We were very lucky yesterday to see a performance by Croxley Mummers. A Mummers’ play is a long standing English tradition of amateur actors performing short plays, often associated with Morris dancing, at festivals, events, pubs or even people’s homes.
Traditionally there are two opponents having a fight, and the doctor character revives the fallen opponent by way of a magic potion.
Mummers’ plays are usually tied up with traditional celebrations, like Christmas, Easter or Halloween. Our event fell between St.George’s Day and May Day, so it was fitting that the play featured St.George. In the case of our Mummers, St.George slew not only the dragon, but also a Turkish Knight and a giant!
In early German the word ‘mummer’ meant a ‘disguised person’, and our mummers featured striking costumes and masks, the Dragon even spotting a bit of fairy lights after having been revived!
Through the ages mummers were mostly men, but now women take part as well, and we had ‘the Queen of Sheba’ rewarding St.George with her ‘favours’.
The earliest references to mummers plays come from mid 18th century. Folk traditions grow and change with the times, and mummers are no exception. The rhyming couplets verse included the references to Trump and Brexit, and very skilfully it was done, too!
As Lilia and I wondered around the Shrewsbury museum, we heard a song playing from a little room adjacent to a passageway, and went to investigate.
This is the song, shown on a screen there, with the story of the Admiral Benbow song on the walls –
Lilia instantly remembered that Admiral Benbow was the name of the fictional inn, featured at the start of R.L.Stevenson’s Treasure Island, although it was situated on the Penzance coast, rather a long way from land-locked Shrewsbury.
It turns out, Admiral Benbow was a native of Shrewsbury, and quite a character.
Born in 1653 in Shrewsbury, John Benbow joined the navy at 25. This was a great time to be at sea – with Britain ‘ruling the waves’, both with merchant navy and the military fleet.
Captain Benbow commanded several ships in the Nine Years War against France (end of 17c), and fought the French in the West Indies during the War of the Spanish Succession (beginning of 18c), as well as fighting against pirates and serving in the merchant navy. By 1701 he became an admiral.
Benbow comes across as an outspoken and brave character, and his exploits at sea earned him public notoriety. It was his last action that cemented his reputation and put his name on a few pub signs across England.
In 1702 he commanded several ships that fought the French off the coast of South America. Three captains refused to follow his orders to pursue enemy ships, while Benbow continued to command the battle, despite his leg being fractured by a shot. When the fleet returned to England, Benbow had the captains arrested and court-martialled.
He lived long enough to see them punished, but died soon afterwards, likely from the infection of his leg wound. Admiral Benbow is buried in Jamaica, but there’s a monument to him in St.Mary’s Church in Shrewsbury, paid for by public subscription, commemorating “a skillful and daring seaman whose heroic exploits long rendered him the boast of the British Navy and still point him out as the Nelson of his times.”
And, of course, a pub or two, and the song.
Come all you seamen bold
and draw near, and draw near,
Come all you seamen bold and draw near.
It’s of an Admiral’s fame,
O brave Benbow was his name,
How he fought all on the main,
you shall hear, you shall hear.
Brave Benbow he set sail
For to fight, for to fight
Brave Benbow he set sail for to fight.
Brave Benbow he set sail
with a fine and pleasant gale
But his captains they turn’d tail
in a fright, in a fright.
Says Kirby unto Wade:
We will run, we will run
Says Kirby unto Wade, we will run.
For I value no disgrace,
nor the losing of my place,
But the enemy I won’t face,
nor his guns, nor his guns.
The Ruby and Benbow
fought the French, fought the french
The Ruby and Benbow fought the French.
They fought them up and down,
till the blood came trickling down,
Till the blood came trickling down
where they lay, where they lay.
Brave Benbow lost his legs
by chain shot, by chain shot
Brave Benbow lost his legs by chain shot.
Brave Benbow lost his legs,
And all on his stumps he begs,
Fight on my English lads,
‘Tis our lot, ’tis our lot.
The surgeon dress’d his wounds,
Cries Benbow, cries Benbow
The surgeon dress’d his wounds, cries Benbow.
Let a cradle now in haste,
on the quarterdeck be placed
That the enemy I may face
‘Til I die, ‘Til I die.
Ralph Vaughn Williams used this song as part of his arrangement of sea shanties for the English Folk Song Suite.
One of Benbow’s sons, also called John, followed his father in the navy, briefly serving with him, and then sailing with a merchant ship, when he was captured on Madagascar and later on wrote one of the first descriptions of this island.
