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Suffolk People, Talking to….

…….A Dandy Fop and His Lady Friend

A visit to Kentwell Hall in Long Melford is a visit to another world. At various times throughout the year, you can walk through the gates and step back in time to different periods in our history: WWII, Georgian, Victorian or Tudor and find yourself immersed in the sights, smells and sounds of that era.

Kentwell is well known for staging historical re-creations, which Judith and Patrick Phillips have been organising since the 1970s, when they embarked on their huge, ongoing project of restoring the 15th century Tudor mansion. The ‘participants’, the people who adopt a well-researched persona of the relevant period and make history come alive, are all volunteers and we caught up with two of them: Clive and Anne Foden, also known as the charming dandy fop Edward ‘Ned’ Fortescue and his lady friend Isabella ‘Bel’, who entertain the crowds with their cheeky ballads and street theatre.

What do you both do at Kentwell?

Bel: Each group of participants are known as a ‘station’.There are all sorts of stations, from dairy maids to Gentry. Our station is made up of strolling players; slightly talented vagabonds who roam the country, singing and ‘entertaining’ in return for food, coin or shelter. We travel with our ‘good sister’, Honour, and generally at Kentwell we stick together, singing and playing music, sometimes performing a play. Over a year we do about five long weekends.

Kentwell Hall, Long Melford

What made you get involved with the re-creations at Kentwell and how long have you been doing them?

Ned: In real life I’m a teacher and some time ago, I brought a class of children to Kentwell. As requested in the brief for teachers, I got dressed up, but what I didn’t realise was that most teachers didn’t make themselves quite as elaborate a costume as I did! I fell in love with the place; the way people made things, the smells, the colours of costumes and the way people moved in them. A participant, stepping momentarily out of role, suggested I apply to join in – that was in 1996 and the rest, as they say, is history!

Bel: I started in 1996 too. I was visiting Lavenham with friends and we wandered into the Tourist Information Centre where I saw a leaflet about Kentwell. I knew instantly that I wanted to take part, and in a way it was the thing I had been searching for without really realising it.

It sounds as if you first met at Kentwell?

Ned: How did you guess! Yes, we met and got together at Kentwell, as many of the participants do….

What characters to you play?

Ned: As a Tudor I’ve always been a bit scummy! I’ve been a cooper (someone who makes wooden vessels, such as buckets and barrels), an instrument maker and best of all, a player. The Georgian character is completely different: Edward Fortescue is the son of a printer who made quite a bit of money by selling ballads very cheaply, but in huge quantities. He’s got friends in the theatre and is in touch with the latest styles and fashions in music, politics and society. He’s married, but Mrs Fortescue stays in London…

Bel: In Tudor role, I have only been ‘middle class’ once, and I hated it! Being edgy and a free – if somewhat poor – spirit is far more natural to me. I was a low player for my first event and apart from a brief stint at peddling, it’s what I have always done. My role as Edward’s female ‘friend’ is basically the same but with more money; I portray an actress who now has her ‘gentleman friend’ to take care of her!

How do people respond to you when you are in character; do they try to draw you back into the modern day?

Ned: Some do and we’ve had some classic encounters such as the time when one woman said to her husband, who had been trying, without luck, to find out how we became participants: “Bill, come away! You’ll never break them.”

Bel: Some just keep their distance, and prefer not to engage with us at all. Others enter into the spirit of it and take it very seriously; we have some wonderful interactions. Then there are those determined to try and catch us out.

What’s your ‘most memorable moment’ relating to your time at Kentwell?

Ned: My best was when I visited as a teacher. We were walking around the ‘Barnsward’ when it started to rain. One of the pupils, a streetwise,11 year old lad from the East End, who was with me, said: “Sir, do you think it’s raining in our time?” It really is that magical for school parties!

