Tudor history comes to life at Kentwell

You don't have to be Dr Who to travel back in time - hundreds of people descend on rural Suffolk each year to live as Tudors.

Steven Russell

You don't have to be Dr Who to travel back in time - hundreds of people descend on rural Suffolk each year to live as Tudors. A film captures a magical summer at the UK's oldest and largest historical re-creation. Steven Russell reports

IT'S 1578 and alchemist Dr Robert arranges odd-looking wares on a rough-hewn bench outside his woodland shack. With expressive eyes, long hair and greying beard he's very much the man obsessed with turning base metal into gold and concocting a life-prolonging elixir.

The gates of Kentwell Hall have yet to open to the public, so he's able to step out of role for a moment and explain why he likes coming here and living as a Tudor.

You may also want to watch:

“Playing in Patrick's back garden is like being a child again,” he says, eyes twinkling. “You can be happy, set fire to things, blow this up - do what you want!”

Patrick Phillips is the man who, with wife Judith, owns the centuries-old house and 40-odd acres in Long Melford. Each year hundreds of people from different walks of life come to immerse themselves in 16th Century life. Some have been coming back for nearly 30 years. They bake bread, weave, make butter, dance, paint, shoot arrows, sew, play instruments, make merry, and much more - all in authentic Tudor fashion.

Most Read

Modern speech is replaced by a kind of readily-understood 16th Century lingo with vocabulary such as mayhap, thine, thou and yonder. “Tudorese”, smiles Sue Kirkby - a partner in a legal practice and known at Kentwell as Anne Claxton - or, as someone once quipped, “Desperanto”.

For some, it's all a little too convincing. A boy was once so concerned that he was never going to see his real home again that he had to be shown a modern plastic cup to ease his anxiety.

Re-creations began in 1979 and attract thousands of visitors. Some weekends revive the spirit of World War II, but it's the Tudor period that dominates the Kentwell calendar.

The essence of 16th Century England, Suffolk style, has been captured in a documentary film, Living with the Tudors, beautifully shot over three summer weeks in 2006.

It opens with the voice of Patrick Phillips explaining that one of the notions behind Kentwell is a fundamental belief that society is losing its way; the re-creations try to show people the past really does matter.

Later he cocks an ear and points out the sounds of a dog barking in the distance, and the banging of manual labour. These make him feel all is well with the world. In comparison, the discordant symphony of modern life is the drone of cars and planes.

Ninya Mikhaila was a teenager in the late '80s, when her mother noticed an advert in The Guardian inviting people to live as Tudors. Home-schooled, Ninya says she did a lot of growing up in Suffolk.

“I always used to feel this odd mixture before I came to events at Kentwell, from the age of 13 upwards. I'd have this weird mixture of excitement, anticipation and almost fear as well - anxiety.

“I'd always do the whole event - so I'd do three weeks, and even four weeks a couple of years - and I always knew that by the time I came out the other side of the event I would feel a really different person.

“And I definitely have experienced some of my high points and absolute low points at Kentwell, and I think that's true of a lot of participants. It can be quite transforming.”

She adds: “It's been a big part of my life and it's influenced my career. I wouldn't have been a professional costumier in a million years had I not come to Kentwell.”

Tamsin Lewis studied violin at the Florence Conservatoire before reading classics and Italian at Oxford. She was 23 when she tasted the Tudor experience for the first time. She arrived after graduating from university, not really knowing what life held or which direction to take. Kentwell proved something of a sanctuary and there's still a sense of that for the musician, composer and historical consultant, who plays the violin, viols, lute and harp.

Local lad Danny McSweeney, 14 when the film was made, is another star of the production. He loves Kentwell, “my home from home”. He's been coming for four years but his dad still laughs about the codpiece . . . Danny can't wait to get to the hall after school each afternoon and admits that while he does his share of chores as Tudor page Riece Clopton, he doesn't do the washing-up at home.

There are many poignant and touching moments. Danny reveals that the previous year he wrote a note to a girl to ask her out - a billet doux in the form of a sonnet. “She said no, in a nice way.”

Living with the Tudors is the brainchild of artists Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie, born in 1968 and 1970 respectively, who studied together at Edinburgh College of Art and completed MAs in London. Their creative organisation Somewhere was born in 2001.

It's their second feature-length film and no-one can say they don't know their subject. The artists initially enrolled as re-creationists, like anyone else, and spent time at Kentwell over three years, often capturing the flavour by using pinhole photographs, video diaries and footage from tiny cameras buried in their costumes.

They took the roles of limners Ann and Mary - artists who paint miniature portraits.

At the end of 2005 they won a BBC/Arts Council England commission to share some of their work through a website and blog. Then, in 2006, filming was made possible with support from the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Channel Four British Documentary Foundation and Arts Council England.

The aim “was just to try to show the complexity of it, and also I think a lot of people think of re-creators and say 'Oh god, they're just nerds' or whatever . . . if you come out of the film thinking that, it will have failed, in a way,” explains Nina.

