Our visits in 2013 included the Chester Mystery Plays in July, a visit to Bosworth in August and a guided tour around Lichfield including the Cathedral library - a special treat!
In May we had an extra trip to Leicester to visit the Richard III exhibition being held in the Guildhall, have lunch and meet up with members of the Notts and Derby Group. Here is Penny's account.
In the end, it was just Val and me. We had a really good day though - it didn't even rain! Val's train from Stafford arrived before mine, so we met up in a very nice Italian style restaurant, where Val had already made herself comfortable, in window seat with a glass of wine.
Never having been to Leicester before, I contacted the tourist office, whose services I can thoroughly recommend; they provided generously with maps and brochures and other helpful information.
I had hoped that visiting the exhibition would provide an opportunity to see the guildhall itself, a very fine medieval building which would perhaps have made an excellent setting but though the exhibition was in the guildhall, it was not in the main hall but rather tucked away, sort of round the back and if the room in which the exhibition was displayed had any medieval architecture, it was not on show.
We had been concerned that there might be long queues but there was no queue at all when we got there, though it was pretty crowded inside. We spotted but were unable to stop and chat to, the Notts and Derby group. Although there were a fair number of visitors I think part of the reason it was so crowded was that the space allotted to the exhibition was rather small and felt cramped.
The Head was immediately on the left as we entered which rather reduced any impact it might otherwise have had: you saw it in profile, moved around the rest of the exhibition and came back towards it on the way out.
The exhibition itself did not tell us anything that we didn't already know from seeing the Channel 4 documentary. There was an interactive device which allowed you to virtually "dig up" archeological finds which was quite fun. The focus, we thought was very much on the achievements of Leicester University and though these were of course considerable and Leicester understandably eager to promote its university, we felt that there might have been a little more generosity towards other contributers. For instance, we did not see any reference to John Ashdown Hill's work (though his book, "The Last Days..." was one of those on sale in the lobby.)
Armed with our maps and following a hint from the Notts and Derby, we then made our way over to the Jewry Wall, actually Roman and quite impressive (see pics) and where there is also a museum concentrating on Leicester's earlier history,
including some lovely Roman frescos and mosaics which had been carefully moved and reconstructed there.
Then, the Castle gardens, where the statue to R III is. This we decided wasn't quite right. The figure holding aloft a circlet crown made us think more of Sir William Stanley, reputedly finding Richard's crown under a thorn bush. Not much castle of course but the gardens are very pretty and quite extensive. We walked
through to the other side and then made our way back towards the station via the very attractive New Walk - new, we thought, in the Regency period.
With a bit of time before our trains back we found ourselves a cup of tea in "The Last Plantagenet": only a Wetherspoons pub but it was near the station and the sign outside carried the familiar portrait of Richard III. They had some information about him inside, including a board listing the string of murders of which he is traditionally accused and pointing out for each one, the lack of historical evidence for Richard's guilt: Anne was not murdered at all; Edward IV was responsible in the cases of Henry VI and George Duke of Clarence and so on. So they passed muster on their Ricardian history - and the tea wasn't bad.
We both agreed we wouldn't fancy attempting to drive into Leicester but going by train worked really well.
CHESTER MEDIEVAL MYSTERY PLAYS
This was a lovely first outing for our group.
Drummers outside the cathedral were lending a festive atmosphere to the day. They would turn out to be a very effective part of the music. Inside, rows of chairs packed into the nave (rather tightly for the longer legged) looked onto a set, erected two levels high, in the transept.
Whatever we were expecting, perhaps solemnity and sorrow, what we got was unexpected and quite stunning: a musical, using for the most part the original 15th century text, set to jazz and swing and proving that it can work brilliantly. The constant movement of the cast in revelry scenes was well done, building tension and excitement and a feeling of borderline mayhem.
