212: Woodbridge

OS Explorer map 212, Woodbridge & Saxmundham: Aldeburgh & Framlingham – I do not own this map, and had not visited it before starting this blog. Visited for this post 5th May 2018. (I wrote this on the 11th May, while the memories were fresh, but at the time I was still five posts behind, so it didn’t get posted until several weeks later.) Note: Woodbridge is in the overlap between maps 212 and 197, neither of which I’ve visited before. This visit is therefore only provisional under The Rules, as it could “flip” to counting for map 197if I visit map 197 before visiting a unique area of 212. EDIT: this visit did indeed “flip” when I visited Ipswich in October 2019, rendering map area 212 “un-visited”.

So, you’ve probably gathered by now that I study Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at university; I’m nearing the end of my MPhil there, researching Ælfric’s Colloquy, a dialogue text aimed at helping young monks learn Latin. Now in March sometime, at the end of Lent term in Cambridge, one of my lecturers, Debby Banham, who taught me palaeography this year, announced that she was looking for people to help out at a Beowulf festival a couple of months later. [1] She would be giving a lecture on Anglo-Saxon food, and she had offered the organisers the services of some of her students to do readings of some parts of Beowulf in the original Old English. I and some others signed up, mainly because we were hanging around in the Common Room that day, and so it was that we found ourselves going to Woodbridge!

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Our common room in the department one lunchtime, since I just mentioned it, and I had a long bit of writing without any pictures at the top of this post!

I was to drive us there, so after a last-minute petrol stop I returned to my street and collected Tragic Sacrifice and The Unready, before driving up to get Eadgifu and The Elder from their College, Fitzwilliam. We drove to Woodbridge with accompaniment from old Yule Plays playing over the car speakers. [2] There was some minor difficulty in the very narrow and busy streets of Coddenham, and then later when we arrived in Woodbridge and realised we didn’t actually know where we were going, but this was solved by the internet. We failed to find parking in the train station car park, and let out The Elder, a little travel-sick, before going on a parking hunt that eventually left us on a muddy bit of grass that nevertheless did the job.

Walking back to the station and festival site, which were very near each other, we had to cross the railway line. We also walked past a lot of boats and a lot of ducks. There was still plenty of time before we needed to be at the festival to listen to Dr Banham’s lecture, and so it was time for lunch, which we ate in the cheerily-named Whistlestop Café by Woodbridge’s train station.

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Lunch was very pleasant, and also amazingly reasonably-priced, although this was probably just us being used to Cambridge prices. I took the opportunity while waiting for my sausage and onion ciabatta to make some last minute fixes to our costumes.

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The Unready modelling our Grendel gloves while I added some more tape to them.

Well, I say costumes. I had assembled our “costumes” with £6 of material from Poundland, and they consisted of a green face mask and some washing-up gloves with cardboard claws taped on for Grendel, a gold card crown for Hrothgar (borrowed from a previous Yule Play), and some borrowed LARP swords for the rest of us.

The Beowulf Festival itself was in and around a place called Woodbridge Tide Mill, strangely enough, a tide mill in Woodbridge, which is now a heritagey museumy kind of place, although it still grinds and sells flour. It was in the mill itself that the lecture was happening, and so there we went and listened!

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Hearing about Anglo-Saxon foodstuffs

The lecture was enjoyable, although The Elder and I were uncomfortably squeezed in at the back next to a model of the mill. I was very happy when one of the pieces of evidence Dr Banham presented was selections from Ælfric’s Colloquy, since that’s the text I’m studying for my masters dissertation. (Also rather wonderful was her opening slide – the lecture was entitled “What did Beowulf eat?”, and the slide answered: “Nothing, he’s a fictional character”. This is a thing that gets forgotten a little too often.)

Afterwards, people were directed to talk to us at the back if they had any questions about our department or our course, and one fellow took up this offer. He was a volunteer at Sutton Hoo nearby, and was asking about how to find out trustworthy information about early medieval things; the specific question was about some specific kind of helmet from pre-literate Scandinavia. Advice was duly given – if it’s associated with an academic you can see is from a real university department it’s probably fine; there won’t be a lot of stuff beyond archaeological reports if it’s from a pre-literate culture; books are your best bet really; if it’s on the internet and not associated with academia, be wary, especially if words like “Germanic” start becoming over-used…

We were then finally able to find out when we would be performing, namely at half past three, and where: in front of the displayed ship Sæ Wulfing, a very cool half-scale reconstruction of the ship from the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

The reconstruction ship Sæ Wulfing

The festival itself was taking place over five days, and there were a selection of stalls and things inside and outside a couple of long buildings on the waterfront which I think were where that ship was constructed in the first place. There were books being sold, and food, and various things. There were a LOT of dogs, which we appreciated.

