My Life in a Nutshell
I have always loved the countryside, trees, plants and fresh air.
I spent my childhood walking with my family in bluebell woods, riding a bike, or better still, riding a horse.
Both my parents are fantastic storytellers.
When my Father was away at sea he'd send tapes home to my brother and I, telling us the exciting Adventures of Sinbad.
My Mother could always paint a magical picture of the Land of the Fairies at the bottom of our garden. My nieces childhood was spent entranced, watching the old cat Sam hoping they too could see the fairies riding round the apple trees on his back!
I'm a firm believer that storytelling in all its' forms, folklore, fairy stories, reading it, making it up, must be kept alive. It's so important to our imaginations and therefore to our creativity.
I can't say that my love of gardening was apparent in childhood, or that I loved my "greens"; but in my adult years both have taken on great importance, as I'm a vegetarian and organic gardener.
More recently I trained and worked in the education department of the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, near Chichester.
I specialized in Medieval and Tudor Rural Life, taking school groups round the 50 acre site; showing them the rare breed farm animals, the hedging, fencing, coppiced woodland, and explaining food production and life in general 500-600 years ago.
From seeing the Southdown sheep to looking at wool and linen production, and clothing of Medieval and Tudor times. Getting the children involved with "carding" the wool, finger-spinning, and even using the Great Wheel, or a drop spindle. A look at the way they coloured their clothes from flowers, roots and fruits, to "fixing" the dyes with stale urine!
The plants in the garden grown for dyeing, often had other uses. A walk in one of the period gardens would yield food crops of white carrots, onions, leeks, lettuce and worts, alexanders, skirrets and a mass of herbs and "edible weeds". On to the kitchen to make a simple dish over the open fire.
Certain herbs and plants would then be taken to the Apothecary's Shop to learn about the medical practioners of the time. Doctors that bled you and "only" put leeches on the weak; barber/surgeons who did amputations on the battlefields without anaesthetic, and cut your hair during peacetime; the monks and their physic gardens, the apothecaries who made the medicines, and the herbwife, who probably knew the most, and tended the villagers. Making pomander beads with the children in a restored period house, just as an apothecary would have done for the well-off, to finish a day that was a feast for every sense, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
As the education department moved onto new ground and into the Stuart era, so I did the reseach for the lesson on The Plague, it's symptons, "preventions" and "cures".
The most rewarding days were those given over to children with special educational needs. The wonder at the animals, the effort put into every task, the tears of joy of the teachers hearing a boy talk for the first time when a huge shire horse bent down and gently nuzzled him in his wheelchair.
Such special memories.
And now I've left the Museum, has it finished?
I'm as passionate as ever about history!
I'm as passionate as ever about getting young people interested in history!
I'm passionate about the power of "hands-on" history as a way of learning (when was the last time you read a manual from cover to cover before trying your new gadget?) and enthusing people of all ages!
And I'm passionate about saving our history!
Since leaving the Museum I've done talks and demonstrations of all kinds on Medieval and Tudor history.
I've done the Apothecary talk and demonstration, with Jennifer (we always were the Woods and Walters of the Museum, Jennifer has the Walters acting ability, and I have an early Woods figure!), to a full church hall, followed by a three course Tudor supper that some of the parishoners cooked from authentic recipes I provided. This was done in aid of the Restoration Fund for St Mary's Church, the little church at Portchester Castle, nr Portsmouth. English Heritage may look after the Castle but it's the parishoners who are trying to stop a church built in the 1120's from falling down!
I've gone west and given talks and demonstrations in Somerset, and spent several days in Kent, to the east, at a Pupil Referal Unit involved in a Medieval History Week!
Working in the pru only strengthened my belief that many children learn well this way. The Headmistress said that with all the "hands-on" work the behaviour had improved immensely, aggression levels went down, and pupils were learning as different senses were being triggered. Many came to my apothecary session from making marchpane decorations, and they were recognising the smell of the rosewater and clove powder they had put into the marzipan.
I've taken 30+ children and their families, in two groups, on a walk in a country park. We looked at the wild flowers and trees, and I told stories about them from folklore and Greek mythology, and explained their medicinal uses. We then made comfrey ointment and finished by making pomander beads. For two hours children as young as 5 concentrated, listened and made; no-one was "bored", no-one fidgeted, and everyone went away happy.
I'd love to enthuse the world with the little knowledge I have about the things that interest me, but I can't get round everyone.
Therefore it's up to every teacher, parent, group leader and Brown Owl - and there are Apothecary Kits as far from the South Coast as Cheshire with a Brown Owl! - to do this work.
I promise that you will enjoy bring history to life!
I hear, I forget.
I see (and hear), I remember.
I (see, hear and) do, I understand.
I must say a big thank you to all at the
Weald and Downland Open Air Museum
West Sussex PO18 0EU
Tel: - 01243 811363
Firstly a huge thank you to Diane Walker, my friend and education officer, who gently drew me into volunteering and taught me so much, and inspired so many!
Thanks to the directors, Gail and Richard, who not only employed me, but entrusted the running of the education dept to Chris, Dawn and myself. They listened to new ideas and encouraged us novices to believe in ourselves.
Thanks to Sue Deniz, an education officer who was a joy to work with. Another champion of days for special needs children.
Thanks to all the wonderful, knowledgeable people I've learned so much from.
Nobody knows more about rural history than Jon Roberts, a joy to listen to, and a very inspiring teacher for young and old alike.
I became a stalker, following Bob Holman, the historic gardener, round. A fascinating countryman, full of good advice on the garden, knowledgeable about the history of the vegetables, plants, remedies, way of life, and folklore. Forever patient with my constant questions.
Thanks to the rest of the friendly staff who made working there feel like belonging to a big family.
The chances that were given to all volunteers, and staff, to attend courses going on at the museum. We were always encouraged to add to our knowledge.
Last, but not least, as they say, the volunteers. There can't be a more friendly, well-informed bunch anywhere. All willing to share their expertise with a novice.
I have learned so much from all these people, but still know so little compared to most of them.
Without them this website wouldn't be in existence.
I dedicate this website to the late David Sheen. I met him on my first day at the Museum, on a course run by Christina Stapeley, A Millenium of Herbs. Even Tina, with her vast knowledge would consult with David from time to time during the day. A wonderful, retire gentleman, quietly spoken, and polite. David lived for his family and justice. He was a kind and generous man in every way. Not only did I learn a tremendous amount about Tudor rural life, and medicines in particular, from David, but I learned a lot about life.
The world would be a better place if we had a few more David Sheens'.
The Museum is well worth a visit for anyone living, or visiting, the Chichester area.