We Encounter Madness in the South Downs

The husband and I visited Butser Ancient Farm during half-term week. We forgot it was half-term or we may have delayed our visit but, on the day we visited, the farm was practically empty, save for a few sets of parents accompanied by one or two kiddywinks.

Butser Ancient Farm has been on my radar for years, but we never got around to visiting it. In the husband’s retirement, I am determined to do things. Therefore, I have stipulated that there will be weekly outings to places of interest. These places are usually only of interest to me, being the husband can’t really abide looking around old houses, with their ancient artefacts, or ancient manufacturing/crafting methods – even though he can be found glued to such telly programmes as: Pawn Stars, Forged in Fire, Mountain Men and the Alaskan Bush People. All of which feature historical artefacts and manly men making things. But he is a good husband and willing to accompany his wife on her mission to get out of the house.

The first thing we noticed on entering Butser Ancient Farm was the sign. This had changed beyond recognition. Years and years ago I swear it used to be a hand daubed arrow pointing into what appeared to be empty fields. Now the sign is as professional as any tourist sign gets. The road into the attraction is a rough dirt track, which was full of very large holes, filled with rainwater. We arrived at a car park which was a bigger version of the dirt track road. But good on the owners for not tarmacking everything into non-existence.

We walked into the visitor centre, approached by an attractive wooden walkway, and hung around a counter not sure of what happened next. ‘Round here!’ a previously invisible woman in a maroon fleece suddenly cried, motioning us along the counter. ‘Have you visited us before?’ she asked, in the jolliest, poshest and most engaging manner possible. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’ll take your £16 quickly then. M is giving her talk in the long house right this minute, so you’d better hurry along, you don’t want to be late and miss it. Then you can visit H and her weaving, in the Roman villa, and J will be thatching and then there’s the bladesmith.’  This was said at such breakneck speed as though we, and the cast of characters she’d just mentioned were old friends, that it quite threw us.  We paid and she urged us along, ‘Quickly, quickly. Go through those doors over there, turn right, walk down a ramp and then you’ll see the long house.’

‘Come on,’ I urged the husband, grabbing his coat sleeve, ‘we’ll be late!’  This is absolutely typical of the way I’ll follow any order.  We hurried down the ramp and saw a building straight ahead; dirty white walls (made of wattle and daub) and a thatched roof. We found the entrance and walked into a large, oblong space; hardened mud floor, ceiling built from branches of wood and straw, with a large hole in it at one end, long low seating running around the walls and a log fire in the middle, smoke rising to the ceiling and then on out of the hole. There were a few parents and their children dotted about. The seating was long flat planks of wood, balanced precariously on other bits of wood about 5” high. I took a seat next to where M was standing (to say it served as a seat is being generous.) It was extremely uncomfortable. The planks of wood were about 6” wide and so hard, and so near the ground, we may just as well have sat on the ground. The husband decided to stand.  M, also in a maroon fleece, was in mid-flow. She was holding a long bone, describing one end as the knee joint. ‘These are actual human bones,’ she was saying. ‘We have permission to use them as they are 50 years old and were once used to train junior doctors all those years ago. This bone was once part of a living person, so keep that in mind as I pass it around.’ She passed the bone on to the husband, as we were to her immediate right, inviting him, and the rest of us, to explore the bits of the knee which would join to the shinbone.  He passed it on to me without so much as a cursory glance; he has enough knee problems and clearly didn’t want to focus on the knee joint any more than he already has to. ‘Feel how surprisingly heavy the bone is,’ M continued, ‘and how sort of waxy it is and smooth.’ I held the bone for about two seconds, feigning keen interest (whilst squirming inside at its ‘waxiness’ and the thought that all any of us ever end up as, is a pile of scary, ugly bones.) I passed it on to a woman next to me. She also scrutinised it and passed it on to her child.  Around the room the bone went.  Once back with M, she placed it in a basket on the ground that I hadn’t noticed before and pulled out another longish bone. ‘This is an arm bone and you can see the elbow joint at one end.’  And she passed it to the husband.  This routine continued, as M passed around a skeletal foot and then half a skull (the top half had been removed for unknown reasons.)  ‘What do you think went inside the skull,’ she asked the room. One child shot her hand up, in the manner of Hermione Granger, and answered ‘the brain,’ in a manner which suggested she was used to the role of classroom brain box. None of the children seemed phased at all by the morbid nature of the talk, either that or they’d been stunned into a sort of shocked silence.  I traced brown wiggly lines at the sides of the skull with my finger before passing it on. ‘Yes, isn’t it interesting to see how the parts of the skull are joined?’ M commented. I hadn’t found it interesting at all but felt I had to do something with the thing (a thing that once smiled, laughed and talked) in order to further emphasise my feigned interest.

