If one is interested in experiencing how people lived in Anglo-Saxon England, a trip to Lincolnshire might offer some unique insights. In the village of East Firsby a reconstruction of the 7th-century home has been built by Steven and Jude Jones. Based on archaeological evidence and built with traditional tools, Saxonhouse is an attempt to show how ordinary people lived and worked during the Early Middle Ages.
Saxonhouse is open to visitors, where Steven and Jude, both teachers, talk about daily medieval life as well as the history of England during the Middle Ages. They appear in costume and have a wide assortment of equipment and goods replicated from the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods.
We interviewed Jude Jones about their work on the Saxonhouse:
1. How did you come up with the idea of recreating an early medieval homestead?
Both of us were/are passionate about history, though Steve teaches Art and I teach English. We are particularly, though not solely, interested in early history. This has meant lots of reading, watching documentaries and dragging both of our boys round interesting sites when they were children! (Both grown up now.)
Steve, and then the rest of the family, had taken up the longbow and had learned to fletch arrows. For a while we went to mediaeval places/events and did demos of fletching, archery and other skills. We eventually decided that we had rather have our own place with more control over accuracy etc. Meanwhile Steve had been itching to build something anyway – he is a practical man. The decision was made to build a Saxon house. Having 4 acres of land ourselves meant we had the wherewithal to do this.
2. What challenges were there in actually building this site and maintaining its historical accuracy?
This question raises several points.
Challenges. a) The challenge of finding the time! We were both teaching full time. Contrary to beliefs about ‘finishing at 4 and long holidays’ this actually meant working every night, most weekends and much of the holiday on preparation and marking and spending much time on school productions etc. However when holidays arrived Steve (and myself when I could) would be up at the site processing and building. Steve devoted hours, days, weeks to this.
b) Materials. We were quite lucky here. Forest Enterprise supported the project by delivering whole oak trunks to the site – then ash for the roof frames.
c) Methods. The building was constructed by Steve with hand tools using methods appropriate to the time/building. The oak trunks were split with wedges. Axes were used to process the wood. Other hand tools were used for smaller scale processes. Occasionally we would look at a picture of a tool discovered by archaeologists in ‘hoards’ and labelled ‘unknown use’ and think : yes, we know what that would be useful for! An invaluable help and support during the building process was Pat Delap, an expert woodsman, who, whilst not an historian, is the most skilful axeman. He and his wife, Annie, an expert plantswoman, who added to our collection of native plants around the wildlife pond we established on the site, were very grounded, practical and supportive.
Historical accuracy – Steve was in frequent contact with Damien Goodburn, who was working on the Thames embankment where Saxon timbers were turning up in revetments: obviously this was extremely exciting as timbers of this period, with their information about carpentry techniques, had been unavailable previously. He was sketching what was found and sending these drawings to us. Sometimes what was drawn was unclear to both sender and receiver, but when construction was underway the import of what was drawn became clear. It is in building something that methods become clearer. Damien also visited to see how progress was being made. When the building was nearing completion, another Saxon period expert, Kevin Leahy, under whom the Saxon digs in North Lincolnshire took place (which our elder son and I had been lucky enough to have been able to join in with years earlier) came to visit. He was very complimentary about the building and made a few suggestions (eg a gravel floor covering) which Steve implemented.
Artefacts – weapons, tools, household goods – have been sourced from many places and are both as accurate as possible and functional. Steve is also skilled as a potter and my brother in law turns bowls so we are lucky to have a good supply of those. Costumes have been made for us by a knowledgeable and skilled costume maker, Pauline Loven of Orchard House, who creates costumes for museums.
3. The Saxonhouse caters to school groups – what kind of educational experience do you offer?
No – we used to have day visits from junior schools, in which we would take the pupils back in time and teach them about the lives of men and women and also do sessions on pottery, language and drama. These were both very successful (we had lovely responses from the pupils and teachers). However teachers had started being discouraged from bringing just one class of pupils at a time; school managers wanted whole year group visits of 120+, which was impossible in a building of our size. We decided to discontinue offering this service but we are available to go into schools, in costume and with artefacts etc to teach about the period.
4. What other events can you hold on this site?
When the insurance cover for the site doubled, – and there was no way we were going to cover that in entrance fees whilst only opening at weekends – we decided not to open at weekends either. However, we were contacted last year by various history/ archaeology/ even gardening (!) groups who were very keen to visit. As we really want to share the Saxonhouse with others, we now allow such groups to come on the understanding that they come as ‘friends’, not as customers, and that they do so with the responsibility for their own safety; we ask them to sign a disclaimer. We are having a lovely time doing this and meeting some extremely interested and interesting people! Many are kind enough to leave donations towards maintaining the site.
Saxonhouse has also been used for filming. It was one of the locations used by Crows Eye Films/ Wagscreen for their short film illustrating the Luttrell Psalter, which was produced for museum services. Although this is set in the 14th century, the building still looked the part. The garden and interior were also used for another museum film about Gilbertine monks! Last year another film short ‘Northmen’ was also filmed here. All these experiences are great fun. We tend to get roped in to act as extras and in one case as horse wrangler!
The author Pauline Sabin Moore, who writes about the Saxon period visited last month. The Saxonhouse project certainly introduces us to new friends.
We also have big bonfires and many friends up at Saxonhouse at Samhain – and also on the eve and morning of Dawn Chorus day in May each year.
As you can see, although Saxonhouse is semi-retired, as indeed we now are, it is still giving people much use and pleasure.
If anyone would like to visit Saxonhouse as an individual, family or group they should telephone us and we’ll arrange a day.
For more information on the Saxonhouse, please visit their website at http://www.saxonhouse.co.uk/