Stories Home

Stories Home Blog

… like David Beckham living down the lane …

Continuing a journey into Northamptonshire  …  considering involving young people  …

Three quarters of an hour later  -  after resting in the snug confines of the pub on the corner  …  resisting the combination of soft seats and local cider  -  and we set off again on a headlong, seemingly endless journey down narrow country lanes, through fields to our next point of research  -  Lyveden Newbield.  What on earth does that name mean, I’m thinking, as we pass hedgerows, typically British, I imagine, in the summer with humming bees and bright butterflies decorating a fragile wilderness of flowers and weeds but today overlain with the frosty edges of a wintry blast that has literally set the scene in white.  I’m peering through a fog of condensation as the glass on my front windscreen steams up  -  it’s starting to rain and the window wipers relentlessly resonate with the rasping squeak that denotes their age.  I’m momentarily distracted by a memorial plaque set into a roadside bank  -  flashes of flower white and poppy red are apparent  -  Carey Grant or some other Hollywood heavyweight was stationed down the road during wartime  -  what would he have made of Geddington, I think, and what would Geddington have made of him  … ?  Lucky locals to have been able to place a contemporary idol in their village setting  …  a bit like David Beckham living down the lane  …  tangible beyond the dream  …  a distraction from wartime privation.

A break in trees to the right reveals  -  down an endless stretch of English green bordered by trees, a perfectly proportioned grey white stately house.  A mental challenge to the lack of social equality it represents is justified by its striking presence in the landscape, enhanced by a picturesque lake.  It’s hard not to be affected by the impact, an architectural monument made to arrest the gaze, distracting all who pass, available to be admired  -  equally  -  but inaccessible to the majority as a place to live, attesting to the history of English wealth and title  …  but this is not our destination  -  that lies somewhat in the distance beyond the horizon of farmer’s fields.
 
The weather worsens as I filter a range of distractions interspersed with exchanged anecdotes, navigating to my companions directions  -  the weather, careering traffic, haphazard turns and twists and local landmarks pointed out in the unfamiliar setting  -  it seems a journey into the wilderness as well as into the history of national identity.  Stretches of cultivation are interspersed with tree copses and large over hanging hedgerows that fudge the sightline as I dodge the possibility of a head on collision.  Then, a sudden right turn onto a muddy verge and we are faced with a creaking, rusty and well padlocked gate.  ‘Is this the end?’ I’m thinking, but no, my travel companion leaps out to open it and I guide the vehicle over mud crevasses to the other side.  Then it is onward, up a slope and even further, sideways along it, the car crunching small rocks underneath and clinging to the tendrils of hedgerow grass and winter warped vegetation.  Next thing, our eyeview widens and, finally  …  we see it, Lyveden Newbield  -  there it stands as it has for decades  -  it’s an ancient folly  -  another stone building set into undulating fields.  Half finished, the same for centuries, unused for its original purpose, it’s completion interrupted by some sort of scandalous connection its owner  -  Thomas Tresham  -  had to that archetypical English version of treason  …  the Gunpowder Plot.

We locate a place to park but, sadly, the tangible presence of the building up ahead is not matched by the reassurance of being met  -  as promised  -  oh well, we clamber out and I’m immediately faced by the ridiculousness of wearing any sort of heels in such a landscape  -  a legacy from an earlier meeting.  Heads bowed against an icy blast we make our way over to the ‘field hut’, the forlorn bang of a half open gate the accompaniment.  The wooden building seems prepared for us but there is no one there so we decide to brave it and step out onto the tufted and now soggy grass to get closer to the grey stone monument.  Rising the height of three stories I’m told that local dancers recently paid tribute to imagined former occupants by performing in the bay above  -  drifting, wraith like between window arches.  We peer through iron barred crevasses and down stone shafts to sweeping grass covered spaces where the original architect, I imagine, would have dreamed a different type of dance accompanied by melodious minstrel instrumentation.  Carved stone etching  -  ancient graffiti  -  is testament to the dalliance of former lovers, holding its prosaic presence alongside the winged beasts and chevrons of medieval monumental engraving.