M finished her talk by picking up a box, full of what looked like cat litter. ‘These are the cremated remains of an actual person,’ she said…….‘from the actual Neolithic period!’ she then exclaimed, with great pride and joy.  ‘I’m going to pass this around too. Feel free to put your hands in. You’ll also find stones and other bits and bobs mixed in with the remains.’   I fumbled around in the Neolithic remains for a couple of seconds, not sure what I was supposed to be getting out of the moment, before passing it on to my neighbour with an audible ‘yukk;’ the first time I’d dared voice my true feelings about the whole bones thing.  She gave me a like-minded grin. The husband’s already low level enthusiasm about the outing had hit rock bottom.  His knees were further playing up, due to the prolonged standing, and my right leg, which has been giving me unknown gyp for weeks, in the form of mysterious calf and thigh pain, accompanied by an extraordinary sensation that hot liquid periodically runs down it, or that my leg is against a radiator,  did not like the enforced sitting on an unforgiving plank of wood.

M finished her talk by asking the children if they were looking forward to Halloween. She explained that Halloween had its origins with our ancient ancestors who, on stormy nights in mid-winter, when a full moon was high in the sky and the wolves howled (I added these special effects in my own mind) could be found sitting round a log fire, just like this one, passing around the bones of their dearly departed relatives, to remember them. They would then feast whilst the skulls (and other bits of their ancestors) sat with them having a jolly old time. ‘So, remember the origins of Halloween children,’ M finished, as we all began to file out. I envisaged quite a few bad dreams that night.

We both of us hobbled out of the Neolithic long house and paused a while to take stock of our surroundings.  We were in a large field, filled with various replicated ancient structures. Ahead of us fields stretched off into the distance. A green hill rose up behind us. We started our tour with a wigwam structure, made of intertwined branches, to the left of the long house. It dated from 5000 BC. Unlike a wigwam, there was no covering over the branches. ‘Must have been really cold living in that thing,’ I said, ‘and awful when it rained.’ The husband walked inside it and I followed. There was a mound of hay inside. ‘I don’t know,’ the husband said, ‘feels quite warm in here, would be useful to know how to build one of these things if the nukes ever hit.’  I tried to imagine me, the husband and sons (when small) cramped up together in a tiny wigwam with nothing but a bunch of itchy, hard straw to sit on, and thanked the Fates that I’d been born in the 20th Century with loads of mod cons. Basically, our ancestors had lived like the animals we all are. Next to the wigwam were a couple of curved structures, also made from branches. We surmised these would have housed the kinds of animals that were around in the stone age.

We left the wigwam and walked on to a series of modern wooden huts, signed as ‘tech pod 1,’ tech pod 2,’ etc.  A man was messing about in one of the huts, which was filled was this and that, and we stopped to watch him. A woman who looked to be in her 70’s, with long grey hair, tied in a ponytail, appeared from around a corner carrying a bunch of straw.  She looked like a sort of rustic bag lady. She placed the straw on a wooden workbench, outside one of the tech pods, and started fiddling around with it. I drew nearer and watched. ‘Is your curiosity going to get the better of you?’ she asked suddenly, ‘do you want me to tell you what we’re doing?’   These questions were uttered in a voice so posh, you’d only find its equal amongst the posh lot in Downton Abbey. No longer a bag lady, I felt like I was I was in the presence of  Dame Maggie Smith.  ‘Yes please,’ I said, in a really subservient and obsequious manner.