Bel: There have been so many, both ‘on screen’ and ‘off’, as we often have a laugh socialising in the evenings. Each station has a duty while at Kentwell, such as tidying rubbish, or helping with meals. One evening, the Players were on supper clearing duty. We were in the kitchen washing up, and a few of us began a rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. By the end, lots of other people had joined in, all singing at the tops of their voices and really going for it. It was hilarious. Another wonderful ‘public’ moment was when Honour, Ned and I went into the great kitchen to entertain the cooks after they had prepared the Gentry dinner. Honour was playing her pipe and we got all the visitors and kitchen staff banging pots and spoons in accompaniment. It was quite magical.

How far do you have to travel to volunteer at Kentwell?

Ned: We’re from over the border in Norfolk, so it’s not too far a trip. Some of our participant friends come from Cornwall and Scotland.

I can imagine that being a participant at Kentwell, is like being in a playground for history buffs. What is it that you enjoy most about being there?

Ned: The other participants are just the best people! They’re knowledgeable, helpful, generous, eccentric, passionate and just plain fun. I also love being able to become another person for a short time.

Bel: Wearing a costume that began life as fabric and thread, which I have created myself, and love wearing. Being with some of my best friends who all share my enthusiasm and passion. Knowing that our children are having the best time outdoors, being physical and learning life skills they could never learn in a classroom, or from a computer!

How historically accurate are the re-creations; do you do your own research to make the characters and activities as real as possible?

Nel: Authenticity is a really contentious issue: just how far do you take it? We’re far healthier and rather stouter than we would have been in Tudor times. We don’t really drink ale instead of water and our (publicly eaten) midday meal is about as authentic as we could make it, given that our vegetables are quite different from those that would have been cooked and eaten. Costume is rigorously checked by an expert and most of us hand sew them (at least where it shows). As for roles, a lot of research is done by us but passed by Patrick Philips, the owner of Kentwell Hall.

Bel: The way we speak is as authentic as we can make it. The equipment we use has usually been made by someone who specialises in things for re-enactors such as knives, spindles and so on, using wood authentic to that time. Research is obviously important as we need to know who was who and what was what!

Which era is your favourite?

Ned: Georgian without a doubt! English society has emerged from the rigours of the Commonwealth, modern issues such as consumerism, capitalism and the class system are coming to the fore. Music and theatre are world class and men’s clothes are simply gorgeous. There are a lot of well documented issues to talk about, and the songs we can sing are very good and some are very rude! I also get to wear make-up.

Bel: Yes, I prefer playing the role of a Georgian in terms of re-enactment. The clothes are fabulous, and the feel of the era appeals to me more than the Tudor age,which seems to have been far less flamboyant socially.

If you could step into a time machine and try out that era for real, who would you be?

Ned: I’d probably try Edward’s life for about six months. He is so different from me and living in London in 1730 would have had access to all those things which made London so vibrant. I’d have to take a modern first aid kit with me and probably some insect repellant too; fleas and lice were endemic!

Bel: No way would I want to be a dirt poor player in Elizabethan England for any amount of time in real life! Life was extremely violent and cruel back then. I could possibly be tempted to be Georgian for about a week, as I would quite like to tread the boards in the theatre as Isabella did – before she took up with Mr Fortescue.

Which three words would you use to sum up the Kentwell experience for visitors?

Ned: Fun, educational, sensual.

Bel: Hands-on, quirky, memorable.

Which three things do you like most about working in Suffolk?

Ned: It’s close to Norfolk(!) has great countryside and is historic without being twee or precious.

Most fun fact about yourselves?

Bel: I am very good at making up songs at short notice, and re-writing naughty words to existing songs!

Ned: ask Bel!

What’s your philosophy on life?

Ned: Love, laugh, sing.

Bel: If you can’t be happy with what you’ve got, how could you be happy with more?

 

Kentwell Hall is open to the public for much of the year and the main re-enactment events take place during the summer. Also on offer, is open air theatre, opera, concerts and a major Halloween event, ‘Scaresville’ in the autumn. Visit www.kentwell.co.uk for further details.

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Written by Mark



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