Still no sign of any sort of guide we become aware we have the site to ourselves and are scurried round the outside of the building by a ferocious wind meanwhile negotiating the sneaking presence of mini moat like dips and slopes.  I’m reliably told, however, that if it were possible to get inside and stand at the top, then views of the surrounding landscape would be exactly the same as at the time of its construction  -  a testament to the uncompromising vision and expertise of its architect  …  and to a type of unfathomable ‘sameness’  -  denoting a centuries long continuation.

We decide to explore further  -  as long as our endurance and the distraction of our discussion sustains us  -  the cold and it’s associated risk are our sure companions  …  I’m momentarily taken by what appears to be some sort of mound in the landscape, located in the centre of a small lake  -  surely originally intended to house stock for his lordship’s fish suppers, I think.  The trudge, trudge of our footsteps on the squashy turf follows us  -  we fight the howling gale that distorts our talk  …  then my companion hits on the perfect antidote to the modern day obsession with electronic gadgetry  …  what would it be like to bring some young people here and just ask them to sit and experience it  …  would it be viable, would it be possible  …  what would their response be  …  the starting point to our next investigation  …

 

Dancing on the Cross … with Eleanor

Today I am going to Northamptonshire, looking for links between the past  …  and young people  … 

I am driving to Geddington  …  using a route planner and one of those email conveyed lists of landmarks that make me a hazard to any passing motorist but I get there safely and, following my friend’s directions, turn right, as instructed, down a narrow lane flanked by cars parked either side.  Old stone homes overhang the street  …  the picturesque grey of weather worn buildings up ahead welcomes me in.  Past the pub on the corner and into the village, I’m struck by its most powerful monument, the Eleanor Cross  -  a marker to the enduring love a medieval monarch felt for his queen  …  incredible it has stayed upright all this time in between.  Originally one of several that marked the night stops of the entourage that carefully conveyed her body to its final resting place in London, it is now the best preserved of those few remaining  …  I cast a thought to the purpose of this visit and wonder how today’s young people would respond if Charles did the same for Camilla.  He was brave enough to expose his love to public scrutiny but surely such a chivalrous gesture remains in the past, I reflect  -  then remember the spectacle surrounding the death of Princess Diana.  Not so far removed from an ancient ‘royal progress’ in its ritualised generation of public emotion  -  that media massaged outpouring of grief was made accessible to all, young and old, via today’s technology.  Thoughts of the global ‘village’ as opposed to this local one come to mind.  I drive on up the street  -  then find my destination   …   a new cottage  …  built on old fields  …

We chat over hot soup then return on foot passing rain splattered graves in the local churchyard.  We peruse the heritage plaque placed perilously before it.  The church was once part of a hunting lodge, I am told, with barns and associated buildings around about  -  now dwellings  -  housing all that was needed to support the feudal overlord in his leisure pursuits.  I wonder what it would have been like to have been a peasant then  -  restricted by birth to a role ascribed through familial descent.  The access to a shift in social status would have been miserably hard to achieve (unless you were very lucky)  …  feudalism and religion provided the petty minutiae of a poor person’s lot in life.  We spend time inspecting the local landmark at close quarters  …  my friend tells me how it is now used for wedding blessings  -  her own included  …  and as the focal point for village celebrations  …  Morris dancers and Mummers come to mind  -  the Englishness of this particular spectacle resonates as I imagine white socked men with bunches of silver jangling bells festooning their ankles, flashing red ribbons in time, slamming hard boots down on the cobbled stones as many have done before them, creating an odd version of masculine camaraderie  -  unless you are initiated  -  calling out to the rhythmic accompaniment of accordion and fiddle, dispelling daytime roles as teachers and office workers.  The incongruity of such ancient tradition in a modern world strikes but the need to preserve it, however eccentric, itself wedges us securely in the stream of cultural identity.  After many years working in Leicester, famous for its mosaic of street vibrancy informed by the myriad jostling communities that share its confines, it appears as an isolated, even enclosed, attempt to keep things forever the same.  Then I recall the colourful traditions of those same migrant groups and how they themselves can transform open spaces with bright Jaganathas, drum beats and chiming bells  -  not so different after all  …