Wikipedia gives us an interesting ‘Russian Connection’ –
Benbow signed a three-year lease on Sayes Court in June 1696, a house belonging to diarist John Evelyn. Six months later, Evelyn wrote to a friend complaining, “I have let my house to Captain Benbow, and have the mortification of seeing everyday much of my former labours and expenses there impairing for want of a more polite tenant.” In January 1698, Tsar Peter of Russia arrived in London to study British shipbuilding and seamanship. He and his entourage were provided with Sayes Court to reside in during their stay by William III. The Russians spent three months in London before leaving to tour the country. Benbow promptly asked for reparations from the Treasury, in order to be able to reimburse Evelyn and recover his own losses. He complained that the Russians had caused considerable damage to his house, with “much of the furniture broke, lost or destroyed”.Christopher Wren was instructed to survey the property and declared it “entirely ruined”. Benbow lost “twenty fine paintings” and “several fine draughts and other designs relating to the Sea” from his personal property. The Treasury eventually allowed payment of £350 9s. 6d. in compensation
Shrewsbury is an ancient market town in Shropshire, about 3 hours drive from London. Its streets were quiet and relaxing, when we visited on Easter Sunday.
During the Roman occupation, this area was an important centre, with many Roman finds now on show at the local history museum, which is now in an old Music Hall building.
The history of Shrewsbury goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, when it was the capital of the kingdom of Powys.
Being only 9 miles (14 km) from the Welsh border, it has seen many a conflict between the Welsh and the English, as testified by the Norman Castle, built in 11th century. The Shrewsbury Abbey was built around the same time, and closed by Henry VIII in 1540.
The town flourished in the middle ages, with Shropshire’s booming wool trade, and the river Severn and Watling Street being major trading routes.
The River Severn is the longest in the UK and the greatest in terms of water flow in England and Wales. Looking quite and serene today, it has presented the local area with flooding problems in the last 20 years.
Local soldier and statesman Robert Clive was Shrewsbury’s MP from 1762 until his death in 1774. Clive also served once as the town’s mayor in 1762. Known as Clive of India, he was instrumental in establishing British control in that country. Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury on 12 February 1809. He went to Shrewsbury school and spent his formative years studying wild life here.
The industrial revolution largely by-passed Shrewsbury, as it was at some distance from large manufacturing centres or ports, and it suffered little during the Second World War – resulting in the town largely preserving its medieval street plan, with 660 listed buildings.
George Martin is an enigmatic figure for Beatles fans. Our favourite group’s meteoric rise to the heights of popularity and creativity is well documented, and everyone knows about George Martin’s role as a producer of Beatles records. But do we really know what kind of person was he? Where did he come from and what qualities did he possess to be the force behind putting the Beatles’ creative talent on record? With those questions in mind, I started on Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin, the Early Years, 1926-1966 by Kenneth Womack.
To some extent, the book does give an insight into George’s life, particularly before his occupation as a Beatles producer. Despite his posh accent and demeanour in later life, George’s parents struggled to make a decent living during the depression of the 1930s, and the life of his family during his young years was far from well off, or even comfortable. George was a capable and conscientious learner, and his firm footing in independent life started with training and later serving in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm during the latter part of the Second World War and the after war years.
I was curious to learn that George had a perfect pitch, and played the piano a lot, mostly by ear, without much formal training. This held him back, in terms of a career in music, until he did a course in piano and oboe at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
It is also interesting to note that George did not contemplate a career in music production, but it so happened that shortly after graduating from Guildhall, he received an offer of a job as an assistant at EMI’s Parlophone Records, later progressing to be its head. George developed a solid reputation as a producer of novelty and comic records, working with the such leading entertainers as Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan.
Defining the role of a record producer, as we know it today, was not an easy road for George. Looking up to successful producers of the day, George had been aspiring to find a pop hit group for a good while, until he met the Beatles – and the rest is history.
Up to this moment in the book I found it really fascinating, as I did not know much about George’s life until then. His early years’ struggles, his first love and marriage, his ambitious aspirations and dreams – this brings the mysterious figure of George Martin closer to me. I am, however, cautious to trust the author’s descriptions of George’s feelings, which seem to be particularly numerous in the beginning of the book, – this is an autobiography, and can you really put other people’s feelings on paper accurately, if you are not the person experiencing them yourself, even if you studied all the primary sources? It does bring the story to life, but does it gives an accurate picture? Only George could tell that, and he is no longer with us…
The Beatle years of George’s life have been so well documented that any self respecting Beatles fan would have no trouble finding out how many takes of She Loves You were made, what day of the week the recording session of I Want To Hold Your Hand was, or what instruments were used on a particular take of In My Life.
