Singing for Christmas in Fountains Abbey

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A coldish afternoon.  Evening’s drawing in at Fountains Abbey, and our little choir is due to sing there.  Not in the roofless ruined abbey, but in their former storage area, their cellarium, as vaulted as any church, and as atmospheric, with its wide colonnaded chamber and its vibrant acoustics. Local choirs vie for the privilege of a singing spot there around Christmas, knowing that audiences will be generously appreciative, and that the cellarium will give the very best account of the choir’s music making.  Generally performers choose favourite Christmas carols that the audiences know and love.

Not us.  Our director, Nicky, makes interesting choices.  We sing early carols that the monks themselves might have known, such as the Coventry Carol and Ave Maris Stella.  We sing music known to a secular mediaeval audience – the rousing songs of taverns, feasting and wassailing, such as Gaudete, The Boar’s Head Carol and the Gloucestershire Wassail.

Choir in winter woollies.  It's cold in the cellarium.
Choir in winter woollies. It’s cold in the cellarium.

We sing winter songs from Lapland – a yoik to call the reindeer in, and a seal woman’s lament.  A spiritual, a modern Hungarian take on Alleluia – the variety continues….. but we finish off with a traditional favourite – Ding dong merrily on high.

We’re delighted.  We get through with no disasters, and we’re exhilarated at the way the acoustics of the cellarium enhance our music-making.  The audience pays us pretty compliments.  We want to come back again next year.

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Happy New Year to you all.  Let’s hope for a better 2017.

 

 

Weaving for pleasure

Last Thursday, I learnt to weave.  Not a splendid rug with intricate and richly coloured motifs.  Not a cosy scarf in soft heathery colours in subtle, muted stripes.  Not even a simple table mat, plain but serviceable.

No, I wove a ….. er, thing.  A ‘thing’ I have yet to find a use for (Mobile phone mat? Drugget for a pet mouse?). But I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I rather resented the fact that because I was on a course, I was time-limited, and had to finish and tidy up just as I was getting into my stride.

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This course, you might guess, was at Fountains Abbey, where I’ve volunteered to be part of a new project.  The idea is to open up Swanley Grange, once an abbey farm (since 1358 in fact) but in more recent years the Education building.

The aim is to create the ‘feel’ of a monastic farm space as visitors enter the sheep-field/grange area and to help them make connections between the grange network and the abbey. Until now, there’s been little to highlight the importance of the wool trade to the expansion of the abbey.

Over winter, the building has been redeveloped inside, and outside there have been very exciting happenings.  There’s a ‘mediaeval style’ vegetable garden, just waiting to be planted up with mediaeval-style vegetables (kale, beans, leeks, that sort of thing.  Potatoes, courgettes and tomatoes need not apply).  Traditional cleft fencing will enclose a flock of sheep, just like the old days, and there’ll be chickens, and bees in mediaeval-style skeps.

Beekeeping, tacuinum sanitatis casanatensis (14th century) (Wikimedia commons)
Beekeeping, tacuinum sanitatis casanatensis (14th century) (Wikimedia Commons)

The volunteers will be keeping an eye on the animals, and with the help of the gardeners, maintaining the vegetable plots.  Most of us who’ve volunteered feel quite comfortable with that.  But most of us who’ve volunteered are less comfortable with mediaeval crafts.

Spinning with a distaff....
Spinning with a distaff….

So the other day we learnt to spin wool, first of all using a distaff, then a spinning wheel.  I don’t think I’ve found a new hobby.  Teasing out the raw, though washed wool, keeping the distaff turning, turning, to twist the wool into a useable fine thread seemed frustrating and, frankly, dull.  It was work that women did constantly, even when minding the children, walking, talking, working.  But you can find blogs written by those who enjoy it, even now it’s no longer an economic necessity.  The greater mechanisation of spinning seemed less tedious, but quite tricky, all the same.

... and with a spinning wheel.
… and with a spinning wheel.
A spot of carding.
A spot of carding.

We did a spot of carding, combing out wool into parallel, useable fibres ready for that all important spinning.  Even that was hard going, and we were glad to break for lunch.

And after lunch, there they were.  A collection of small table looms, the warp already prepared so we could get busy with the weft.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look here.

And we got busy. We learnt to like the rhythmic back-and-forth as we pushed our wool-laden shuttles through the warp threads.  I felt the need to get above myself, and try something just a little more complex.  Here it is.

A mini-masterpiece? Or an adequate first attempt ?
A mini-masterpiece? Or an adequate first attempt ?

But if I could produce that in not much more than half an hour, who knows what weaving genius is within me, trying to get out?

This post is dedicated to blogging friend Kerry, writer of Love those ‘Hands at Home’, who inspires me with her love of textiles, of learning new things, and of life.

 

A history mystery

Acting the facts (Pad Dawson)
Acting the facts (Pad Dawson)

When teachers bring parties of children to Fountains Abbey, we often tog them all up in monastic robes, and explore the site with them .We want them to get a feel of the day-to-day life of a mediaeval monk. What? Prayers eight times a day? No underclothes? No talking? No heating? They’re impressed, in a horrified kind of way.

Then they go away, with only brief notions of the story the Abbey itself has to tell. Or why the place is a roofless ruin.

Until this year. Now they can come with their teachers and ‘Act the Facts’. They’re given props – perhaps a simple cape, a feathered cap, a woollen robe, a crown . These turn them into an early monk, a master mason, an Italian wool merchant, a dastardly baron, or even Henry VIII.

They have a script. It’s a melodramatic pastiche telling the Abbey’s turbulent history. Simple God-fearing beginnings, then powerful prosperity, then war, plague and corruption all leading to the final action. Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries.

The question at the beginning of the play is –

Who destroyed the Abbey?’

Acting it out, the children lose their places, stumble over words like ‘Cistercian’ and ‘lavatorium’, and forget which character they’re playing.

Honestly, what’s the point? It’s too complicated. They’re learning nothing.

Then they reach the end. We ask them to line themselves up. Twelfth century characters first, then thirteenth… and so on, through to those who bring the story to an end in 1540. We ask them which century was best.

And that’s when we realise how much they’ve learnt. They talk passionately about the simple piety of the early days set against the laxity of later centuries. They discuss austerity versus comfort. They talk feelingly about the plague, and the reasons for the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

And in telling the story of the Dissolution, they’ve solved the mystery of why Fountains Abbey is a roofless ruin.

Back at school, there’s so much for their teachers to build on. The ruin has brought history to life.

Come and see it for yourselves.  We can’t promise you a feathered cap, or a cardboard crown, but you could join one of the regular tours.  You’ll get a real taste of history as you soak up the special atmosphere of this special site.

(Pad Dawson)
(Pad Dawson)