by member Andy Bates
In December 2022 I embarked on a tour of Northumberland first schools, in which I delivered workshops on behalf of Queen’s Hall Arts which celebrated the Lindisfarne Gospels and the type of Anglo Saxon scriptorium in which they were created. 5 days, 10 schools, 20 workshops, 300 children, 348 miles driven.
We handled replica artefacts which I’d made, prepared parchment and spoke Old English. We discussed animal welfare, environmental issues, the nature of death and of God. And whether the monks had to run when they carried St Cuthbert in his coffin from Holy Island to Durham to escape the Vikings (I reckon so, coffin on their shoulders). And this saw me performing most enthusiastically in an early medieval monk’s outfit.
My background is in archaeology and medieval languages, and I’ve been a craftsman working predominantly in leather for almost forty years. I make leathergoods, props for theatre and TV and facsimile artefacts in leather and other materials for museums and universities. I also teach leatherwork, sometimes in its archaeological and historical contexts. And I have a theatre company; that’s another story…
The final activity of the workshop was the joyfully exuberant stamping of a leather bracelet which the children took home as a reminder of their experience. This is an activity which I developed with Heritage Crafts and what is now LEAF Education whereby I hold the stamp on the leather and the children strike it with a rawhide mallet. It is intended to develop assuredness with tools and self confidence and to enhance the child’s sense of self worth by demonstrating trust on the part of the adult. I have remained injury free since I began doing this.
I was humbled and impressed by the qualities of the children I worked with; by their curiosity, their knowledge and their skill. By their receptivity and their openness, their creativity, their energy and their deductive reasoning, which flies so much faster than that of most adults (we solved a couple of problems of experimental archaeology that I had struggled with).
And by their willingness to speak from their hearts. At one point a young lad, who has apparently always been a bit more ‘boisterous’ than the others in his class, came over after the session and very quietly told me something about how he’d not really liked things like this previously but that this had really touched him and had allowed him to say what he really thought and to be acknowledged. Then we spoke briefly about matters of the spirit (my phrases to describe what he said).
After he’d left, his teacher found me wiping a tear. Maybe two. She said she’d never known him as considered and thoughtful and sensitive.
And this is the value of craft, of work like this. And it’s not me, not from me. I feel that I just create a space, a safe one, within which vulnerabilities and uncertainties and curiosities can unfold into confidence and assuredness and finally into a willingness in the children to be who they might be at their best and can be and are.
And that’s a great gift given to me. There is none of more value.
(And I’m also officially a Jedi, Obi Wan Kenobi to be specific, and that’s a title I will gratefully accept from 9 year olds, who perceive the truth.)