The Gloucester History Spring Festival is nearly upon us, and we have been very lucky for BBC journalist Vernon Harwood to write a piece for us all about what lies ahead. There is still time to book your tickets for what promises to be a fabulous event to start the season of British history festivals and if you can't make this one, the main event takes place in Gloucester from 2nd - 17th September.
There’s something very Monty Python about a fireplace that’s 20 feet above your head. Never mind the nagging questions about why it’s there and how on earth you light kindling wood at that height, the fact is that this bizarrely positioned fireplace is neither a Pythonesque practical joke nor an optical illusion. It’s the real - and surreal - sight which stops you in your tracks the first time you walk in to the medieval landmark that is Blackfriars Priory in the heart of Gloucester.
The thick stone walls, gothic windows and exposed pillars of these hallowed buildings clustered
round a courtyard garden are a superb relic of 13th century life in one of England’s great historic
cities. Above your head, even higher than the attention-seeking fireplace, is a magnificent scissor-
brace timber roof which Henry III put over the North Range with oak beams from the royal forests.
Even the name comes with a legend attached; it arose from the dark cloaks worn by the men who
lived and worshipped here - the black friars. So perhaps it’s no great surprise to discover that this is among the oldest surviving and best preserved Dominican priories in Britain. What’s more one part of the site, the ancient Scriptorium where the monks studied by candlelight, is the oldest standing purpose-built library in Northern Europe.
Yet for decades Blackfriars languished in the shadow of the city’s mighty cathedral and its bustling
Victorian dock; hidden from public view by newer buildings it was largely forgotten by the majority
of Gloucestrians. But come the 21st century a transformation took place with investment, renovation and just enough modernisation to bring this gem out of its cobwebbed isolation and make it a welcoming venue for modern visitors without destroying the unique heritage and incredible ambience. Most impressive of all, a floor-to-ceiling glass wall was installed which flooded the North Range with light in a way not seen for 700 years. Blackfriars emerged like the ugly duckling turned beautiful swan.
A fitting venue for history buffs to gather, you might think. And sure enough Blackfriars has become the perfect home for the Gloucester History Festival. Now firmly established in the annual calendar of not-to-be-missed events, the Blackfriars Talks are the vibrant centrepiece of a celebration of history, culture and ancestry which takes audiences on a journey down the centuries from the Ancients to the AI Age.
The whole idea sprang from a one-day BBC History Festival held across the city in August 2010 and staged to launch a nationwide education campaign called BBC Hands on History. A sunny Saturday packed with dozens of walks, talks, archive film shows and visiting historians was enough to convince any doubters that there was an untapped appetite for an annual feast of history and heritage in the city. Things moved quickly and just a year later, almost to the day, the first Gloucester History Festival opened, and it has grown in size, ambition and stature every year since.
The Festival has a knack of attracting some of the best-known and most-renowned historians, many of them acclaimed TV presenters; from the military specialist Dan Snow and classicist Mary Beard to royal expert Lucy Worsley and the BAFTA award-winning David Olusoga.
While that line up of authorities and academics brings a wealth of expertise, the guest-list can also be described as eclectic. This is a festival which revels in great story-telling and welcomes speakers from every quarter to share their discoveries about people and places. In the last few years the mix has included the former Beirut hostage Terry Waite, charismatic comedian Griff Rhys Jones, rock star Cerys Matthews, ex-war correspondent Kate Adie, the UK’s first black female history professor Olivette Otele, legendary photographer Vanley Burke and broadcasting royalty in the form of Jonathan Dimbleby. Add to that roll-call the cast and creators of the world’s longest running soap opera The Archers as well as the hit TV drama Call The Midwife, and you get some idea of the scale and scope.
This is a pivotal year for the Festival. Ambitious plans are underway for an impressive programme of events at the main Festival in early September when more than 200 talks, debates, tours and
exhibitions will take place in the space of just two weeks. A new innovation for 2023 is the Spring
Weekend in late April, a mini-festival in its own right and created to satisfy public demand for more events at other times of year. The Spring Weekend launches with appearances by big-hitters such as Professor Alice Roberts, Janina Ramirez and Greg Jenner who between them have millions of fans thanks to their television and radio programmes.
If Blackfriars provides an evocative backdrop to debate and discussion about the past, then Gloucester is the perfect host city. You might think the place is famous only for Double Gloucester cheese and the nursery rhyme Doctor Foster went to Gloucester… but they merely scratch the surface of the city’s rich and varied heritage.
Every guidebook ever written about Gloucester charts its beginnings as a Roman fortress, its transformation into a Roman city known as Glevum and how the modern street pattern dates back to those distant days almost 2,000 years ago. Less well-known is its role as a royal centre for the Saxons, a Norman stronghold, a besieged Civil War community and a seat of Victorian industry; the story of Gloucester is in so many ways the story of England and there’s pretty much universal agreement that if you can’t stage a history festival here, you can’t stage one anywhere.
William the Conqueror came to Gloucester for Christmas in 1085 to order his great survey of
England, the Domesday Book. The Norman cathedral is among the seven best cathedrals in the
entire world; Edward II is buried there and the boy-King Henry III was crowned within its walls. The
city streets ring with the names of its famous and infamous; Dick Whittington Lord Mayor of London, John Stafford Smith who wrote The Star-Spangled Banner, the great Warrior Queen Aethelflaed, the entertainer/composer Ivor Novello and the rich but miserly owner of the Gloucester Old Bank, Jemmy Wood, who inspired the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
More recently, Gloucester has started to celebrate one of its ‘forgotten’ heroines. Dorothy Wilding was the portrait photographer of choice for Hollywood stars and British royalty with studios in New York and London. It was her iconic photograph of a young Queen Elizabeth II which was used on millions of postage stamps from the 1950s to the early 1970s. Not to mention the ‘firsts’ which have put Gloucester on the map; the first Sunday School, the first jet flight, the first vacuum cleaner, and for a century or more the cathedral could boast of having the largest window in the world.
As for Blackfriars’ mysterious suspended fireplace, the explanation is simple enough. It’s a lonely
remnant of the 16th century when a timbered first floor provided upstairs accommodation and a
blazing log or two in the hearth was needed to warm the cold stone in the depths of an English
winter. A floating fireplace with a touch of the Flying Circus. John Cleese may well ask ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ but he’d need to come to the Gloucester History Festival for an answer.
The Gloucester History Festival Spring Weekend runs from 21st to 23rd April 2023.
The Main Autumn History Festival takes place from 2nd to 17th September 2023.
Book your tickets at https://www.gloucesterhistoryfestival.co.uk/
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