldn't have sat down so quickly.

The rather pleasant sunny weather of the last few days was only a memory on Tuesday morning. After finishing at Sudeley Castle on the Sunday, by Monday I was back on the road heading to Kent for a visit to Bishops Down Primary School in Royal Tunbridge Wells on the Tuesday. The Monday drive had been through the same bright but cold weather of the weekend, but Tuesday dawned grey and cold, with threatening clouds overhead. Tunbridge Wells is a very attractive town most of the time, but even it's charms were somewhat limited in the ceaseless, steady downpour of rain.

I had been booked to appear at this school by a lady called Sarah Grimsey, and she was there to greet me when I parked up outside the school's front doors. She shot up in my estimation by first and foremost being very friendly and welcoming, but then did even better by making me a cup of tea. It was a mixed group of years 5 and 6 for today - about 50 children in total, and they were lovely. Full of laughs and, considering I was their official introduction to the Tudors topic, very well informed on all things Henry VIII. The morning finished in their classroom for a very funny question and answer session.

Lunch was a delicious pesto pasta with home made meat balls - absolutely lovely! The afternoon was equally loud and fun, and when we came to the jousting tournament it was deafening. The final got us back to our usual result with the ladies romping to a very competent and well deserved victory. Our score for the year is now:


That is a very big lead the ladies now have, and to be honest I can't see the gentlemen catching them, or am I just doing Roberto Mancini mind games?

I was quite low on fuel as I headed back to my sister's place near Detling, but do you think I could find a petrol station between the school in Tunbridge Wells and Stockbury? Could I heck. I saw one on my side of the road the whole way, and so badly positioned was it that you couldn't see or notice it till you were well past it on a non-turning duel carriageway. Finally, I conceded I would have to stop at the little petrol station at the top of Detling Hill... WRONG! I pulled up on their forecourt with my car virtually running on fumes, to be greeted by big signs saying "Sorry, we are temporarily closed. Apologies for any inconvenience." I then had trouble getting back on the road as some tit in a tarmac-spreading lorry had parked on the slip road back on to the A249 and was reading a newspaper, utterly blocking any attempt to rejoin the carriageway. When he finally grudgingly agreed to move out the way for me I cheerfully waved at him, in that time honoured tradition of miffed drivers. My, how we laughed.

A day off today for a flying visit to Essex to see my beloved son, then tomorrow a drive up to Northumberland... ooh! Now, time to find me that long over due petrol.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sudeley Castle 1

Good King Hal blowing an enormous raspberry on the back of his Queen's hand. What a charmer.

Four years had passed since my previous appearance at Sudeley Castle. FOUR YEARS! And I get back there yesterday and they STILL haven't finished it. I had been invited back by the very charming and delightful Kim Gibbons who now does all the booking of this sort of thing at Sudeley. The drive up from Somerset to the Cotswolds was going to take just a smidgen under two hours according to my sat nav, so I left home at about 7.30am aiming for a 9.30am arrival at the castle, for a 10.30am start. I would be working with The Tudor Roses, previously seen at Leeds Castle last year, and also Diane Collings also late of Leeds Castle, Hever Castle, Barrington Court, and the photo above.

It was a brilliantly bright clear morning as I left Crewkerne - dazzling spring sunshine and a Canaletto blue sky. Something that always surprises me when I work at Sudeley Castle is the almost complete lack of any road signs indicating it's existence outside of the small town it's in (Winchcombe). When you go to the area around Leeds Castle and Hever Castle you are left in little doubt as to the location of these charming sites. But Sudeley seems almost to hide itself on purpose, which is a real shame as it is delightful and in the most charming typical Cotswold countryside of rolling hills and quaint views. It's amazing Liz Hurley found it for her wedding.