Our thoughts turn to young people and the ways in which they express themselves today  …  could the Morris rhythms equally as well as the Bangra beats transpose themselves to the pop charts  …  I consider  …  but thoughts of a reggae version of ‘Split the Willow’ are dismissed as soon as they arise  …

 

If you go there … you will know …

Today I am going to Belgrave Hall & Gardens in Leicester to meet an artist  -  part of research to do with engaging young people …

The hall and gardens on a summer day

 Belgrave Hall  …  overwhelmingly familiar as I used to work there as part of a project that also used Cross Corners  -  an arts centre that shares the same gardens.  We are to meet the community gardener  -  an ex colleague.  A scatter of memory touches my thoughts  -  the people I worked with, the events delivered then, the hall with its apparently resident ghost and the arts centre  -  riotous colour  -  children with clay damp fingers modelling copy artefacts, kites flying, saffron saris swirling down the central path, music jangling in my memory’s ear  -  and the cold  …  the hall is notorious for it …

…  the gardener takes us on a site tour  -  familiarity tinges sweet reminiscence  -  experiencing the place from a new point of view  …

 …  then reflection guides a corresponding journey  …  as we walk and talk people I knew from my time there arrive in my internal eye, companions to the older figures from the hall’s history that populate the gardener’s story  -  the original Victorian owners  -  and the sisters who lived here in Edwardian eccentricity and privilege.  Their silk skirts rustle in my imagination as our own modern clothes brush the hedgerows.  Images of these ancient characters appear as stern, still presences in my memory like in a Victorian photograph  -  their energy sepia still and soundless.  Their beady contemplation of our visit is the accompaniment to a sound patchwork  -  the familiar talk of my former comrades.  Muffled by memory I feel their presence in my imagination  …  my views of the paths, the seats, the lawns  -  as they appear today  -  are overlain with translucent images from the past and my emotions warmed by the energy they created then and pass to me now via the conduit of recall.  Those that shared the site in different climes join the journey  -  summer crafts in the sunshine, balancing tea trays for visiting VIPS, erecting tents for a cold, cramped winter’s craft fair with mulled wine and christingles to warm us  …  and the pleasure of company  -  Turkish coffee and talking. 
 
We enter the banana house  …  musty, warm smelling  …  dusky  -  overhung with panda paw sized leaves  … transporting us momentarily to ‘the tropics’, that mystical standard bearer to the age of exploration.  Two ancient mulberries take us  -  in the imagination  -  to spaces filled with the daring do of 1950s children’s fiction.  Fallen kumquats  -  and rescued yellow pear like quince  -  add to a sense of finding out for the first time.  I collect autumn leaves encouraged by the artistic engagement of my new colleague as stone work and brick work surround us, laden with a patina of lichen  …  and the still values of former residents.
 
If you go there, you will know that the hall exists like an oasis of Victoriana on the edge of the vibrant community that surrounds Loughborough Road.  Seeking solace from persecution  -  or economic privation, in flight from the warmer outposts of ‘Empire’  -  people travelled here from India, Kenya and Uganda as well as Pakistan and the Punjab starting in the early twentieth century  -  settling in the surrounding streets, becoming workers at the nearby factories until they closed down, meanwhile establishing the thriving business centre that is the ‘Golden Mile’.  Now notorious for its shops, restaurants and the world famous Diwali lights, the identity of this old house appears adrift alongside, a historical conscience bearer to the reasons for that migration.  The evidence of ‘Empire’ is now not only present in the Paisley design of curtains  -  itself an import from ‘the Orient’  -  but vibrantly and pressingly apparent  …  just outside its walls. 
 
