Weekend in Wessex – Part 2

I had been looking forward to the Chalke Valley History Festival for a long time. I had been following the lead up to the event on Twitter and noticed a comment that it was “Glastonbury for Historians” – I didn’t realise they were talking about the mud!

I already knew before we left home that Wellingtons would be needed. However there was not room in the car for them, but we had our walking boots. They would have to do.

We set off  from Shaftesbury on Sunday morning. The forecast was cloudy, but rain was not expected. We followed the signposts from the main road. We drove on, and on, down narrow country roads. We seemed to be driving in circles. Finally we reached the back of a queue of cars – nearly there.

End of the queue

End of the queue

It must have been getting on for an hour before we reached the entrance and discovered why the progress was so slow. The car park was a muddy field. Cars drove up the hill on a road of boards. At the top, marshals directed each car individually to a parking spot – a mad dash through the mud. I imagine they still wake in the night shouting “Keep going! Second gear!” Tractors were available for those who couldn’t make it.

Next came a logistics problem. Sitting in front of car in ordinary footwear. Walking boots in boot. In between, thick mud. Another pair of shoes to clean later.

After a muddy walk to the entrance we finally arrived. More mud. After locating the loos (plenty of them and no queues), we headed uphill to the Living History area. There was less mud here and we talked to Celts about the usefulness of lime for sun protection and their everlasting cauldron. We found out about  from Vikings about making chain mail and how often Anglo-Saxons washed. We heard from a Roman doctor about trepanning and a falconer about hunting with hawks. We watched  fights by Saxons and another between medieval knights. We saw men and women from different eras mingling and unusual juxtapositions.

Multi Era Team meeting. Romans telling everyone else what to do.

Multi Era Team Meeting. Romans telling everyone else what to do.

Celts

Celts…

and Romans.

…and Romans.

Viking Ship with a rather superfluous sign.

Viking Ship with a rather superfluous sign.

Viking Warrior - not an Anglo-Saxon. How do you tell the difference?

Viking Warrior – not an Anglo-Saxon. How do you tell the difference?

Q. How do you keep the gun deck of HMS Temeraire clean? A. Leave your boots outside.

Q. How do you keep the gun deck of HMS Temeraire clean? A. Leave your boots outside.

Famous Historian holds court in muddy field.

Famous Historian holds court in muddy field.

Cafe

Cafe

By now we were getting tired and hungry. We found a cafe, but it was difficult to sit at a picnic table without getting mud all over the seat – the cakes were nice though.

We visited the book shop – another disconcerting experience. You appear to be browsing in an ordinary Waterstones, but the floor is covered in mud.

I was starting to get fed up. It was difficult to wander round some of the damper areas. You had to look where you were going, then stop to look around. Spend too much time in one place and it was difficult to move on. If we hadn’t booked for a late talk, we might have left – that and the thought of the long walk back to the car.

 

Saxon Settlement

Saxon Settlement

It was while we were searching for drier ground that we found the Anglo-Saxon Settlement. I had been looking for it, but it was hidden away in some trees.

This was run by The Ancient Technology Centre

We watched a smith working to make iron on a small fire and children having a go at turning wood.

We were taught (unsuccessfully) to make bird calls and I had a lesson in spinning wool using only a twig.

Smelting Iron

Smelting Iron

Bodging a chair leg

Bodging a chair leg

I become a spinster - How to spin wool

I become a spinster – How to spin wool

Clouds - can you spot the plane?

Clouds – can you spot the plane?

The sun had come out and things were starting to dry out a bit.

We heard that there was a display of weapons through the ages before the Saxon v Viking battle, so we made our way over to watch that.

Of course, throughout the day, heads turned to the sky to watch old planes pass over. The commentaries and announcements in general were very clear and easy to hear.

The demonstration of weapons through the ages was fascinating, from the earliest spears and bows, to “black powder” muskets and rifles. Larger weapons; a Roman trebuchet and ballista, cannon and field guns. The display finished with a Napoleonic battle between France and English, although the French refused to die.

 

The archers show off their bows while redcoats wait their turn.

The archers show off their bows while redcoats wait their turn.

Roman Balista. Efficient but takes a long time to load.

