2015 is quite a year for major anniversaries. On Monday 5th, I delivered a revised version of my Magna Carta presentation to Towton Battlefield Society in the 800th year of this historic charter's existence; and I'm now in the throes of preparing for two more forthcoming talks to commemorate major events. On Saturday 7th November, I'll be talking to Pontefract Historical Society about the battle of Agincourt (or Azincourt, if you prefer the French spelling), which took place 600 years ago, on 25th October 1415. Medieval anoraks may recognise the image on the left as depicting Poitiers rather than Agincourt, but some of the salient features are the same: English longbow archers devastating French heavy cavalry with a storm of arrows, piercing
the armour of the knights and the bodies of their poor unfortunate horses with equal ease. Then on Thursday 26th, I'll be at Ackworth to talk about the battle of Waterloo, fought from 16th - 18th June 1815, in its bi-centenery year - the image on the right, courtesy of James Turner, shows the cyclorama which lies at the base of the Butte de Lion on the battlefield. I'm thoroughly enjoying doing the research for both talks, even though the details of the battles are terribly grim - I think it's important to discuss, remember and mourn the fallen of these conflicts - including the thousands of innocent animals who suffered and died alongside the soldiers - however many years ago the events took place. So the preparation is a sobering exercise, but fascinating at the same time, especially in terms of what I'm learning about the commanders on both sides and their reasons for going to war. I'm now a lot less impressed by one of our national heroes, the great warrior king Henry V - he comes across as a self-righteous obsessive who was determined to pick a fight with France because he saw himself as on a mission from God - and rather more sympathetic towards Napoleon Bonaparte, who had attempted to make peace overtures to the European powers and been rebuffed; but whoever you think was in the right or wrong, these are very poignant anniversaries to observe.
14th October: Anniversary Adventure (Part 1)
Hubcap and I have just celebrated our 8th wedding anniversary in grand style, with a wonderful weekend in North Yorkshire and an overnight stay at this fabulous country house hotel, Wrea Head Hall. The Gothic-style Hall was built in 1881 as a summer residence for the wealthy Quaker MP John Ellis and his wife Maria (nee Rowntree, of the famous chocolate-making family); subsequently inherited by their daughter Edith, who gave it to the North Riding County Council in 1948; then sold in 2004 and converted into a hotel. The conversion has been carried out sympathetically, (as you can see from the photograph below left, which shows the hall where we had tea on Saturday afternoon); and its location in Scalby, 4 miles from Scarborough on the edge of the North Yorks National Park, is magnificent - the photograph bottom left shows the view from our bedroom, with Scarborough Castle just visible on the distant headland.
We happened upon it thanks to Yorkshire Life, which featured an advert for this almost unbelieveable deal: a cream tea, dinner, bed and breakfast for a mere £64.95 per head (their 'Winter Warmer' package, which runs from December to February, is even cheaper at £54.95!). Because we only stayed for a single night, we were put in a standard double room - one of the former servants' rooms on the second floor - which was quaintly shaped, pretty and comfortable, with en suite facilities, a flat-screen TV and wi-fi access; although if we'd spent Friday and Saturday nights there, we could have had one of the more sumptuous first floor rooms (see the website for all accommodation options and prices). But we were well satisfied; the welcome was warm, the service excellent and courteous, and the food... wow! We started off with a pot of tea and big fluffy scones served with clotted cream and strawberry jam at 4 pm; took a stroll round the grounds and down to the village duck-pond to work up an appetite for dinner; and then enjoyed one of the best meals we'd ever eaten in the beautiful Rose Dining Room. Mick started with a ham knuckle and pheasant terrine, followed by curried halibut, crevette korma and fragrant rice with fresh coriander (which he's still raving about). I had a sort of rough smoked salmon mousse served on salade nicoise containing cooked French beans, tomatoes and quail's eggs, followed by a highly sophisticated version of bangers, mash and beans: venison sausages, potatoes with cheese and cranberries and a fantastic smoky white bean cassoulet - and if I'd realised how big the portions would be, I wouldn't have ordered the side dish of honeyed baby parsnips with sorrel! It was all perfectly executed and delicious, my only minor quibble being that it made us too full to try a dessert (unlike a couple nearby, who somehow put away a cheeseboard and port too!). After all that, it's a miracle that we had room for Sunday breakfast - but we both managed fresh fruit salad and toast, which I followed with Eggs Benedict and bacon on a grilled muffin, while Mick had a pair of fine fresh kippers garnished with lemon and grilled tomato. So if you fancy pigging out on gourmet food in a glorious setting, I can certainly recommend Wrea Head Hall - which also makes an excellent base for exploring the area, as I'll report in a future post!
Last night a small Frei Compagnie squad (me, Hubcap, Alan and Judith Stringer and Dave Moss) enjoyed one of our more unusual - and amusing - engagements: taking part in Agincourt 600, a 'living play' scripted by Stephen Hines, a well-known local sculptor and long-standing member of Towton Battlefield Society.
The event, a fundraiser for prostate cancer and the brain injury charity Move Ahead, was held at Ossett Community Centre, where the long-suffering staff had to put up with a large and extremely noisy crowd playing English and French participants. Our
brief was to help meet and greet guests as they arrived, which Mick and I did with a spot of recorder and drum music, while Master Stringer stood guard with his pike and Master Moss refused to let people in until they bought one of his holy relics (nails from the True Cross for one gold piece each). Amazingly, they all sold, raising more than £20 to help swell the coffers - although his attempts to sell pieces of bread from the Last Supper met with less success - I think folk had tumbled to him by then. We were then seated in splendour at the head of the room between the French and English lines, as you can see in the picture above left, to enjoy a medieval-style three-course dinner served between acts of the play. Steve had done wonders in making the props - the picture below right shows Henry V about to assault the (polystyrene sheet) walls of Harfleur with a cardboard cannon, which went off with a small 'pop' and cloud of talcum-powder smoke! It was riotously funny, with more than a nod to Monty Python, and everyone got well into the spirit of things (the French were particularly noisy and badly behaved, with someone calling himself the Duke of Normandy trying to seduce me away from my husband by boasting of his large castles and extensive lands).
As soon as the dessert plates were cleared, we came on for our 20-minute slot: a completely ad-libbed session with the boys showing off their gear and bragging about what they were going to do to the Frenchies - below left you can see Mick trying to look early 15th-century in a gambeson and skull-cap. Then after coffee came the climax of the evening, when the battle of Agincourt was re-enacted with a French heavy cavalry charge (below centre) and an arrow-storm of hundreds of paper darts. I'd never done anything quite like it before, and it was certainly a fun way to spend an evening - but there was a serious purpose beneath all the mirth and (I hope) a substantial amount raised for charity. Who knows, one day we may put on a similar event for the Battlefield Society, since Stephen has very kindly offered to write us a similar play on Towton!