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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Do Roses And Beautiful Women Float Your Boat?

There is surely nothing worse when you’re about to go off to see a film or watch a play, or even to read a novel, than for someone to let slip what happens at the end, thereby ruining the suspense of what’s about to take place in the plot.
And I’m sure there must be some parallels with historic re-enactments that are all the rage these days, though for obvious reasons there’s not a lot one can do to mitigate that. Pity the poor soldiers who are off to battle to know the outcome before they even set foot on the battle field!
It’s mid-summer and I have been asked down to Tewkesbury, as the West Country town is due to enjoy its annual bash celebrating the decisive battle in the War of the Roses.
Tewkesbury? War of the Roses? Wasn’t that between Lancashire and Yorkshire way back in the 15th century? What’s a town in Gloucestershire got to do with them? I have to admit that I never was one for history.
I look up Wikipedia and discover that the Wars of the Roses were caused by the protracted struggle for power between the reigning dynasty of the House of Lancaster (whose emblem was a red rose) and the competing House of York (white rose); and the Battle of Tewkesbury, which took place on 4 May 1471, was where the forces loyal to the House of Lancaster were completely defeated by those of the House of York under their monarch, King Edward IV. The Lancastrian would-be king – Edward, Prince of Wales – and many prominent Lancastrian nobles were killed during the battle or were dragged from sanctuary two days later and immediately executed. The Lancastrian King, Henry VI, who was a prisoner in the Tower of London, died or was murdered shortly after the battle. The Battle of Tewkesbury restored political stability to England until the death of Edward IV in 1483 and was so decisive that it changed the course of British history forever.
Fast-forward 500 years and Tewkesbury Medieval Festival is now the high spot of the town’s summer season. It is widely regarded as the largest free medieval gathering of its kind in Europe, and attracts re-enactors, traders and entertainers, and visitors from all over the world.
Actually, I have another reason to visit Tewkesbury this weekend, as it is the first time I have met up with my nieces – Juliette (1st L) and Antonia (1st R) – accompanied by my daughter, Genevieve (2nd R) in 25 years. (Your favourite blogger is 2nd L BTW, while Gen's husband Lee gives up the chance of fame and stardom by being the one who takes the pic.) A grand day out is in prospect…
The first Tewkesbury Medieval Festival took place in 1984 and has become a regular occurrence ever since then, usually held during the second weekend in July. Staged on meadows that were once a part of the Tewkesbury battlefield, the festival also attracts well over 100 traders and stall-holders – many of whom are specialists in medieval goods from rabbit pies to traditionally made armour and clothing.
There is also an area where many of the re-enactors set up a medieval camp and where they stay over the weekend. The focus is on authenticity and the re-enactors often live without any modern conveniences – “exactly as people would have done nearly 600 years ago”, according to the official blurb, which only goes to prove that medieval Britons must have been some of the first in the world to use Nokias and Samsungs. Many of the participants, including wives and children, live as a medieval army in authentic medieval encampments for the whole medieval weekend.
According to the organisers the first outings were simple affairs and the 150 or so participants used little more than knitted woollen chain mail and wooden weapons. Some 30 years later over 2,000 enthusiasts travel from all over the world to take part and everything is as authentic as it could possibly be. I’m told that the replica kit for a single knight could easily set you back £5,000 and in some cases is a lot more. It’s so exclusive, you can only take part as a re-enactor by invitation only.
Mind you, perhaps not everything is as authentic as it could possibly be. I can’t somehow really imagine the Yorkists or the Lancastrians queuing up to use a ‘Portaloo’ before they set off to war, for instance…
While waiting for the battle to commence, visitors are entertained by a bustling medieval fayre which has everything for sale from suits of armour …
to fabulous gowns …
or potted herbs for sale. On this stall, for instance, there are 18 different varieties of mint on offer, including some I had never before heard of.
In all, there are 120 traders and the organisers claim it is the closest you will ever get to a real medieval fayre – well, they would say that wouldn’t they. “Leather goods nestle next to hand carved furniture and blacksmiths can be seen making and selling a fearsome array of weapons. Mead and beer is plentiful and a tankard of ale or a specially brewed cup of alcoholic ginger beer is just the treat on a hot summer's day,” the blurb opines – though I don’t spy any blacksmiths.
