A MEDIEVAL-THEMED DAY AT THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES, KEW
A week or so ago my elder daughter (aged 9) and I went to the Medieval themed day at The National Archives, Kew. ‘A Knight’s Tale’, as it was called, was free entry and a superb day out.
We’d never been to the Archives before so just walking up to the building was a new experience. For a building that is jam-packed with thousands upon thousands of documents there is a real sense of space and light. The entrance approach is wide and broad, with a huge fountain and a huddle of herons, Egyptian geese, ducks, swans and even a cormorant juxtaposed against the concrete.
In the entrance lobby there was an excellent display of medieval weaponry and armour to look at, handle and ask about. We only gave this a quick look because we had very recently been to a similar exhibition at Cilgerran Castle in Wales with archery and combat displays and reconstructions of cookery and surgery stalls. For the same reason we had decided not to pay the £5 per head for tickets to the combat display outside the archives later that day, although I’m sure it was very good.
My nine-year-old is more into books than battles, really, and there was certainly lots to satisfy her interests. We were directed into the cafe and restaurant area where experts were giving demonstrations of vellum parchment, illumination and wax seal making. Everyone was so helpful, enthusiastic and friendly that even my shy daughter felt confident asking questions and looking really closely at the articles on display. A microscope linked up to a tablet allowed visitors to look at different types of animal parchment, contrasting the variations in pattern and guessing which was which. Tiny bottles containing the ingredients used in medieval paints and colours were lined up to be shaken. Several replicas of medieval document seals were arrayed for handling and examination under a microscope. On a separate table children could use paints, crayons or pens to illuminate the first letter of their names or to design their own seal. The art materials were all new and there was a really good range of colours, which makes such a difference; worn out pens and broken pencils are such a let-down when children are inspired and ready to create.
There was a walk-in display of medieval documents in the ‘Talks Room’ within the reading area of the archives. Before we could go in we had to leave coats and bags in the free lockers. My daughter loved using these; they are free and work by each user entering their own combination number which they remember and enter when they want to retrieve their belongings. This means there are no keys to carry about (or lose!). The staff in the document room were also very friendly and welcoming. They showed us several documents they thought might be of interest to us so we got to see a note written by none other than Richard III, some genuine medieval seals and illumination and a fantastic contemporary drawing of Henry VIII.
There was a children’s talk about medieval clothing led by some engaging staff who had an excellent rapport with the children (who varied in age from toddlers to about eleven or twelve): kind but never patronising. They gave the children an overview of the Archives which included showing them a photograph of the mummified rat who dental devastation of some documents prompted the building of the first designated government records office so that documents could be properly preserved. Then there was the opportunity for the children to study copies of some original medieval documents and be ‘history detectives’ finding textual clues about medieval clothing. At ‘hands up’ moments all the children were given a chance to answer and share their opinions and thoughts. My daughter was over the moon to lucky enough to be picked to dress up in the Tudor outfit made for the Archives to help children better understand what historical clothing looked and felt like. Then all the children had the opportunity to make their own crowns or shields and other accessories. Again, the materials provided were of excellent quality and there was enough card, ribbon, sparkly gems and fabric to go around. The children put on a fashion show at the end to display their creations.
No visit to the Archives (in my opinion) would be complete without a visit to the amazing book shop. It is a microcosm of the macrocosm in that it is crammed with books and maps about every conceivable era, family history, the history of landscapes, cities and civilisations. I could have spent much, much longer in there and spent much, much more money! We constrained ourselves to buying two books from the children’s section: Lucy Worsley’s (Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces) historical novel Eliza Rose set in the time of Henry VIII and written to highlight the injustice of the execution of Katherine Howard and Daughters of Time, an anthology by the contributors of the History Girls blog and covers a myriad of female historical figures including Boudicca, Emily Davispn, Mary Seacole, Mary Anning, Aphra Benn and Julian of Norwich (a recent favourite of my daughter). I was really pleased to discover these brilliant books, both of which my daughter has raced through!
The day out ended on an absolute high note when one of the demonstrators of the medieval document arts came over and gave my daughter a vessical replica seal to take home. She had been particularly interested in the seals and we had been told that the ovals with the pointy ends were actually known as vessicas, a word we struggled to remember. My daughter was given it to help her remember the word and she was just thrilled.
I will definately be keeping an eye on the National Archives’ events listings from now on.
Above: Egyptian Geese line up on the fountain outside the Archives.
- The nearest tube station is Kew Gardens; the Archives are well signposted from the tube station and are only about a five minute walk away.
- The Archives have a restaurant and coffee bar and ample indoor seating. We didn’t visit the restaurant but we bought a hot chocolate, raspberry lemonade, some diet cokes and a bar of Green & Black’s from the coffee shop over the course of the day. They also sell cakes and pastries and bacon rolls that they will heat up for you. We also brought a packed lunch and ate this at one of the tables a long way from the coffee shop and restaurant. I’m not sure if this is allowed but as it was a special family event and were actually buying food as well we thought it was probably okay. There are outside tables for picnics but it was coldish!
- Be prepared to leave your belongings in the free-to-use lockers if you want to go into the acual archive or study areas.