Roman Ballista. Efficient but takes a long time to load.

Viking arrive in time to finish off the French.

The Saxons  arrive in time to finish off the French.

At last it was time for the Battle of Ethandun. Just when we needed it the commentary was intermittent and difficult to hear, but I managed to identify who was who – the Saxons had the blue flag. There was a bit of discussion and the armies lined up and then attacked. After some fighting, they separated and there was more parlaying. King Alfred and his Saxons eventually defeated Guthrum and his Viking Army. They ran away, back to their ships (presumably waiting over the hill!)

The Anglo-Saxon Shield Wall.

The Anglo-Saxon Shield Wall.

The Vikings wait on the hill.

The Vikings wait on the hill.

The Battle of Athendun

The Battle of Ethandun.

The beaten Vikings run away

The beaten Vikings run away.

Charge!

Charge!

The dead were re-animated and there were other fights  – a “Circle” – a knockout fight with one winner. It turns out that there are rules in these re-enactment encounters. You don’t get the full experience of a proper Anglo-Saxon battle, they aren’t actually trying to kill each other, after all. But it is the closest I will get and it’s quite scary when they charge you head on – I regretted having wormed my way to the front of the crowd! See the video here.

When the battle was over, we went and found an ice cream. While waiting at the van, the tanks nearby started up and moved away. Later we could hear their battle from our place in the queue for our booked talk.

At last, somewhere to sit down.

The talk by Tom Holland on Athelstan was interesting. He told us about the coins he has acquired that tell the story of how Athelstan became King of all England. English history does not start in 1066, but over a hundred years earlier with King Athelstan.

Tom has written a biography of Athelstan, published just before the Festival. I intended to buy a copy and get it signed, but by the time I reached the bookshop, I couldn’t get in the door. Time to leave.

The sun had dried some of the mud. It was surprising it cleared so quickly, but with the underlying chalk it had not been thick, just wet and slippy.

So, had I enjoyed my day at Chalke Valley History Festival? By the end of the day, yes. I might have enjoyed it more without the mud, but at least it didn’t rain as well – in fact I got sunburned!

I learned a lot, took loads of photographs to inspire my writing and gained an understanding of life in the past – how on earth did they manage without paved roads?

 

Boot Selfie

Muddy Boot Selfie

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Weekend in Wessex – Part 1

If you are trying to write Historical Fiction (or, I suppose, proper history) you can’t beat a little hands-on experience. So when I heard about the Chalk Valley History Festival, I had to go. With re-enactors from many different periods and talks by famous historians – it seemed to be essential research. I booked a talk by Tom Holland on “Athelstan and the Battle for Britain: The Making of Britain Part 2”. This talk was at 5 o’clock on Sunday 3rd July and the price included entrance to the whole event for that day. On the programme was the Battle of Ethandun, when King Alfred defeated Guthrum in 878. Never mind anything else, that was enough for me!

We decided to make a weekend of it and booked a hotel in Shaftesbury for three nights (Friday to Monday). It was such a busy visit, I have divided it into two posts. Sunday at he Festival will be in Part 2.

Friday

Every adventure starts with a journey and as we planned our route, straight down the Fosse Way to Cirencester, then head south. I noticed that we would be passing close to Malmesbury.

Tomb of Athelstan

Tomb of Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey

What is so special about Malmesbury? Well, since we had tickets for a talk about Athelstan, we had to visit the site of his grave. Athelstan was the grandson of Alfred the Great. He was King of the Anglo-Saxons from 924 to 927 and King of the English from 927 to 939. He favoured the Abbey at Malmesbury and had buried relatives there who died at the Battle of Brunanburh (937).

The site of his grave is lost but he is commemorated by an empty fifteenth-century tomb.

 

Malmesbury Abbey

Malmesbury Abbey

Malmesbury Abbey, Norman doorway

Malmesbury Abbey, Norman doorway

 

The Abbey is interesting in its own right, half ruin and half parish church. Very light inside and with some beautiful Norman carving.

Other Saxon connections with the Abbey are:

Aldhelm, the scholar and first Abbot (died 709).