I was greeted by Kim and shown to my dressing room - an office on nearly the top floor of one of the castle's towers. A lung bursting climb at the best of times, made even more strenuous by hauling half a hundred weight of Henry VIII clothing in a bag behind you. I was soon changed and sitting out on the terrace at the rear of the castle, taking in the views and awaiting the appearance of the Tudor Roses and Diane. With them all assembled round me I was now Henry VIII complete with a Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Jane Seymour, Katherine Parr, Princess Mary and, thanks to an appearance by Diane's step daughter, a nine year old Princess Elizabeth. There were lots of other attractions for the punters including a circus skills training group, archery and a falconer - everything you could possibly need for a wild Tudor weekend.

Henry and his entourage walked round the castle estate, meeting and greeting any punters we came across and posing for limitless photographs. The sun, when out was very warming, but any time some clouds came across, there was a very keen wind which whipped across the castle grounds and reminded you we were still several weeks from May.

We all lunched together in the Castle cafe, which prompted much mirth and interest from our fellow non-Tudor dressed diners. After much more walking about and being photographed, we paused at one point to watch the falconry display, but this nearly ended in disaster as a customer's dog, for some stupid reason off it's lead, roared into the display area and began trying to attack the falcons. I was just waiting for the owner to run past screaming "FENTON! FENTON! JESUS CHRIST!"

We changed and headed back to our cars, and I was soon on my way home. Again the journey was relatively easy and the only unpleasantness occurred when I was nearly home on the A358 between Taunton and Ilminster, where some complete dick wad in a Ford Mondeo decided he was going to weave in and out of the traffic, regardless of what was coming in the other direction. How come you NEVER see a traffic policeman when you want to!?

Right, off to Kent today for a Henry show at Tunbridge Wells tomorrow, then later this week up to Northumberland for an appearance at a Shakespeare festival (and an excuse for a long weekend away). Thanks to the Tudor ladies this weekend, it was a delight.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bourne Hall, Epsom

One of these two men is a highly successful actor and voice-over artist. The other is dressed as Henry VIII.

Bourne Hall, Epsom in Surrey. What does this name conjure up for you? Some old Victorian hall, or stylish Georgian edifice? Surrounded by sculpted lawns and with an elegant sweeping driveway... Eh? WRONG. The site that greeted me when I pulled up in the car park after my long drive up from Somerset was what appeared to be a recently landed flying saucer of the retro late-60's look. I half expected the front door to slide open amidst clouds of dry ice and Klaatu to step out and start frying cars with his death ray. I was TERRIBLY disappointed when he didn't, but then Michael Rennie has been dead for a long time now. Ahem. I feel I am getting away from the point of this blog. Silly me.

I had been contacted by Bourne Hall via the charming people at Portals to the Past. Bourne Hall is a wedding venue, museum, library, social centre, meeting place and also contains within it's bowels a very nice function room with stage, dance floor and space for about 300 seats. I was informed by David Brooks from the museum that this very hallowed hall where I was about to perform was where Steps auditioned originally and was also where Posh Spice herself had performed as a youngster. I offered to burn down the building to cover up this terrible revelation, but Mr Brooks declined. I was to do two of my Henry's Horrid History presentations and a bit of jousting - one show in the morning and one after lunch. We had good turn outs for both talks - about 50 people for the first and a few more for the afternoon session. I got my timing all wrong in the first show - finished the jousting and said "thank you and goodbye!" as David Brooks ran hurriedly over and gabbled "you've got another 30 minutes to do!" So I did another 30 minutes. Naughty Henry. I was much more professional for the second show. With this we were treated to the appearance of the local Mayor, a lovely lady, who turned out in her full ceremonial robes. For once I felt slightly under dressed as Henry, but I did get a good laugh when she first arrived halfway through my second talk in her fancy gear and funny hat, as I shouted "MUMMY!" very loudly.

Bourne Hall is a lovely, wonderful place with a really nice little museum. Give it a visit if you're in the area. I finished at about 3pm and was on the road by about 4pm. I got home by about 6.30pm and had a wonderful evening as Manchester United got beaten by Wigan, and Manchester City thrashed West Brom. That put a lovely smile on the King's face!

You can catch up with the King again this Sunday with a walkabout appearance at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. See you there!