The production had taken on the notion of plays within a play. These were guild performers, using the tools of their trade as props, their costumes an improvised mix of biblical and mid 20th century working clothes; opening with the painters and decorators' guild who used a tall stepladder for God's throne; at times an element of deliberate clumsiness. There were so many highlights in this production, which had us an emotional rollercoaster from start to finish. A teenage Adam and Eve, still in their school uniforms, young and vulnerable to temptation. The Noah play, initially a bit bewildering, opening as it did in a pub, a Gracie Fields style singer emerging from a group of overdressed women, to get us joining in singing, "There was a jolly miller once lived on the river Dee"* made sense when we found that these were Noah's wife's "gossips". Children wearing papier maché animal heads going into the ark, the "tigers" snarling and clawing at the audience. The first act ended with the slaughter of the innocents. Fine comic performances from a Herod who out Heroded Herod and Mrs Herod, wonderfully overplayed. Then the silent grief of the women of Bethlehem carrying their dead babies, Coventry Carol being sung in the background, "Lully lullay, thou little tiny child" then the bundles released to become the flags of countries which have suffered opression and the death of their children, had some of us gulping back tears as we stood to stretch our legs in the interval.
The second act included outside shots, filmed in the precincts of Chester: a Palm Sunday procession, a street preacher and Christ's encounters with vagrants, cripples and a prostitute, 21st century passers by looking on, curiously. The pathos and drama of the Crucifixion was overwheming, some of the audience were in tears. The final scene, tremendous when the day of Judgement came to a debauched Chester Races. "It's Race Day in Chester" a show stopping number in every sense.
Francis Tucker, was a marvellously seductive Lucifer but the outstanding performance was Nicholas Fry as God. Redemption history is the central theme of all Mystery Cycles. Nicholas Fry showed us a humane and hurting God; betrayed by Lucifer; disobeyed by Adam and Eve; repeatedly trying to cleanse, redeem, and save humanity from itself; grieving over Lucifer even as he casts him into eternal hell. Moving and memorable.
To bring Divinity, first shown to the medieval masses through the medium of stained glass and coloured scupture, to human performance was a step towards the dignity of man, no matter how undignified that man might in himself appear. These plays belonged to the people, in this case the people of Chester, The players caught that atmosphere. There were 400 volunteers altogether involved in the production, 300 of them in the cast. Community theatre at its best.
*Chester is on the river Dee.
** Here is a link to Chester Mystery Plays website where a DVD of this production is now available.
OUTING TO LICHFIELD or:
WYCLIFF ANDTHE LOCK-PICKING VERGER
After a damp and misty start, the day was clearing by the time we gathered at the magnificant west front of Lichfield cathedral where we met our excellent guide, Pat. Her knowledge of the cathedral and its history was inexhaustible. The cathedral had suffered badly from the excesses of the Puritans and much of its present appearance is due to the restoration work carried out by the Victorians. However, unlike many churches which have suffered from Victorian "improvements", their work at Lichfield was sensitive, concentrating on putting it back to the way it had been and where possible installing or re-using items which had survived from the earlier period. The sedillae in the chancel being a case in point. Impressive too was the high altar, designed by Gilbert Scott, and constructed from different coloured types of stone, all from within Lichfield diocese.
Then came our tour of library. We clambered up the spiral staircase to assemble on the landing above with great anticipation, only for Pat to find that the lock had jammed on the library door. While a colleague went to fetch one of the vergers, Pat told us something of the history of the library which had also suffered the depradations of the Puritans but to which, over the intervening years, precious books had been restored. Help soon arrived in the form of Fiona, the verger, who demonstrated unexpected talents by picking the lock with aid of a small knife, otherwise used for paring candles! Apparently it wasn't the first time the library lock had jammed and the Chapter house lock could also be unco-operative. The varied duties of a cathedral verger!
Once inside we found that, knowing our interests, several of the cathedral's treasured medieval books had been laid out for us to see, among them a thirteenth century Justinian Codex, beautifully illuminated and further decorated with exquisite and amusing marginalia and a 1408 "luxury edition" of the Wycliff bible, made for a person of high status, probably such a one as Richard III possessed. Pat proved as knowledgeable about the books as she was about the fabric of the cathedral and introduced them to us.
We were then taken back downstairs, where Pat left us to enjoy the exhibition which contained, among other treasures, a carved Saxon angel and items from the Staffordshire hoard.
We all felt that we could have spent longer exploring the cathedral, in the light of what Pat had told us but lunch was beckoning and so with keen appetites, we repaired to the George Hotel for an excellent carvery. The afternoon had been left open to explore the many further delights of the historic city but somehow, we lingered over lunch and got talking over coffee and the next thing we knew it was four o'clock! Only one thing for it: we will have to go back again to Lichfield.