In the early 11th century, the monk Eilmer built wings and tried to fly from a tower. He flew over 200 yards (200 m) before landing, breaking both legs. He was forbidden to try again but calculated that he would have succeeded if he had included a tail!

William of Malmesbury (1095-1143) was another monk at the Abbey. He has been described as “a gifted historical scholar and an omnivorous reader, impressively well versed in the literature of classical, patristic and earlier medieval times as well as in the writings of his own contemporaries. Indeed William may well have been the most learned man in twelfth-century Western Europe.”

Malmesbury Market Cross - with market

Malmesbury Market Cross – with market

Can you tell we went round the town museum as well? It’s called the Athelstan Museum. It also has displays of the later history of the town.

Just outside the Abbey is an ornate market cross. There was a market on while we were there – a handful of stalls including one selling some very nice fudge (not Anglo-Saxon, but I do have other interests!)

 

 

THE view of Shaftesbury

THE view of Shaftesbury

We continued our trip and arrived in Shaftesbury to time to have a short walk around the town to see the sights. We didn’t know when we booked, but there were a number of events on in the town that weekend:  The Shaftesbury Fringe and Gold Hill Fair.

When we stood at the top of Gold Hill that afternoon, music could be heard from nearby. It was The Wandering Winds on their World Tour of Dorset. We didn’t wait long enough for Dvorak’s New World Symphony, that would be too much of a cliché, but it added to the atmosphere.

We were booked into La Fleur de Lys (who let those Normans in?) which is described as a restaurant with rooms, so we enjoyed a delicious meal and a comfortable night, before waking to a new day.

La Fleur de Lys, Shaftesbury

La Fleur de Lys, Shaftesbury

Saturday

We like to get to know a place where we stay and we had found a walk online,  so it was walking boots on.

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury. looking back up the hill

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury. looking back up the hill

It started by going down Gold Hill, through lanes and across fields to the south of the town, returning to the town via Stoney Path (a narrower but no less steep alternative to Gold Hill) and finishing at Castle Hill View.

Distant view of Shaftesbury

Distant view of Shaftesbury

View from Castle Hill, Shaftesbury, towards King Alfred's Tower

View from Castle Hill, Shaftesbury, towards King Alfred’s Tower

This was the site of the original Saxon town, founded by King Alfred in AD880 and faced north.The walk was only four miles so we were back in the town in time for lunch

 Onion seller at French Market, Shaftesbury

Onion seller at French Market, Shaftesbury

Part of the Gold Hill Fair was a French (Boo!) Market on Park Walk, so we bought some french tarts and sat on a bench, contemplating the route of our morning’s walk.

What to do now? Visit the Abbey museum and garden (just behind us) or travel further afield.
From Castle Hill we had spotted King Alfred’s Tower.

 

The weather seemed set fair so we returned to the hotel to collect the car and headed for Stourhead.

Being members of the National Trust, we had to take advantage of free entry.

Clouds had gathered so we decided to go round the house first, luckily we missed a short downpour and by the time we emerged the sun had returned and we walked round the grounds – perhaps not a good idea after all the walking that morning. An ice cream was very welcome.

Stourhead House, after the rain

Stourhead House, after the rain

Stourhead, fifty shades of green

Stourhead, fifty shades of green

Stourhead bridge and monument

Stourhead bridge and monument

King Alfred’s Tower

King Alfred’s Tower is on the Stourhead estate and I think you can walk there, but we had had enough walking that day. It seemed a long way even in the car! We reached the car park about 4.15 and we were told that the tower had closed at 4.00.

Oh dear, we wouldn’t be able to climb up the 205 steps to see the view from the top.

The tower is surrounded by trees, so there is no view of anything at ground level but it is situated in a meadow studded with wildflowers, including orchids – common spotted, I think.

Of course the Tower was not built by King Alfred. Like the rest of the estate, built by the Hoare family, over 250 years ago, it is a folly, completed in 1772 at an estimated cost between £5,000 and £6,000. However, it is supposed to be the site of “Egbert’s Stone” where King Alfred rallied the Saxons in AD878 before the Battle against the Danish army of Guthrum at the Battle of Ethandun.

 

Which we were to witness the next day!

To be continued