‘This is what we use to thatch the houses with,’ she began. And then launched into a lecture on how this wasn’t straw but reed stems, which were hollow (see?) and, ‘do you want to touch them, feel how hard they are.’  She burbled on a while longer (whilst I desperately tried to feign interest in the reed, in all its glory) before suddenly shutting down and ignoring us completely – like maybe she was an automaton (the curious idea that Butser Ancient Farm might be staffed by automatons crossed my mind.)  The husband and I hung around a bit, not sure if it was polite to just walk away, but she ignored us so completely that we made our escape.

We carried on, along a rough dirt path, passing more volunteers (the attraction, like so many others, runs on its volunteers) who were busy doing nothing, as far as I could tell, but doing it very efficiently. The husband and I were quite alone at this point. We entered an Angle-Saxon building, built in the same way as the stone age long house, except it had wooden doors, a couple of windows, a table and raised wooden benches, covered in animal skins, around a large, raised log fire at one end of the room. There were also boards depicting Anglo-Saxon runes.  We’d been getting cold in our wandering and immediately sat near the fire. ‘This is quite nice really,’ I said.  ‘All you need is a telly over there,’ the husband replied. The house, like the long house, had a hole in the ceiling, through which the smoke from the fire went.  I watched the smoke as it trailed up to the ceiling and then diverted towards the hole, but also noticed that quite a lot of it remained floating about in the room. I also noticed that the reeds that made up the ceiling were scorched black in places.  Pretty soon the hard, wooden seating (the animal skins were no comfort) became a literal pain in the backside and then, suddenly, I started coughing and wheezing like I had asthma.  ‘It’s the smoke,’ I spluttered at the husband and vacated the building. The husband remained inside, content by the fireside, probably hoping I’d forget about him and he could snatch forty winks. The husband actually has asthma but seemed completely unperturbed.  ‘How did that Anglo-Saxon lot survive, breathing in all that smoke?’  I wondered.  ‘And all those blackened reed ceilings, probably giving off carcinogens all over the place.’  I had to wash all our clothes and shower when we got back, as everything stank of stone age smoke.

We then came to the Roman villa. It was even more noticeable that this was a giant leap in terms of building techniques, so it was surprising that the Anglo-Saxons had come after the Romans.  From the outside it looked like any house you’d see today, in fact it looked like a typical bungalow. The walls were made of brick and covered in white plaster. There were many windows, with shutters outside. The roof was tiled. Inside, one floor was tiled with mosaic tiles. There were clothes hooks in a hallway. There were many rooms, instead of the one room that featured in all the Neolithic houses; one of those rooms had a fireplace that wouldn’t look out of place today.  The beds were, admittedly, rock hard, as were the chairs, but the walls were painted and stencilled.  A couple of the rooms were given over to the Gods. It really made me appreciate how far ahead of their time the Romans were. On entering the villa we’d seen a woman in a maroon fleece standing with her back to us at the end of a long hallway. She was weaving at a very large loom. We’d remained in the hallway chatting about the villa, but the woman never turned around.  As we toured the villa we repeatedly came back to the long hallway and the weaving woman never changed position, her back always towards us. The whole thing began to feel just a little eerie. On our final entry into the hallway we found a mother and her young children standing by the weaving woman. One of the children asked her about the weaving. The weaver suddenly turned around and launched into her ‘script’ in the most extraordinary manner. She really did sound almost robotic. The husband vacated the building, whilst I stayed to listen to the weaver, feeling that to walk out would seem impolite. But she took no more notice of me than if I hadn’t been there at all, so I left.