What I do come across, however, is a candle-powered steam boat for sale that you can float in your bath. How very medieval! A shame that the world is moving over to showers nowadays…
…though I guess it is a good substitute for the yellow rubber ducks that used to grace many a bathroom in yesteryear, not to mention Hong Kong harbour in more recent times.
Other stalls are more interested in selling clothes to the well-dressed man-about-town, though I’m not really sure if snake-skin scarves count …
For those of a more daring disposition, you could try firing cross-bow arrows at this medieval knight who stands nonchalantly by, waiting for whatever is aimed at him. (Why is it that so many of the punters take such pleasure in aiming at that little shield hanging from his belt?) Luckily the cross bows are very un-authentic and have very little power in them – unlike a real crossbow. But wearing that helmet and chain mail on a hot summer’s day cannot be much fun; and when the said-knight comes over to chat up my female companions, I feel extremely sorry for the sweat-drenched guy inside who admits that not only is it extremely hot in there, but the smell is also overpowering!
Well, good though this medieval fayre might well be, there is no denying the fact that most everybody here has come over to see the battle.
And so for a potted history lesson:
Politics and power in fifteenth century Europe, which started and fuelled the Wars of the Roses, resulted in the English and French royal houses trying to outsmart one another in order to become the powerhouse of Europe. (It’s worth remembering that in those days many “English” monarchs couldn’t speak English at all as French was the language spoken at Court!)
The Earl of Warwick attempted to put George, Duke of Clarence, on the throne and this resulted in him plotting with the King of France for a Lancastrian invasion and uprising. But the Yorkists regrouped and attacked and poor old Warwick was killed on the 14th April at the Battle of Barnet. The other conspirator, Queen Margaret, arrived in England too late, but set about raising a new army on behalf of her husband, Henry VI, who was a prisoner in the Tower of London.
Talk about a pair of losers! On the morning of Saturday May 4th, the Lancastrian army took a defensive position in the fields of Tewkesbury while the Yorkists took to the field with great fanfare.
Actually many of those people taking part in the re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury camp at the festival using only traditional 15th century equipment and facilities (apart from – as we have already noted – their Nokias and Samsungs.) The camp is usually located on the slopes of Holm Hill and overlooks the Bloody Meadow (or rather, what will become Bloody Meadow once the battle has been fought – isn’t time travel confusing!)
Naturally the Health & Safety lobby can’t keep their noses out of a bit of medieval battle waging, and lest anyone is in any doubt whatsoever, we are told that playing the part of knights bashing the bejesus out of one another can be dangerous.
Hell, there’s even a posse of paramedics and St John Ambulance do-gooders mingling with the crowd. What Queen Margaret or Prince Edward wouldn’t have given to have known that! But alas, no one has told them, I think…
And so the spectacle approaches. Thousands of supporters line the battle field cheering on their teams.
For some reason I’m not really sure of, the Yorkists bellow out at the tops of their voices “A York! A York!”. I look this up on Mr Google’s I-know-everything-you-might-need-to-know-but-are-afraid-to-ask search engine, but can find no mention. Perhaps it is derived from the French “à York” meaning (I guess) “[victory] to the house of York” – but then, what do I know?
It’s strange, isn’t it, that even though they know what the outcome is going to be there are still those who shout encouragement from the sidelines to the Lancastrians. Haven’t they yet cottoned onto the fact that their team are all about to meet their Maker?
First Margaret flounces on to the field looking, for all the world, as if she has a snowball’s hope in hell in the coming melée …
and she is followed by her rag-tag army in blue, waving their flags. If this had been a Hollywood cowboys-n-injuns film they would all, of course, have been wearing black hats while the goodie-goodie Yorkists would have been wearing the white hats (since they are the ones destined to win!).
Anyway, according to protocol, the two sides start by sending their two leaders to parlay with one another – the Yorkists trying to persuade the Lancastrians that they should simply give up and go home, while the latter insist, in their ignorance, that it is they, rather than the Yorkists, who should be the rightful wearers of the white hats.
But some people never listen to reason, common sense, or the historians; and before you know it the two sides stomp back to their respective armies and line up for the start of the proceedings.
The battle opens with an exchange of artillery fire and some volleys of arrows raining down onto the opposing forces. The Yorkists are the upper dogs as far as this is concerned since they have more Black Powder (gunpowder) than the Lancastrians. Apparently the black powder weapons they used 500 years ago are usually louder than modern ones of a similar size, and the M/C standing in his commentary box (whom those stupid Lancastrians continue to ignore) warns us onlookers to partially cover our ears so that we don’t suffer from burst ear drums or the like.
