This month has got off to an aptly Ricardian start for Herstory... October 2nd, Richard III's birthday, saw our seventh wedding anniversary, which we celebrated in true style on October 6th with my lecture for Towton Battlefield Society on the king's life and death. It went down well with the audience, 99% of whom seemed to be staunch Ricardians; on the one hand this was very pleasant because it meant I didn't get rotten eggs thrown at me; on the other, it was slightly disappointing because it didn't prompt the kind of robust debate we might have had if opinions about him had been more divided!
Then on Saturday 11th, I enjoyed a keenly anticipated treat: in lieu of attending the Richard III Foundation Inc. conference (which, sadly, had to be cancelled), I went down to Leicester with fellow TBS members Rob Ward and Alex Harrison to see the new Richard III Visitor Centre, 'Dynasty, Death & Discovery'. The image on the left shows the famous statue of Richard III, relocated from the nearby Castle Gardens and set up between the Centre, (its entrance is to the rear left), and the Cathedral where his remains will be re-interred in March; poignantly, the statue is aligned to face in the direction of Bosworth.
Adult admission costs £7.95 - which I thought was good value, because I enjoyed it very much and was massively impressed by what had been achieved in such a tight time-frame - less than two years between the discovery of Richard's remains and the grand opening. The ground floor deals with the 'dynasty and death' aspects, aided by some superb projections: in the first room, narration from actors portraying key figures of the
period, and in the next, re-enactors (including mounted knights) from Les Routiers, showing close-quarter combat and Richard's fatal charge at Bosworth. The latter projections play onto a backdrop of the battle drawn in a monochrome version of the illustration on the right (showing the aftermath and crowning of Henry VII) - a cartoonish yet accurate style which I felt worked very well. Also, in the ground floor temporary exhibition gallery, we were lucky to see a superb exhibition of Graham Turner's work, including originals and prints, which made a spectacular showing all together.
Then it was time for lunch, spent with Facebook friend Susan Troxell (scheduled to speak at the cancelled conference) and her partner Eric - two staggeringly well-informed Anglophiles from Philadelphia, whose company really enhanced our day - and afterwards we tackled the 'discovery' element on the first floor. This focusses on the portrayal of Richard III over the centuries, the project to locate and excavate his remains, and the scientific analysis of his skeleton. Unlike the dimly-lit ground floor, this is a bright, modernistic gallery complete with some innovative display techniques: I especially liked the 'scanner' (below left) with the
reproduction skeleton; when you press the buttons along the bottom (all relating to different areas of wounding on the bones), a projection comes up inside the scanner with narration describing the injuries - that's the blue floating image you can see above the skull. Unfortunately, the 'busyness' of the background made this rather hard to see - it might work better on a frosted glass panel - but it was very interesting. The building tour then ends back on the ground floor, in a gallery built over the now world-famous 'king in the car-park' grave site. This is cleverly done, with glass panels in the floor allowing you to view the excavation, and seating down the sides echoing the monks' seats which would originally have been in that position in the choir of Greyfriars Church. Yet another projection fades in and out of view here, this time showing Richard III's skeleton in its grave... poignant to see, and quite terrifying in that it graphically illustrates just how close his remains came to complete destruction by Victorian development on the site.
Although I feel there are some flaws in the centre, (including a disappointingly sparse gift-shop), on the whole I found it very good and will visit again at some point. But our day didn't end when we left; courtesy of another two Facebook friends, Serpentine Black and Jo Mungevin (of the 'Richard in Leicester' page), we were treated to a guided tour of the Cathedral and a walk around some of the other fabulous medieval sites in its vicinity. Below centre you can see the much-criticised 'Towards Stillness' installation in the Cathedral grounds (which I liked a lot more than I'd expected to); left, the magnificent Guildhall, now a museum, just next door; and right, the Turret Gateway between the Newarke religious precinct and Leicester Castle, with St Mary de Castro (where Richard's father, Richard, Duke of York was knighted in 1426 by the Duke of Bedford) in the background. A great visit, albeit all too much for a single day - so I'll definitely be going back!
Making the most of a glorous autumn Saturday, we visited one of our favourite seaside haunts: wonderful Whitby (left). The main purpose of the trip was for Hubcap to buy me some jet jewellery as a belated anniversary present; so after a lunch of fish and chips (what else?!) we hit the jet shops in the lovely old market area on the south bank of the River Esk. Jet is a fascinating material: the fossilised remains of a species of Araucaria, the monkey-puzzle tree, washed into the Lias Sea in what is now North Yorkshire. Carved and polished jet has been used for jewellery and buttons since prehistoric times, and reached its heyday of popularity in the 19th century thanks to Queen Victoria wearing it as mourning jewellery. So I was delighted to acquire a pair of ear-rings and a pendant necklace from Simpson's Jet (below right) - and then to visit the Whitby Jet Heritage Centre, which contains a complete set of Victorian jet-workers equipment and tools found in a local attic. Fired with enthusiasm, we then headed for Whitby Museum - a real
treasure-trove of a building adjoining the Art Gallery in Pannett Park. As well as some stunning local fossils and archaeological finds, Whitby Museum boasts a remarkable collection of jet including a chessboard made to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (although since it took four years to complete, it wasn't ready on time!). The 'white' squares are made of jet inset with ammonites, and the craftsmanship is unbelievable - even if you don't care for this type of object, it's worth seeing for the skill that went into making it (Mick said the £5 admission charge was worth it for that object alone). Sadly, we arrived too late in the afternoon to do the place justice; in addition to the wealth of traditional mahogany-cased 'encyclopaedic' displays of militaria, coins, dolls, ethnography and much more, we discovered that since my last visit many years ago, the museum has been extended with a new costume gallery, art display space and a cafeteria. We could easily have spent half a day there, so we'll definitely be going back - although perhaps not when Whitby is gearing up for its annual film festival and Hallowe'en Dracula spectacular, because the whole town was heavingly busy, as you can see below left! Still, we managed to round off the trip by buying some oak-smoked kippers and a dressed crab from one of the traditonal fishmongers, so altogether we had a grand day out and I can heartily recommend it if you fancy visiting an especially
beautiful and historic part of the North Yorkshire coast. We barely scratched the surface of it on this occasion, because Whitby also boasts the famous '199 steps' to the church in the image top right, which feature in Bram Stoker's classic novel 'Dracula'; the very fine Abbey ruins up on the headland; the Captain Cook Museum; and quaint streets with scores of wonderful bookshops, traditional pubs and sweetshops, antique shops, Gothic fashion outlets, craft and gift shops and eateries - so it's a little like York with more seagulls, and there's lots to see and do in and around the town. Needless to say, I was looking forward to tucking into our kippers for Sunday brunch, and they did not disappoint with their succulent texture and intense smoke flavour, quite unlike the mass-produced or tinned varieties - and just the thing to go with the smoky Lapsang Souchong tea Mick bought from The Shepherd's Purse on Church Street! Ah... roll on our next visit...
Some of our Whitby purchases: real kippers and jet jewellery!