Kenneth Womack does give us a detailed account of George’s contribution to the Beatles’ creative process, and some glimpses into George’s life outside the Beatles at this time. However, for me, this does not build as much of a picture of George during those years as in his early life. George comes through as a man of high principles and great honesty, both in his dealings with his artists, as well as with his employers at EMI, who failed to properly recognise his contribution to Parlophone’s success and never recompensed him fairly. Whether George’s working relationship was based on mutual trust and respect, as in the case of Brian and the Beatles, or had a few clashes along the way, like with Dick Lester, his creativity and a firm grasp on always came through.
The book leads us – rather quickly, I thought – through the array of other artists that George worked with, as well as his composing and arranging achievements.
The book ends with the story of how George’s own company AIR came about, and his hopes and aspirations for it going into the future in 1966. All we need now is the second volume to complete the picture.
The little village of Cheddar gives its name to the world famous cheese and a spectacular gorge and caves that cuts through Mendip Hills in Somerset.
Over a million years ago, during cold periods, the permafrost stopped water seeping through limestone, and when it got warmer, the water flowed on the surface and cut a gorge, which is currently 137 deep at its lowest point. Then it got even warmer, and water flowed through limestone, forming spectacular caves. 40,000 years ago ancient people lived in the caves, leaving for us faint traces of their lives.
This was the home of the Mesolithic Cheddar Man, who lived 9,000 years ago. This is the oldest complete human skeleton found in Britain (discovered in 1903). The original bones are in the Natural History Museum, but a spectacular reconstruction is on display in Gough’s Cave, the main tourist attraction in Cheddar Gorge.
Although the smaller cave was discovered in 1837, the larger Gough’s Cave was dug up from debris at the end of 19th century by Richard Cox Gough. He opened it to the public, installing electrical lighting in 1899. The cave is full of enchanting nooks and crannies, spectacular caves with limestone deposit formations, some bats, stalactites and stalagmites, and, of course, the world famous cheese, which is being matured in the cave at the constant temperature of 11C throughout the year.
A small part of the cave, featuring the most spectacular chambers and rock formations is open to the public. The whole system stretches for over 2,000 meters, to the depth of 90 metres, and is largely inaccessible due to flooding by Cheddar Yeo – the largest underground river system in Britain, which floods the caves from time to time.
Stalactites (hanging from the top) and stalagmites (growing upwards) are deposits of water soluble limestone, and the way they are displayed in pools of water, creating magical reflections, is the most theatrical aspect of the visit to the caves.
Having got there in the afternoon, we did not manage to visit the whole complex – the smaller cave with an audio/video experience or the climb to the viewing platform at the top, – so definitely worth a return visit.
As you wander around Pound Lane, between Willesden Bus Garage and Roundwood Park, you cannot fail to see people dressed all in white going in and out of the imposing building of Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University.
They go there to teach and to learn how to live a spiritual life of meditation, peace and happiness.
Brahma Kumaris is a religious movement (although they see themselves more of a teaching group – hence ‘university’ in the name) started in mid1930s in the Indian city of Hyderabad (now in Pakistan). A prosperous jeweller Dada Lekhraj Kripalani had a series of visions and began teaching his understanding of the world and spiritual experiences to a group of followers. The group took the name of Om Mandali, – from them chanting ‘Om’.
The teachings of Brahma Baba, as he became affectionately known, elevated the role of women as bringers of peace and tranquillity. ‘Brahma Kumaris’ translates from Sanskrit as ‘daughters of Brahma”. The managing committee consisted of 8 women. Women were given respect and the power of choice of their life – whether to get married or have sex, even within marriage. Moreover, people from any caste were allowed to join. This was an outrageous challenge to the patriarchal and stratified Indian society, full of tensions in the last decade of British colonial rule.
Pressure and persecution drove the fast growing community to move first to Karachi in 1938, then to Mount Abu in Rajasthan in 1950, where the organisation has its headquarters now.
With its roots in Hinduism, BK believe that a person has a body and a soul, the latter entering the body at birth in order to experience life in physical form. The soul is intrinsically good, the goodness coming directly from God. The mundane attributes of the body, such as status, race, nationality, religion or gender impede this goodness. The world will be a better place if we follow the culture of soul consciousness through meditation, which purifies the mind and paves the way for a better life in the present and the soul’s next incarnation.
BK see God as a ‘Supreme Soul’ embodying all virtues of the world, and his role is the spiritual awakening of humanity leading to the banishment of all sorrow, evil and negativity.
