Herstmonceux Medieval Festival

26 August 2012

It’s Monday of the August bank holiday long weekend. Boyd is away this weekend working for English Heritage in Cornwall at a history fair at a place called Pendennis Castle. Saturday was a horrible day with thunder, lightning and heavy rain keeping me trapped inside the bedroom. I did venture out to buy food in a break in the storm, sheltering under my frail Union Jack umbrella on the way home. It had started raining heavily again, and as I left I had to force my way through a decent crowd waiting at the exit to the supermarket who were evidently unprepared for the rain. Not what I expected from the British.

So after a boring and grumpy day, I decided it was worth spending (by NZ standards) an unreasonable amount of money to travel to England's Medieval Festival at Herstmonceux Castle, south of London.

Train tickets were the same price as bus tickets, thankfully, as the train is about an hour faster than the bus. Boyd’s trip to Falmouth took nine hours by bus for about £20 each way, in comparison to the train which would have taken half that time and cost more like £90! 

I booked the tickets online on Saturday night and was told I could pick them up at the station from the ticket machine before my trip. I didn’t anticipate the long queues at the machines when I arrived at Victoria Station, and I was surprised when I entered the station to find this was the station I remember from my travels 10 years ago. Back then I had spent some considerable time hunting for a rubbish bin in the station before finally asking a security person who told me they didn’t have bins there because of the risk of bombs being put in them! I didn’t have time to look and see if this was still the case, this time. 

Eventually after trying three different ticket machines, and then asking for help and being directed to a fourth, I finally got hold of my tickets, but I had missed my train. It was okay though as the ticket was valid all day, so I waited for the next train an hour later. I found it challenging to locate the right platform because the ticket doesn’t name the line or the end destination, so you need to know where your station is in relation to all the rest to find the appropriate platform. It didn’t help either that the helpdesk lady told me Eastbourne, when it turned out to be Ore that was the headline on the departures board. Ah well, I got there in the end with reasonable comfort except for the fact that the air conditioning was set at 10°c and the guy opposite me had a habit of shouting at thin air.

I'm guessing he was making a handsfree phone call, but still I find this habit of people to make handsfree calls on public transport quite disconcerting. They talk louder than they would if they were talking to the person next to them, and my first thought is they are a little special, or in this guys case maybe a violent crazy person, till you locate the tell tale wires travelling up to their headphones.

At last I reached my destination station – Polegate. From here there was a special bus for the weekend to take festival-goers to the castle. We drove through stereotype rural fields, and when nearer the castle drove through narrow little country roads made 'exciting' by the size of the bus…

The faire was similar in set up to ones in NZ, but much bigger. There were several living history encampments, a large field set up for jousting and other displays, a stage for performances, a huge area dedicated to children’s activities, and a large number of stalls selling re-enactment goods and stuff for the public. Being a skinflint I didn’t buy a programme, but once I saw the scale of the thing I went back and got one, as it would have been impossible to catch all the displays you wanted to without one.

One corner of the site. Merchant stalls and the arena.
The standard of the living history encampments was very high. The things of particular interest to me were the spectacle maker, the women making butter, the guy skinning pigs heads according to a 15thC instruction manual, and a guy tying rabbits feet to a string – a lucky rabbits foot. Eww… 

Making butter.
The spectacle maker.
Making lucky rabbits feet for the public.
There was a dancing group that drew my attention when I recognised the Horses Bransle, though it was being done in straight lines rather than a circle. They were quite friendly, and after a short while chatting to them I left with the card of a traditional Scandinavian instrument maker, with no intention of ever buying one.

There were also several bands playing around the site. One was a couple - the guy on bagpipes and the woman on a variety of percussion instruments. They were very good, although the limited instruments meant it started sounding very samey-samey after a short while.

The other group I am suspicious I have seen on Youtube. Mostly large drums and a couple of outdoor melody instruments, they played very loud and catchy music. I can't for the life of me remember the name of this piece, but I know I've played it a million times!

The highlight of the day for me though has to be the falconry display. It started with a short outing for a couple of old owls who needed the exercise, then several hunting birds being carried on handlers’ arms around the edge of the ring so we could see them. Two American hawks were brought out next, and were encouraged to fly from arm to stand and around the ring, being rewarded with little bits of food. 

The handler takes the bird around the arena.
The finale was a small grey bird that I think was a falcon or a kestrel. He was brought out and released to appropriately sweeping and majestic music. He flew around the ring a couple of times, not far about the heads of the audience, his circles taking him higher and higher, until eventually he flew out of sight behind the trees. The audience started to giggle as the bird teased his handler by flying in and out of vision, with no apparent intention to return. It became hard to tell him apart from the seagulls at that distance. After about 15 minutes he came back, and the handler used the lure he’d been swinging (I think it was a piece of chicken on a string with a few feathers to make it more visible) by letting is trail on the ground till the bird flew in to try and catch it. After a couple of these the bird became bored and flew away again. When at last he came near again, the handler took no chances and let the bird capture the lure right off. 

After the display I went around to what was termed the falconry static display. Here the birds were each tethered by their ankles to their own individual perches. I was in time to see them all being fed, with their choice of a dead mouse, duckling or chick. As you would expect from predatory birds they were all extremely vicious with their dinners, much to the dislike of some of the children watching. Sadly the name tags of each of the birds didn't come out in my photos, so I can't tell you what each bird is below. This doesn't make them any less awesome though.

Once the feeding was over they allowed the public to have a bird placed on their arm and have their photo taken. If I’d known that was possible I would have been there earlier in the day! I think I was the only adult in the queue, but I took my turn and was given a Ural owl to hold. She was quite a fluffy thing but lighter than expected for her size. Lighter than the chickens I think, though probably about the same size, if not a little bigger. She made a sort of coo-ing noise something like a chicken or a pigeon and seemed quite content to sit there and be admired.

This Ural owl sits happily on my arm.
Apparently owls are harder to train than the other birds because contrary to popular myth they are not particularly bright animals. Dumber than chickens, according to the handler. The handler also explained that only a small proportion of owls are actually nocturnal. We weren’t allowed to touch them, though they looked extremely pet-able. To have that many hands touching the owls’ feathers would strip them of their protective qualities and the poor things would get soaked through the next time it rained. 

It was nearly the end of the fair by this point, so I grabbed an over-priced pork bun (which had no apple sauce and was so dry and full of burnt bits I had to leave half of it) and a mediocre beer for dinner and headed back to the bus stop and my train home.


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