We were on after Kevin Crossley-Holland, who is known for his Beowulf translation; he was doing some storytelling, telling the story of Beowulf. We listened to his talk; it was indeed a storytellingy version of Beowulf, which some of us liked more than others. Some of the story points were different, and okay, it’s an adaptation, you’re retelling it for a modern audience mainly consisting of children, that’s fine. But there were some very dodgy comments in the introdcution at the begninning, especially when he said, er, that “most scholars agree” that Beowulf was written in the 7th century in East Anglia under the patronage of the royal court of Rendlesham. Um. No. There is not the slightest bit of agreement over the dating or location of Beowulf as far as I am aware.

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The storytelling happening

And, then it was time for us! We had picked some selections from the poem which we’d read in the original Old English, one of us at a time reading while the others did some fairly minimalist acting of what was going on. We started with the first three lines of the poem, just as a little attention-grabber, before I introduced us, our department, and talked about which bits of the poem we’d be reading, since of course the words aren’t comprehensible to a modern audience.

We then started properly, as Eadgifu narrated Hrothgar’s victories and then his building of the hall Heorot, the other four of us meanwhile staging a little fight and then miming building a hall.

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Hrothgar and his retainers feast

I then took over the reading while Eadgifu rushed off to put on the Grendel costume and The Elder, playing Hrothgar, starting feasting with his retainers. Grendel’s job was to skulk menacingly at the edge, looking jealous of all the food and fun while I introduced him.

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The Danes and Geats sleep

We then skipped ahead a bit and The Elder took over the reading: it was time for the Grendel fight! I, The Unready and Tragic Sacrifice therefore lay down, asleep until such time as Grendel came for his midnight feasting on human flesh. (Technically, Beowulf should be naked for the fight with Grendel, as there’s a good long bit in the poem about him taking off all his armout and clothes, but we thought I’d better not go for that degree of verisimilitude…)

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Grendel eats Tragic Sacrifice

Grendel ‘cōm þā of mōre’, of course. He battered in the door and soon picked an unfortunate Dane to devour, played nobly by Tragic Sacrifice. He came next for me, Beowulf, but of course got a nasty surprise as I grabbed him and we started to grapple.

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Beowulf and Grendel fight

Now, Old English poetry is not the most fast-moving of narrative forms. The Grendel fight takes a good 150 lines of verse to happen, and so I and Eadgifu were going to have to grapple with each other for about two minutes while The Elder got through all that, which we found in practices was a little monotonous, not to mention awkward. Therefore, we went for the somewhat questionable strategy of having a freeze-frame section where we stood still for a section of the poem that’s a bit more reflective and less action-y.

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Conventional weaponry proved ineffective

The fight (spoilers) comes to an end when Beowulf pulls of Grendel’s arm, leading the latter to skulk away home to mummy in the mere. For the arm to come off takes four lines:

                                    Līċsār ġebād

aton ǣġlǣċa;     him on eaxle wearð

syndolh sweotol,     seonowe onsprungon,

burston bānlocan.

(In Treharne’s translation, “The terrible fierce assailant suffered physical pain: in his shoulder was made visible a mortal wound, sinews sprang apart, muscles burst”.) We therefore came up with the somewhat farcical solution of making an arm out of a pair of tights  stuffed with some shirts and scarves, which I then held up to Eadgifu’s shoulder and pretended to pull at for fifteen seconds or so untill finally pulling it off.

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All that remained was for the Danes and Geats to party hard as Grendel’s arm was placed atop Heorot’s door as a trophy. We did do that a little too early and then had to stand around awkwardly while The Elder finished reading, I admit.

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Grendel’s arm is placed above the door

I thought the whole thing went rather well, really. After we finished, Tragic Sacrifice – who is also the ASNaC Society’s Access Officer, so in charge of talking to potential students and things like that – said for anyone who had any questions about the department or anything to come up and speak to us afterwards, and a whole load of people did! Some were interested general public people, which was nice, but we even spoke to one very enthusiastic probable applicant!

After the performance, we had some well-deserved ice-cream, stood around talking for a while, and were soon off home, stopping at some public toilets before we got in the car, and then also briefly at a Co-op to get some drinks before driving back. And so the day was done! It was very nice to get out of Cambridge for day in the middle of exam term, and seemed to have been fairly successful, so yes, happy with that!


[1] Cambridge’s three terms are called Michaelmas, Lent and Easter. In Oxford it’s Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity, and for at least my first year after moving to Cambridge I used the wrong names very regularly…

[2] The Yule Play, as attentive readers have heard before, is when the students in my Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic put on an annual sketch show at the end of the first term, just before everyone goes home for Christmas. It consists of incredibly niche humour about the bits of history and literature that we study, and I’ve featured in it the last couple of years… several previous offerings are up on the Internet, for better or for worse, which means I can point you to cringey videos of me singing, like this one:

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