The BK Pound Lane building is one of over 40 teaching centres around the UK, and part of a network of over 100 BK centres around the world. 80% of followers are women, and many centres are in people’s home. A novice is offered a course of 7 lectures on BK teachings and meditation and is expected to attend meditation sessions and adhere to BK concepts. Many followers choose to adhere to some, rather than all of those principles: celibacy, vegetarianism, abstaining from alcohol, tobacco and non-prescription drugs, meditation at 4 am, a daily class at 6.30 am.
BK’s teachings are open to members, and also for anyone willing to learn positive thinking, self management leadership and living values courses.
White dress is not obligatory, but is regarded as a colour of choice symbolising purity.
BK Spiritual University is not just about teaching meditation – in it became affiliated to the United Nations. It provides consultation services to the UN Economic and Social Council and UNICEFF, as well as taking part in UN’s International Peace initiative, Climate Change and Global Co-operation for a better World campaigns, with a permanent office in New York for this work.
BK put their ideas for a better world into practice. Their headquarters at Mount Abu are powered by the world’s largest solar thermal power plant. They run a local hospital there, providing free healthcare to one of the most impoverished areas in India.
In a programme backed by Indian government and university research, BK are teaching meditation to Indian farmers – and to crops, – researching how meditation can improve crop yields.
Back at home in the UK, BK do not charge for their services, asking for donations instead. Every year they put on a Christmas family performance, showcasing general human values, such as honesty, respect for others, love and forgiveness. This is free, and makes a great alternative to your usual bawdy panto.
By the good fortune of Lilia’s music talent, we took part in the Open Day in the Yehudi Menuhin school in the village of Stoke d’Abernon in Surrey on 24 October 2017.
In some respect, this is a typical English boarding school, but it is also a unique hub of music making, and a place steeped in history.
A couple of Victorian houses, now extended and complemented by modern buildings, stand amidst beautiful grounds in a typical English countryside setting. Founded in London in 1963 with only 15 pupils, the school moved to its present location a year later. Now it has 80 superbly talented young people being taught and looked after by 50 members of staff.
Yehudi Menuhin was an amazing musician – and just as amazing person. A violinist since the age of 4, by 7 he was performing as a soloist with a symphony orchestra in America. Yehudi’s parents were Belorussian Jews, who emigrated to the New World. His family later went to Europe, and Yehudi eventually settled in Britain, becoming a British citizen. He travelled and performed all over the world, pushing the boundaries of violin performance, as well as what classical music should be in a modern society, receiving an honorary knighthood in 1965. Menuhin’s name lives on through festivals, music schools, foundations and projects, music books, specially written or commissioned works, collaboration with such luminaries as the sitar legend Ravi Shankar, jazz virtuoso Stephane Grappelli and Sir Edward Elgar and countless musicians and composers who had good fortune to work with the great master.
Menuhin said that he had an affinity with young people, because he felt so youthful himself. When he died in 1999, he was buried in school grounds. As we were being shown around, we felt his spirit living through the ethos of the school, with pupils talking about him with love and respect.
To become a student of the school one needs to fulfil only two criteria – to be between 8 and 19 years old, and have an exceptional musical talent and a dedication to become the best performer in the world in their instrument – any type of strings, including guitars and harp, or the piano. Most students are boarders, only a handful come as a day pupils. With the school fees in excess of £40,000 a year, they have generous provision in grants as means tested bursaries, so if a child has talent, money is not a barrier.
The entrance is by auditions, the final round of which is a three day stay at the school to see how he or she fits into the school life. They are looking for the natural talent, and also the ability to perform in public. Even to qualify for an audition, the child needs to reach a performance standard on their instrument, and a perfect pitch certainly helps!
Once in, the pupil’s life revolves around music, which is the main subject at school. Personal tuition is supplemented by a generous curriculum of music theory, history of music, composition, ensembles and practice sessions.
A swimming pool and fitness sessions ensure that the young performers stay in good form for their rigorous music making.
We were shown around by a young lady studying violin, who was ecstatic about her instrument and life at school. At the end of the tour we were directed to the theatre for the student performances. She forgot to show us one block, though – where they do their academic studies – completely slipped her mind! We did a quick tour of this and saw nicely equipped classes for the core academic subjects. The class sizes vary, the largest has 15 pupils, and the smallest – current year 6 – only 4. This is because they only take the pupils who fulfill all their criteria, and if on a certain year there aren’t many of those, they do not fill the class, – also, they are restricted by the number of boarding places.
