Newest Review: ... presentation on the other side of the next doorway. Though Bede is best known as the author of the 'Ecclesiastical History of the En... more
The Light At The End of the World
Bedes World (Newcastle)
Member Name: michaelhudson
Bedes World (Newcastle)
Date: 07/09/03, updated on 07/09/03 (475 review reads)
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An atrium at the entrance to the museum building, constructed in line with Roman and early medieval styles, induces an immediate sense of tranquillity, setting the scene beautifully for the interior exhibitions. Reception is straight ahead at a desk to the right of the gift shop - well stocked with books, stationery and small gifts - and opposite the small room housing temporary displays and the main entrance to the Age of Bede.
THE AGE OF BEDE
In the beginning came the Romans, as evidenced by roof tiles and jewellery recovered from the nearby forts of Arbeia and Segedunum. Life size reproductions of stone figures - an Irish Abbot, a Pictish Warrior King and an Anglo-Saxon man - glare across from an opposite corner next to a reconstructed skeleton found in a cemetery in Cleveland, and a Germanic voice intones the words of an Anglo-Saxon poem, The Ruin, which imagines the lost civilisation of an abandoned Roman city. A doorways opens into the bright white spaces of Northumbria, ahead and to the left are reconstructions of armour, scale models of ancient settlements, displays on the six journeys Benedict Bi
scop made to Rome and colourful text and pictures explaining the art, culture, history and religion of the kingdom.
Biscop leads us to the Monastic Life, with models of the churches he built at Wearmouth and Jarrow and assorted artefacts including carved sandstone friezes, roof tiles, stone carvings, imported Gaulish pottery, a full size replica of an illustrated bible written at Wearmouth-Jarrow and now housed in Florence and a reproduction of the original foundation stone from St Paul's (the original is above the chancel in the church itself). The construction of the monastery was truly revolutionary, as shown by the displays of early glassmaking techniques and the fact that it was the first major new stone building work since Roman times. On the other side of the room are far more simplistic personal objects belonging to the monks themselves and text detailing their lifestyle and accomplishments - up at 1.30am for early mass, followed by hours of prayer, work and study and a bedtime of 6pm in winter and 9pm in summer.
At the end, in a plain circular room dedicated to Bede, I sit in four alcoves and listen to extracts of his work and explanations of his role as a teacher, poet, historian and scientist, the narration eerily layered by monastic chanting from the previous room and the sound effects of a video presentation on the other side of the next doorway. Though Bede is best known as the author of the 'Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation', a chronicle of events from the Roman occupation to the time of the book's completion in 731AD which remains one of our main authorities on Anglo-Saxon life and the early Christian period, he also wrote poetry in Old English and Latin, made the first known attempt to translate the Bible into English, popularised the Anno Domini dating system, mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew, wrote three Latin hymns and believed that the Earth was round "like a playground ball" rather than &q
uot;like a shield." The only Englishman named in Dante's Paradiso, the breadth of his knowledge is even more astounding when you consider it was likely he travelled no further than Lindisfarne and York in his lifetime. Centuries before the effects of gravity became widely known he understood that the moon influenced the cycle of tides. He wrote of a world influenced by weather patterns and climatic change, and in particular, recognised the annual solar movements into the north and south hemispheres and, in his Ecclesiastical History, not only sourced and acknowledged all his references but also shaped what we know as the English national consciousness at a time when the country was only just beginning to emerge from the various crises and rivalries of the competing nation states. Not bad for a work of Northumbrian propaganda!
But by far my favourite section of the whole room is a simple piece of text detailing Bede's reading list as of 731AD, in particular the reference to "a book on the life and passion of St Anastasius which was badly translated from the Greek by some ignorant person." I love the little glimpse of the man behind the great scholar here. Maybe that’s why Ken Livingstone deemed calls for a statue of him to be placed on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square to be "politically incorrect." (Or as politically incorrect as you can get in a space dominated by Imperial Lions and Admiral Nelson anyway!)
Before you enter the video room take the lift or stairs up to the first floor, where a room holds facsimiles of stained glass windows and an illustration of Bede’s mathematical prowess (he could count up to one million by way of a complicated system based on shapes formed by the fingers and hands). Spend a couple of minutes admiring the views of Jarrow Hall and the top of St Paul's and then head back downstairs for the video presentation on Northumbria and the world of Bede. To the right of th
e screen are exhibits on the death of the great monk, including his reputed last words, and later excavated finds from the site outside including medieval floor tiles, Northumbrian, French and Scottish coins and a collection of Victorian clay pipes. At the very end are a number of quotes from great historical figures on Bede’s importance, best among which is William of Malmesbury's: "Born in a far corner of the earth, by the spark of his learning he has touched deeply all lands." What a way to talk about my hometown!