A few scared birds flutter away from the field, while some pet dogs start barking at their cavalier owners (oh, sorry – the cavaliers didn’t appear for another 200 years. Silly me!); but apart from that the barrages seem to have little effect on their opponents.
But according to the historians, the ‘sharp shower with shot of arrows and guns’ eventually persuade the Duke of Somerset to mount an attack on the Yorkist flank, commanded by Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III). The attack is repulsed, not least because some two hundred Yorkist knights are concealed in woods (a cunning plan!) and unexpectedly charge down the hill scattering the Lancastrians in every direction.
After this, the Lancastrians are in retreat. Many are massacred in the Bloody Meadow in the panic, including the Lancastrian ‘heir to the throne’ – Edward, Prince of Wales. Those who seek sanctuary in the Abbey are surrendered to the King, tried for treason at a hurriedly convened court and beheaded on a scaffold set up in Church Street. Well, I’m sorry, but don’t say the historians didn’t warn you. It’s no use bleating now!
Queen Margaret is captured whilst fleeing to Wales and is returned to London on the very day her husband Henry, the last Lancastrian king, dies in the Tower. King Edward rules unopposed until his death in 1483. And everyone lives happily ever after.
Meanwhile, the flag wavers and cheerers-on wend their weary way back to the Medieval Fayre, looking for anything they might have missed when they last passed through.
We meet some friends of my nieces who are selling some rather nifty bits of apparel. And a short while further on I rediscover the candle-powered boat stall which is displaying a notice I hadn’t seen earlier on. It is asking its customers to provide photographs of their product being used. Unfortunately a couple called Becca and Paul take their request seriously, and this being Britain….
hmmmm….. enough said!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Steaming into York for a Unique Celebration

It’s been a while since I visited York. Of all the cities in England it has to be one of the most attractive and one that captivates visitors from all over the world. One of the fondest memories I have of it was during my campanology days way back when. I actually got to ring one of the cathedral bells which scared me shitless, but I was really proud to have done it. York Minster is a beautiful building – one of Britain’s best.
York is also one of those places steeped in history. Something I hadn’t realised was that Guy Fawkes – he of the gunpowder plot fame – was born here in 1570 and died 35 years later having been hung, drawn and quartered down in London for his part in the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. As a result, York is one of the few places in Britain where every November 5th you don’t find a “guy” sitting on top of the bonfires lit to celebrate bonfire night.
There are, of course, other sites to see – such as the old priory next the town’s museum, where people go to eat picnic lunches on the extensive lawns…
And don’t think for one moment that the local traders aren’t prepared for a sudden rush of custom – such as Caffè Nero where there is always additional seating available … well, perhaps not always available…
York is also home to some of the country’s grumpy old men …
But that’s not why I am here today. Tuning in to the local Yorkshire news for the first time in decades, I learn that the previous weekend, York’s National Railway Museum witnessed record attendances. Now, I am not normally that much of a railway enthusiast – though I did pay my respects at Beijing’s two railway museums. But the TV tells me that rubber-neckers were cramming themselves in to this museum to witness…
….a unique event. For the first time ever, the museum has pulled together the last six surviving A4 steam locomotives from around the world under one roof.
The A4s were icons in their own right. Designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, they were launched in 1935 and achieved fame when Mallard LNER 4-6-2 class A4 No 4468 took the world record for steam traction in July 1938 when it hit the heady speed of 126mph – a record that has never been beaten to this day.
Mallard was the first A4 to be fitted with a Kylchap exhaust and double blast pipe and chimney, making the steam production more efficient. The loco reached its record on the east coast main line establishing Mallard as the fastest steam loco in the world.
It’s strange to think now that in those days the London and North Eastern Railways advertising department focussed on exploiting these modern services, promoting them as the most stylish way to travel in luxury, rather than on their record-breaking speed.
During their working lives the A4s could be seen in many liveries. Under the LNER they were painted grey, green, Garter Blue, Wartime Black, and returned to Garter Blue before nationalisation of the railways in 1948. Under British Rail, some A4s were even briefly to be found in purple livery before being painted in Express Passenger Blue and finally Brunswick Green.