I found the husband looking at beehives outside the Roman villa and one bee just wouldn’t leave the husband alone. I had to spend quite a few minutes fighting it off, in a hysterical manner. We then walked on to a section of land which had five stone age dwellings on it.  We were just examining a building that was in the process of being constructed, when we heard a disembodied voice shouting, ‘Over here! over here, the bladesmith is about to begin his talk, hurry!’  We turned around to see a young man, in a maroon fleece, rushing towards us. ‘Come on, this way,’ he demanded and steered us towards one of the houses.

There was a white bearded man standing in its entrance. He was behind a table on which an array of daggers and axes were lying.  A scratty little dog was tied up beside him. He launched into a description of the tools in front of him, without any introduction or hesitation.  I again feigned ardent interest. There was the ubiquitous log fire behind him. ‘Now this axe here,’ he burbled, ‘is what I call the B&Q axe of the period, really common they were and a common archaeological find.’  ‘Nah, can’t be B&Q,’ the husband said, ‘it’s not warped.’  I stifled a snort of laughter, which was met by absolutely no reaction from the bladesmith, and neither was the husband’s joke.  The bladesmith continued on with his ‘script’ as though the both of us had remained in rapt, silent attention the whole time. Either the staff really were automatons, or the continual inhalation of smoke had had a deleterious effect.

We then found several children were standing behind us (we hadn’t heard a sound) and the bladesmith immediately focused his attention on them, asking if they wanted their photo taken whilst holding a Neolithic axe, or perhaps the really scary dagger (I’d refused to go anywhere near that one.)  We exited the building and continued on to the next Neolithic construction, known as the round house.

I noticed an air ambulance collection bucket in the entrance way of the round house and also heard music, played on what sounded like a recorder, floating our way from inside. ‘I’ll put something in the bucket,’ I said, which meant I had to go part way into the very dark building. I’d just dropped my coin in the bucket when a woman’s voice cried out: ‘Thank you for coming in, so kind of you.’ I looked into the dim interior and saw a woman, dressed in a flowing cloak and a wide brimmed hat, advancing towards me. Behind her I saw two men, one holding a medieval type recorder and the other a guitar. ‘Please do come in, we’re rehearsing for tonight’s performance and it would really help to have an audience.’  The husband was still outside. ‘Ok,’ I said and went to drag him in.

We sat down on a bale of hay covered in an animal skin. We were inside a large round space, built like the long house, with bales of straw running around the wall creating a sort of theatrical arena. There was no log fire thankfully. We were the only visitors in the place. A middle-aged man in a long black cloak walked into the middle of the arena and launched into a very quietly spoken monologue and then fluffed his words and stopped. ‘Sorry,’ he directed at us, and continued. The woman who’d asked me in then began reading from a music stand in front of a microphone, whilst one man strummed a guitar to her left, another plucked a bass guitar and the man in the black cloak played a medieval recorder. I looked around trying to get my bearings. Behind the woman was a large black cloth, acting as a screen. Someone had painted a moon and stars on it.

‘Here comes Fairy Big Toe!’ the woman suddenly announced, and a middle-aged woman appeared from behind the black screen. She was dressed in a luridly pink fairy outfit and began wafting and prancing around the arena. She perfectly represented why a) you should never wear pink or b) pretend to be a fairy, when you’re past sixty.  ‘Dance round the whole arena,’ the woman instructed, ‘so the children in the audience will be able to see you at the performance.’  But the really unnerving fact was that she looked almost exactly like one of our neighbours. The wafting and prancing went on interminably, with absolutely no indication as to why. The woman at the music stand (now our narrator) kept talking but I couldn’t make head nor tail of what she was saying, except it had something to do with a magical forest. Suddenly an obese young lady appeared from behind the black screen, dressed as a rat – we knew this only because our narrator said, ‘here comes rat.’  In a costume which made her look more like a large, lumbering bear, this girl launched into song, whilst repeatedly stroking her own face, before waddling over to us, where she turned her back on us and shook her substantial ratty backside right in our faces.  I fervently prayed that the husband would remain silent.