“It's partly about winning the audience over enough and making them relax into the film and really think about what it means to the characters and what it's like to be in that bubble.

“A traditional TV approach is that you would also see them going around Tesco with their trolley, or in their home, but we took a very deliberate decision that we would not leave Kentwell, so you're very much immersed in it.”

She suspects the public think the re-creators are all super-mad history enthusiasts. “I'm not saying they're not interested in history, but I think for a lot of people it's not their top motivation for going there.” The major reasons are probably the chance to do something different and a powerful emotional bond.

“All the people have a very evident love for Kentwell as a place and are quite emotional about returning. There's a real camaraderie: an 'it's tough but we love it' kind of thing.

“They can do their own thing but under this kind of loose control of Patrick and Judith running it, and somehow it works. They manage every day to operate together in this very coherent way.”

Patrick Phillips himself says he can't think of anywhere he's likely to be more contented, and rarely leaves Kentwell these days.

As a young lawyer he'd seen the hall in an advert in Country Life in the summer of 1970, neglected and unwanted, and was so smitten that he told his room-mate he was going to buy it. It was then a wreck, but the family worked to bring it back to life.

He and Judith were on holiday in the Balearics when they came across a manor house that had people in costume: a potter, a lady at a loom and so on. The Phillipses thought that was something they could do in Suffolk, only with more variety and interaction. A dream was born.

Judith wryly says they had to do something with the hall or they'd have gone bankrupt. Nearly three decades after the first event, re-creations are sill being enjoyed by visitors and participants alike.

While many of the 1578/2006 participants were happy to be involved in the film, a number were uncomfortable with the presence of the small team of cameraman, soundman, production manager and the limners-cum-filmmakers.

A scene shows the pair opening a letter explaining that some of the 400 or so re-creationists are a bit nervous and seek fresh assurances no-one will appear unless they've agreed to it, and that footage will appear nowhere other than in the film.

Karen feels the anxiety is caused by the project bringing “the threat of analysis”.

Nina tells the EADT: “A lot of people have come to escape real life, effectively. They don't want to have that disturbed in any way. A lot of people spend their only three weeks' holiday of the year at Kentwell, and they're obviously very protective of that.

“Some people were quite upset about us filming, but some of the main characters really enjoyed it. Some of them had been going most of their adult lives, so for someone to come in and probe them about what that meant I think was interesting for them.”

Before she made her bow, what had Nina thought she'd find in Suffolk?

“I think I'd only seen Civil War re-enactments and battle-based ones. Kentwell's very different to those. When you first go, what strikes you is the amount of hands-on craft work.” People have made their own authentic clothes, “and if you see someone making something out of wood, you know they're really doing it”.

She and Karen didn't realise how difficult it was to produce garments. “The first time we went, we thought it was going to take two weeks and it took something like two months! Karen lives up in Cumbria and I went up there for four days for a kind of lock-in and I think we managed to cut out one bit of one costume . . . and it was wrong!”

It also wasn't easy to maintain authentic dialogue, either. “It's quite panic-inducing at the beginning when people ask you questions and you've no idea what the answer is. I found the language really difficult to start with, and a number of times Karen or I would come out with something really confidently and the other person would start sniggering!”

There's also a lovely picture on the web site of the artists off-duty, and well away from public gaze, enjoying a very 21st Century biscuit and packet of crisps. “It shows how appealing non-Tudor food can seem after a couple of weeks!” laughs Nina.

Would she return?

“In all honesty, I don't think I would go back now. But that's not because I don't think it's a really fantastic experience for people; it's more that a lot of the things people go there for, I get out of making films. I get that real immersion in a different world every time I go and make a film about somebody. At Kentwell, they're dropped into another space, basically, and allowed to do something very different to what they do in everyday life.”

Oxford, Texas . . . Haverhill

WHILE Living with the Tudors has just been released on DVD, it made its public bow a year ago at the BritDoc Festival in Oxford. It also enjoyed a US premiere at the SXSW film festival in Austin, Texas. The Kentwell Hall experience is seen as the gold standard of re-creation among American enthusiasts, says Nina.

The film was recently aired at Haverhill Arts Centre, where the screening was attended by many of the Kentwell re-creationists - in Tudor garb, naturally.

Nina confesses: “Karen and I were too nervous to sit through the actual showing and went for the obligatory Somewhere regional curry. Fortunately we returned to the sound of much applause for the film as the credits rolled and there seemed to be a general good vibe to the evening.”

It's hoped a limited cinema release can be arranged. In the meantime, DVDs can be bought via www.sodapictures.myshopify.com for £14.99.

Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie's first full-length film was Bata-ville: We are not afraid of the future. It's a bittersweet record of a coach trip to the origins of entrepreneur Tomas Bata's shoe empire in the Czech Republic. Former employees of the now-closed UK factories in south Essex and Cumbria went on a journey that began as a holiday but became a chance to reflect on what Bata's maxim “We are not afraid of the future” means for them in 21st Century Britain.

Web link: www.somewhere.org.uk

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter