PUBLISHED 09 May 2022
Eating raw turnips, huddling around a tiny fire for warmth, dim candlelight barely illuminating rudimentary homes which have been knocked up cheaply on muddy fields from basic materials: no, this is not the recession biting in modern ‘starter-homes’ on out-of-town estates, but the everyday life of the medieval peasant. We were going to Tatton Hall to find out about it first-hand from some real 14th century countryfolk (actually, they were just actors dressed up, but let us not part the curtain on the magic!).
On Tuesday, Year 7 accompanied by five staff, left school for a day out to Cheshire to discover by means of lectures, hands-on experience, and sensory discovery what it was like to subsist on a mediaeval farm and manor house in an age where wild boars roamed the woods and, in winter, people slept like bears nearly all day to preserve resources.
First of all, Mrs Ames arranged us all into two buses. Two of the members of staff selflessly volunteered to accompany the smaller of the coaches. Under their expert tutelage, the children talked happily in respectful, muted tones; discussing such civilised topics as chess moves, Greek dancing, the new season at Tate Modern, how to iron lace collars, and church flower-arranging. Mind you, I’m only guessing here. I was on board the larger bus. We discovered later that the drivers had been specially allocated for their roles – our larger bus being steered by a man who confessed that he was partially deaf.
Alighting from our mismatched charabancs, we were put into groups of five and proceeded to enjoy a carousel led by knowledgeable guides who took us flailing and winnowing in an A-frame barn where we learned to separate the wheat from the chaff, the role of the ‘threshold’ of a door, the existence of an un-paned ‘owl window’ and that graded grains made finer flour, suitable for the lord of the manor. Later, we learned of wattle-and-daub houses, how to weave a hazel twig frame and why walls were so malodorous (the mud and clay was mixed with readily available animal product to provide the ‘cement’).
In the lord of the manor’s banqueting hall, we saw wild boar skins, bows and arrows and learned that only the lord had a chair: all the other guests sat on stools – hence ‘the Chairman’ of ‘the Board’ (since the table was only a board on trestles). We sat in thought – pondering on the deprivation of the era, the difficulties of finding nutrition in winter, the paucity of resources. Then we trooped off to the benches for our school packed lunch.
Our afternoon session told us about wool-gathering (ironically everyone listened very keenly to this), and we attempted rudimentary spinning. In another room, another ‘peasant lady’ showed us deerskins and leather items of medieval times, which we could touch. Soon it was time to go, and we were treated to the beautiful sight of the fallow and roe deer of Tatton Hall grazing happily with the sheep on the enormous acres of the grounds.
We in the large coach were delighted to hear - via WhatsApp - from the small coach that their tired children were mainly dozing quietly as we headed up the M6. Mrs. Ames told me about that – although I struggled to hear her. Making it back to school just in time for home-time, we all had reasons to be thankful that we didn’t live in an era of candles, dangerous mammals, and yearly baths, but instead had comfortable homes to return to. Year 7 enjoyed their away-day on the medieval farm which really brought home the atmosphere of the Plantagenet era.
D E Smyth