There’s no doubting it. They really are beautiful engines; and everyone at the museum wants to photograph them, get photographed with them, or try to draw them …
I should have mentioned, by the way, that entrance to this museum is free of charge. Apart from the A4s, there are so many other things to see that you can easily write off the best part of a day enjoying all the nostalgic memorabilia there is to be found on display. There’s even a section devoted to railway notices, written in abysmal grammar … so not a lot has changed in this particular area!
But there are also lots of trivial pursuit-type facts that you come across as you wander the corridors. For instance… have you ever wondered what the onboard chefs did if they ran out of supplies during the journey?
Easy! They hollowed out a potato, put a note inside and threw it out at the next signal box. The signaller then retrieved it, telegraphed up the line for new supplies and everything they needed would be waiting for them at the next station!
And did you know that in 1925 a total of 965 tons of meat and 779 tons of fish were eaten in the dining cars of Britain’s railways?
There are also samples here of metal-plate advertising that used to adorn the walls of railway stations. Golly, that Paris Hilton girl never wasted an opportunity!
Round a corner, you come to the longest ever station name in Britain (perhaps even in the world, for all I know). The station is closed nowadays, though people still roll up to Anglesey to be photographed with the station sign that has been left up, as the Welsh know a good tourist attraction when they see it!

The place is called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch which, of course, means “Saint Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio of the red cave”. It rings a bell with you? Of course it does! It was used in the 1960's cult film Barbarella (starring Jane Fonda) as the password for Dildano's headquarters. It was listed in the Guinness Book of Records in 2002 and as an aside you might also like to know that the website with the longest valid domain name in the world is
llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochuchaf.org.uk (the ending "uchaf" is the Welsh for "higher" or "upper", and refers to the upper (old) part of the village).
There is also a section of the museum devoted to royal trains – as well as some of the royal carriages that were merely attached to ordinary trains in the early days.
Queen Adelaide – she was Queen Victoria's aunt – was one of the first royals to travel by train in the 1840s. This carriage was designed for her and built with extra space at one end so she could lie down. Her carriage was simply attached to an ordinary passenger train.
Unfortunately the effect is somewhat spoiled by signs attached to the carriage windows. Perhaps the rail authorities sourced their door handles from China? (Sorry guys ... just kidding!)
Of course, whenever a royal train pulled up at a station, protocol was everything; and the museum displays some lovely floor maps of where everyone was expected to stand when welcoming the royal travellers.
Not all the exhibits on display are that old, however. For instance there is a carriage and motor unit from Japan's famous bullet train which was launched on the high speed Shinkansen in 1964 and led the way for railways in the modern world.
And though it might seem a little incongruous, you’ll also find Thomas the Tank Engine waiting around to greet some of the younger visitors.
Not content with showing only the real thing, there are also models a-plenty, such as this rendition of the Planet loco which used to attain a top speed of 31mph in the 1830s.
And of course one mustn’t forget another icon of its day that York is famous for – the Flying Scotsman…
It was built in 1923, but right now it is taking a well earned rest and languishing in the museum's workshop for continued work to put the engine back into running order.
Another fascinating section of the museum is the series of photographs of railway disasters – such as this unfortunate episode that occurred at Penistone Viaduct in 1916…
Actually, of all the museums in the world devoted to railways, the NRM has the largest collection. Some is on display in the galleries and the rest is in storage. The Warehouse is one of the museum’s largest storage areas but is not an exhibition. It is a working store; and many objects have not yet been restored, but are still being worked on.
Here’s a lovely shield from the Shanghai and Nanking Railway. OK – Nanking should really be called Nanjing – or Southern Capital; but it appears the British “knew better” and insisted on calling it Nanking!
Here’s a shield from the British section of the Kowloon and Canton Railway – a railway I actually travelled on when I first went to Hong Kong in the 1970s when it was still firmly under British rule (and before the arrival of the MTR).
Harry Potter fans, too, will not be disappointed. In the Warehouse is the now (in)-famous sign that adorned the railway platform from where the kids set off to Hogwarts School.
Eventually all good things must come to an end. It’s been a great day and one of the best value-for-money museums I have been to in a long time. I wait in hope under one of the display signs but no one comes up to throw their arms around me and smother me in kisses. I guess your favourite blogger will just have to keep on dreaming…