The gist of the play seemed to be that the words bluebell, acorn, fern, and kingfisher had been stolen from the English language, by a couple of old hag witches, and that Fairy Big Toe had to get them back.  ‘Who names a fairy after the big toe?’ I kept asking myself, ‘I mean it’s got absolutely no charm at all.’  ‘Charm’ turned out to be what the whole production lacked.

We then descended rapidly into further chaos when the four lost words appeared as human characters. Bluebell (a bloke dressed in blue dungarees and a gigantic blue afro wig – you couldn’t imagine a character further from a pretty bluebell if you tried);  Acorn (a bloke  sporting a cardboard acorn for a hat and an oak leaf over his shirt); Fern (a young woman in a long, flowing green dress, wafting a paper fern about in her hand) and Kingfisher (the guitar player in a sparkly green cloak) all appeared from behind the black screen.  After some further incomprehensible shenanigans, we were instructed to shout out the forgotten words if we could guess what they were via the characters.  Our task was aided by each forest character dancing over to us, whilst singing a song and then asking, ‘who am I?’

Bluebell came dancing over to us first, singing his bluebell song and moving his arms up and down like a demented puppet, his afro wig bouncing up and down in an alarming fashion: ‘Who am I?’ he demanded – I found it all quite threatening.  ‘A friggin’ idiot,’ the husband replied soto voce – ‘A BLUEBELL, a BLUEBELL!’ I screamed instantaneously (and this was difficult with a stammer) in an effort to drown out the husband’s insubordination.  The entire cast cried ‘well done!’  ‘When are we going?’ the husband hissed.  ‘We can’t go,’ I whispered back, ‘it’d be rude, and we’re committed now.’

Acorn came dancing towards us next, singing his acorn song and demanded: ‘Who am I? in really quite a thuggish manner.  ‘TWAT,’ the husband said. ‘ACORN!’  I screeched. ‘That acorn bloke’s a real nut,’ the husband muttered, as Acorn passed us by, then creased himself up at his own joke, in a sort of hysterical and desperate fashion.

Fern came along next, wafting her fern, the husband remained courteously silent.  Then came the Kingfisher, with his bouffant hair (not a wig), his thick, bottleneck glasses and his very posh almost effete accent. ‘Oh, who am I?’ he uttered, in the manner of Larry Grayson, as he fluttered by.   ‘A PILLOCK,’ the husband mouthed, whilst I got ready to shout out ‘kingfisher’ to avert attention away from the husband’s mouth, but the stammer interceded.  ‘K, K, K,’ I tried…’oh forget it,’ I thought, ‘does it really matter?’

By now the straw bales and animal skins were feeling really uncomfortable when, mercifully, our narrator paused the proceedings and said: ‘we’ll be finished soon,’ and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  The husband and I stood up to stretch our legs and she implored, ‘oh don’t go yet, just another minute.’  Our surreal interlude ended and we clapped, I with feigned passion and enthusiasm. The narrator walked over to us and asked if we’d enjoyed it.  ‘Yes,’ I said, with the smile of the slightly insane on my face. ‘Weren’t our musicians brilliant?’ she asked, ‘they wrote all the songs too.’ ‘Oh yes,’ I replied (the husband had fled the premises.)  The musicians had not been brilliant.  ‘What did you think of the story?’  ‘Very good,’ I lied and then followed it up with, ‘I’m going now.’  Because, really, I had to end the madness somehow.

I caught up with the husband. ‘What was that?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘but it was horrible (and he almost shuddered.)  I knew it would be as soon as that fairy whatshername came out.’  ‘Still, they’re doing it for charity and children are obviously the target audience,’ I added. ‘And it’s a hobby isn’t it; everyone needs a hobby.’

I washed my hands at a sanitation point outside the visitor centre (due to contact with the remains of the dead) and we went to a pub at the end of the road, where the husband  drowned his sorrows in a pint.

2 thoughts on “We Encounter Madness in the South Downs

  1. You are a very talented writer, your blogs are so different, so funny, moving, the whole
    gamut, well done, can’t wait for your next blog


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