The school’s website talks about the high standards of academic education, but it seemed that in practice this is very much an afterthought to music, judging from the attitude of the pupils and the fact that academics were not even mentioned in the introductory talk by the headmaster. This may not be a bad thing – if you are going to the Menuhin school, it means you dedicate 100% of your life to music, and the school helps you to reach the horizons of excellence that only they can open in front of you!
The weekend of 1 -2 July 2017 saw the little Norfolk Town of Sheringham bustling with folk dance performances.
It all started in the 1990s, when the local Morris Dance group the Sheringham Lobster Potties started an annual festival with just a few visiting sides (a Morris dance group is called a ‘side’).
The Lobster Potties started in the 1980s and performed the traditional Norfolk Morris style around the UK and Europe. They chose the Lobster Pub as their headquarters, and as Morris dancing is considered by some as ‘potty’, the choice of the name was obvious!
In 2013 the Lobster Potties disbanded due to the lack of dancers, but a committee was formed to run the festival.
This 24th festival featured 40 folk dance sides, showcasing different styles and parts of the country in many locations around the town. The festivities kicked off on the Saturday morning with a parade of all the sides dancing through the town, with the captive audience lining up the streets.
Then groups moved from one location to another, each side taking it in turn to dance.
The festival culminated in the mass show in the main arena – the square in the town centre, with all the sides performing one dance for the final time.
The sea side town of Sheringham lies in the middle of Norfolk coastline. Its story is typical for hundreds of coastal towns around the British shores. It is likely that there was a little fishing village there in the Anglo-Saxon times, and when the Vikings came to settle here in 900s, they gave it their own name – meaning ‘The Ham of Scira’s people”. Scira might have been their leader in battle.
Viking longboats, perfect for the rough North Sea, proved excellent for fishing, and for the next few hundred years Sheringham fisherman built their own fleet of sturdy open broad boats, pointed at both ends, for catching grab, lobster and whelk. A community of blacksmiths, fish merchant, rope and sail makers and other tradesmen grow steadily, culminating in about 200 boats working on the beach here by the beginning of the 20th century. Bigger boats, manned by up to 12 people, sailed as far as Iceland. Fisherman’s wives and daughters were closely involved in the family business, ‘dressing’ crabs, mending sails and ropes.
The arrival of railways in 1887 boosted the fishing industry, enabling Sheringham fisherman to become major suppliers of crabs and lobsters to the London fish market.
At the time Sheringham was served by two railway lines, The Midland and Great Northern from the West and the Great Eastern from the East, making it possible to get to London in just over 3 hours (not much change there this is how long it took us to drive from London last weekend!). This gave rise to the new industry in Sheringham, which gradually replaced its fishing – the holiday makers paradise.
Today it is a perfect location for a family sea-side holiday, with picturesque walks in the nearby Sheringham park, run by National Trust, cliff walks, Blue Flag pebble beach with multi-coloured beach huts on the promenade.
A number of festivals are held throughout the year, including our special favourite Potty Morris and Folk Festival.
The town’s history is celebrated in the Mo Museum, which tells the story of the local fishing and shipbuilding industries, historic life boats and the life of its people through the ages, as well as a geology section, featuring 1.5 million year old elephant bones, found locally among the fossils. The museum incorporates Sheringham Shoal Wind Farm Visitor Centre – you can see the wind mills going round far away in the sea on a clear day.
Most of Sheringham’s houses come from the end of 19th/beginning of 20th century and many are decorated with flint, found in abundance on the local beaches.
Sheringham does not have a harbour, so the boats have to be dragged on and off the beach. This also means that the coastline is vulnarable to the rough weather and erosion, so in the 1970s the coastline was re-inforced to strengthen the coastline in front of the town: a concrete sea wall was built, which also serves as a promenade, and a series of groynes, reinforced at the base with huge blocks of natural stone.
Sheringham’s claim to fame:
Sheringham shares with Great Yarouth the dubious claim to fame of being the first in England to be bombed by the German Zeppelins during World War I – and incendiary bomb hit a cottage in Jordan’s Yard, Windham Street in the evening of 19th January 1915. It did not explode, so no one was killed. The second bomb, dropped in Priory Road, did not cause any fatalities either.
English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams first visited Sheringham in 1905, when he was visiting Norfolk collecting folk songs. He wrote down a couple of tunes – from a railway worker and at a local pub. In 1919 Vaughn Williams and his wife lived briefly at Martincross, a large house on The Boulevard, where he wrote his Sea Symphony.
As a summer holiday resort at the turn of the last century, Sheringham attracted polar explorers Scott and Shackleton, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who based The Hound of the Baskervilles on the legend of North Norfolk’s ghostly hound, Black Shuck.