Trading function to that of a museum, an aspic like preservation of old values and craftsmanship appears in the room sets  …  the kitchen, the hallway, the children’s nursery, the ladies sitting room, the gentleman’s study, the ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ mentality.  A shrine to the style of an outmoded generation, it maintains as a draw for learning  …  scurrying primary school children in coal dusted aprons carrying huge buckets of water leap from my memory bank  …  or that type of Austenesque nostalgia that makes costume dramas popular.  I remember verbal attack from an irate former visitor perturbed that the room sets had undergone any sort of re interpretation.  ‘But where are all the old rooms?!  Have they preserved them ..?’ she harangued me with startling insistence in the garden.  It was upsetting she felt that the wood and cloth mannequins with their lifeless puppet eyes that had previously populated the displays to make them more ‘realistic’ was preferable to a contemporary interpretation that included  -  then  -  sculptures reflecting themes from the atmosphere or decoration  …

…  thinking of it like that makes me aware of the hall’s grand isolation  -  a fall out from its original function  …

…  how on earth would it be possible to get young people in here?

 

Bob Marley in the window next door …

 

Today I’m going to a Muslim community association.  I’ve never been there before or knew it existed  -  even though I used to live only a few streets away.  White walled Victorian villas back up the streets of red brick terraces.  I stop around the corner to waste five minutes and acclimatise.  It is pouring and dull.  Driving down the road I think I’ll be thwarted in an attempt to park  ..  there are back to back vehicles crushing the contracted road space already narrowed by bollards denoting dead ends.  I pass a suitable spot just as I see the arched entrance to the centre  -  a converted building on a corner with, surprisingly, Bob Marley posters in the windows next door. 
 
I’d been invited to meet two speaking and listening groups  -  for people who have come to England for whatever reason  -  to escape persecution, to join family, for economic prosperity, for education  -  their journeys have brought them here, to Leicester and they are learning the language with the local college.  My visit is on behalf of Leicester City Arts & Museums Services.  I have the aim to make links with incoming communities and to invite them to the museum  -  so carry with me assorted world objects to start a conversation.
 
I brave the teeming rain to make my way in, happy to have parked safely.  A small secluded reception houses three quiet looking men  -  I wonder what they think of my arrival as I introduce my reason for visiting  -  but they seem to be expecting me and one leads me to the purpose built lift.  Going up reveals what appears to be an endless array of learning spaces, carpeted, with chatter creating an atmosphere.  Arriving at floor two I step straight into the classroom and am greeted by the teacher who has been my link in  -  she is smiling and she welcomes me to where about eighteen students are concentrating on their latest exercise.  Already surprised by the maze like extent of the building on the inside I am invited to make myself at home and a chair is brought over  -  the students gaze  ..  grinning.
 
In a few minutes the teacher stops what they are doing and a cumbersome shuffle shifts the furniture placing me in the centre on one side of a semi circle.  Slightly nervous to be faced by such a large group  -  both men and women and a range of ages  -  I wonder what they might think of me, could I assume the necessary balance of friendliness and formality that is appropriate to the purpose of my visit?  At the same time, personally, I feel excited to be saying ‘hello’ to them  -  their welcome is tangible although, so far, unvoiced.  I start by introducing myself, clasping my bag of objects for security, then go with it, asking each to introduce themselves and to tell me their country of origin.  Iran, Kurdistan, Brazil, Somalia, Portugal, Pakistan, Morocco, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India and  ..  Sweden  -  it seems amazing that there were so many ‘tales to tell’, so many stories of migration in one small space hidden away on a backstreet that carries a different type of history located in its architecture.  While listening my mind’s eye recollects the presence of other nearby cultural centres, the Hare Krishna Temple and the Jewish Synagogue are both within about a quarter of a mile  -  one a peaceful presence of about 100 years, the other located there no more than a decade ago.  I wonder about their journeys and what has motivated their migration to Leicester, to the Midlands, to England, UK.  Was this really a better option  -  what contrasts might there be to the familiar surroundings of their origin  -  what expectations were shifted in order to meet the raw reality of having to throw away normality to seek a different type of security?
 
The group seem thrilled by the objects I’ve brought  -  none of which seem to link to their own cultural identities, but that doesn’t matter, and the simple guessing game they generate is energised.  We share the delights of an Australasian totem, a Sri Lankan lacquered pot, a Japanese Noh theatre mask and a Buddhist prayer book in which the holy sayings are jotted on bark pages before I am ushered away to meet another group.  On my return, they have taken out their own ‘objects of identity’ and I am thrilled in return …

 

About this Sponsor

Content to follow...

css.php