GYRWE ANGLO - SAXON FARM
The reconstructed timber buildings and farm land of Gyrwe (the Anglo-Saxon name for Jarrow, pronounced Yeer-weh) spread over 10.5 acres of land reclaimed from a derelict petrol storage site. Exiting the museum building from the corridor between the end of the Age of Bede exhibition and the reception area, a dirt track leads past a cone shaped goosehouse built to a 9th century design with limewashed oak posts interwoven with hazel below a thatched wheat straw roof. A flock of geese wander along a fence constructed of long intertwined branches and two Dexter oxen, slightly smaller than modern cows, laze on the edge of Romano-British fields split by a gentle stream, a hazel coppice, Hebridean and Manx sheep and dozens of chickens. To the right fleeces and ducks are on sale, the former hanging outside the large workshop building and animal sheds. A short distance further, behind the pig pen containing two ancient Tamworth breeds crossed with Wild Boar, a path veers up to the high ground, looking back down on a vegetable garden full of peas, onions, leeks, white carrots and wild cabbage and up towards the landscaped edge of the site facing out over the confluence of the wide Tyne and the narrow mud flats of the River Don estuary. Standing next to the Bronze Age burial mound I'm caught in a sudden burst of drizzle and a blast of wind - weather patterns unchanged since the days of Bede himself.
He probably wouldn't have recognised much beyond the outskirts of the farm, however - thousands of cars lined up for Nissan transport ships, giant oil drums on the Shell-Mex site, electricity pylons, the corrugated iron roof of a factory, the Bergen ferry pulling into the Tyne, and the towering shipyard cranes away in the distance behind the solitary Northumbrian Cross in the far corner.
Designed and carved by Keith Ashford, who was inspired by 8th century stone crosses, the monument overlooks one of the most famous stretches of the river from Wallsend in the west to North Shields on the bend to the east. In the opposite direction lie the remaining three restored Anglo-Saxon timber buildings, a willow coppice and an orchard containing Crab apples, elderberries, pears and strawberries. Walk down the path and follow the branch to the left for the first of the buildings, the Hartlepool Monastic Cell - a small dirt floor covered by a reed thatched roof held up by whole tree trunk supports with thin strips of horizontal wood for walls where monks and nuns lived and worked.
Loop back across the grass for the limewashed, irregular Thirlings Hall, passing a pole lathe used for making tool handles and furniture on the way. The Hall, large and open plan, is based on a 6th century landowner's residence excavated in Northumberland. As with the other buildings visitors are free to inspect the interior, full of long tables, a huge fire and various implements with a window propped open at one side.
The final structure is the Grubenhaus, a simple dwelling with oak walls and a triangular thatched heather roof that covers both sides of the building down to ground level. Four steps lead from the entrance to a sunken dirt floor; the whole thing is reminiscent of a tent built over a tiny pit. From here the track winds back over a ford on the edge of a small pond back through the open vegetable fields, past children fascinated by the animals and adults
enthralled by the sheer magnitude of it all.
Overlooking the old monastic estate and Drewett’s Park, now full of ankle length grass, picnic tables and a children’s playground, the Grade II listed Georgian building was completed in 1785 as a residence for a philanthropic local shipyard and coal mine owner. From 1935 it was used as a Nursery School, a wartime ammunition store, a store for the park gardener and, following restoration work in the 1970s, the site of the original Bede Monastery Museum. Today, aside from the restored Oval Room (used for conferences) and some wall displays on the history and inhabitants of the building, the main point of interest for visitors is the ground floor café, which sells sandwiches, salads, jacket potatoes and a wide variety of drinks at very reasonable prices.
A small Herb Garden is located to the rear of the Hall. Based on Anglo-Saxon and Medieval designs it's a lovely place to sit in the shade, surrounded by rectangular beds, trellises and hundreds of different culinary and medicinal herbs.
When you've finished here, wander across the field to St Paul's and the ruined monastery. But I'll save that story for another time.
Bede's World is an extremely impressive site with a great deal to interest both children and adults. Though the Age of Bede exhibition suffers a little from having relatively little authentic material, the presentation is nonetheless involving and interesting. The outdoor farm is fascinating, especially for kids, and the adjacent St Paul's Church and Monastery is still wonderfully evocative. Throw in the year round educational events - everything from craft fairs to theatrical productions and Anglo-Saxon re-enactments to historical lectures - and it’s easy to see why Bede's World has such a great reputation. And if you still don't want to pay £4.50 to see it all, you can always visit for
free during the annual Heritage Open Days in mid-September (www.heritageopendays.org) or spend some time browsing the museum's excellent website (address listed below).
Bede's World Museum of Early Medieval Northumbria
Church Bank, Jarrow
Tel: 0191 4282361
Family Ticket (2 Adults & 2 Children) £9.00
Half price for English Heritage members
April - October: 10 - 5:30 Monday - Saturday, 12 - 5:30 Sunday
November - March: Closing time one hour earlier.
The nearest Metro station is the appropriately named Bede. Travelling from Newcastle, exit the station and turn left in the direction of the Barbour factory. Then follow the signs for Bede's World and Jarrow Hall (10-15 minute walk). Taxis and buses (the 526 or the 527) operate from Jarrow (one stop earlier).
The Museum is located two minutes from the south end of the Tyne Tunnel. There are full directions for drivers on the website and car parking is available on-site, both in front of the main building and directly across the road.
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