Wildwood Archaeology 2014

Wildwood 2014 

Holly Clearance

Holly Clearance

The Wildwood is still giving up it’s secrets, albeit slowly. Exploration started rather late due to a wet spring but continued well into the autumn with each carefully dug and recorded trench revealing a little more of life from prehistory to the medieval period.

Wildwood,  T40-T41 RB entrance trenches Compilation

From the very first time I surveyed the Romano British enclosure I had indicated where I thought the entrance would be although the evidence on the ground was tentative due to the surrounding ditch being in-filled on abandonment c100AD. After several years of digging to define the general enclosure this was the year that I decided to establish the existence of an entrance.

Call it sixth sense or luck, but with my two helpers, Phillip and Barrie we came directly over the butt ends of both terminating ditches. The infill conformed to the previous trenches dug across the periphery ditches of the RB site in that much of the bottom section consisted of large flints dumped without soil followed by a variety of clay/loam/flints/ashes and much blue/grey burnt flint. Interspersed amongst this infill is a large amount of broken pottery with the majority having clean un-abraded edges. Dating has shown that the time span of this pottery is in excess of 100 years containing as it does late Iron Age to early Roman pottery c 100AD creating the mystery of where all this pot material originally came from.

 

Enclosure entrance looking East from inside enclosure
Enclosure entrance looking East from inside enclosure

 

The mystery is compounded by the fact that this pottery infill is not stratified chronologically as would be normal with a gradual build-up of discarded waste over a period of time. Roman material can be found at the bottom (up to 1m-30) whilst Iron Age pot can be recovered from close to the surface. Although the enclosing bank is clearly discernible there is no outward indication of the accompanying ditch at ground level. All the evidence points to an un-hurried systematic levelling of the ditches on the eventual abandonment of the site c100 AD. The ditches may well have been cleaned out prior to this infilling as in no case during the excavations has there been any evidence of early primary deposits.

NW corner alinement trenches

NW corner alinement trenches

Generally speaking the soil PH is such that bone does no survive the acidic soil; the exception to this is where bone has been trapped within the dry cavities between the dry flints whilst being dumped in the ditches, I have some well persevered animal bone plus some snail shells. Identification of the snail shells could give an indication of the environment at the time of the ditch filling (snail experts please get in touch). Two interesting finds either side of the entrance were a small coin of the Celtic English King Cunobelin who ruled from the late first century BC until the 40s AD, the other was a simple late Iron Age pin brooch.

Late Iron Age and early Roman pottery

Late Iron Age and early Roman pottery

There are two distinct enclosures in the Wildwood and they are adjacent to each other, ‘enclosure one’ is very different from the aforementioned enclosure two (RB) and is over 1000 years younger being dated 12th/13 century. There is still some speculation as to what this small moated site represents and recent finds may force a revision of my original thoughts that is was an animal enclosure. Excavation has ceased at the moment due to excessive wet weather but I still spend about 3 days a week with my two helpers Barrie and Phillip clearing bramble and the invasive holly from the areas close to the known archaeology.  The best of the holly is stacked to season slowly as it will be used for woodturning, it is the whitest wood ever with a very fine grain.

Iron chain and earl pottery

Iron chain and earl pottery

One of these cleared areas is close to the medieval enclosure and clearing has allowed a metal detector survey to be undertaken. As is typical of the Wildwood most of the archaeology is on the surface due to lack of historical land disturbance or subsequent soil build up or deposition, this means that metal artefacts are recovered from just below the leaf-mould cover without damage being done to any sub soil archaeology.

'Medieval-tools-and-artefacts'

‘Medieval-tools-and-artefacts’

2014 finds from this area are intriguing ranging as they do from a suspected brass inlaid dagger or sword quillon to medieval horse and ox shoes and horse-shoe nails to woodworking tools. These include a twybill/mortise axe used in making mortise joints in timber framed buildings and some substantial woodworking chisels, and a lot of yet unidentified iron objects that only x-raying will sort out.  We do have evidence of iron smelting in the immediate vicinity and dumps of iron slag in the Wildwood itself, so one of the questions is whether iron working was carried out here also. Were these medieval men not only producing iron by smelting but forging and working it up into tools, chain (we have a lot of chain) and other useful items of the time? If so, were they producing these goods for their own/local consumption or to trade further afield? The woodworking tools could have been part of a craft industry or they could indicate that they were used to construct a building/s on site.

Worked flint tools are still found, mostly as random surface finds. As the weather improves during 2015 work will continue on the two RB enclosure corners and later in the summer a very careful examination of the undisturbed wide entrance area between the two entrance ditches, I consider that this area is possibly the most important of the whole site.

Stuart King toasting lunch time crumpets
Stuart King toasting lunch time crumpets

Stuart King

 

Mystery of the Moor; 4000 years of woodturning

The collection of artefacts could be one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the last 100 years

 

  The original discovery      

In August 2011, an early Bronze Age 4000 years old cist (A small chamber made of thin stone slabs) burial was discovered on Dartmoor. Inside were the cremated remains of a female, and, almost uniquely for this period were well preserved grave goods including 4 lathe turned ear studs (labrets).

Stuart King image Oct 2013,  (12)

The old and the new

Analysis has established that these studs are turned from spindle wood, a small shrubby tree that still grows on the Moor.

Stuart King filming BBC doc re 4000 BC  Bronze Age  cist burial,  Dartmoor, Oct 2013--

 

 

Studying high resolution images confirmed to me that these artefacts were turned rather than carved, but the question that was put to me by Andrew Brown of de facto Films who was Producing a BBC documentary was how were these exquisite items turned on a lathe, and what sort of lathe? These objects are no more than 2½ cm diameter so I ruled out the use of a traditional pole lathe, much too heavy for such delicate woodturning. As the invention of the crankshaft was at least another 1500 years away, possibly more, the only options were some form of reciprocating apparatus, and this left me with the bow lathe or ‘strap’ lathe.  

Filming BBC doc, Mystery of the Moor, Stuart King with presenter Mike Dilger image Oct 2013,

Stuart King with One Show presenter Mike Dilger.

This was to become an intriguing archaeological experiment. I set up a piece of ‘round wood’ spindle tree between two points and with a bow in one hand and a chisel in the other it was clear that with a little practice progress could be made, coordinating the bowing and holding the tool using a separate hand for each and only making a cut as the wood revolves forwards is tricky at first. Perseverance proved that it could be achieved and I did indeed produce a passable ear stud, and so down to Dartmoor for the filming.

Stuart King filming BBC doc re 4000 BC  Bronze Age  cist burial,  Dartmoor, Oct 2013-- (2)

In deepest Dartmoor

The location was perfect, in front of a recreated ancient round house. The lathe was set up, the presenter was Mike Dilger of the ‘One Show’ with Dr Richard Brunning, wood expert in attendance. Using my set of Bronze Age tools, notably a socketed bronze chisel and a small round nose scraper I bowed away, slow but sure. I then suggested that if Mike put a cord around the work piece it would free up both of my hands and this would allow me more control, this made a great difference with both the speed of turning and the accuracy of tool use. More speed, more torque, more accuracy, quicker production, this had to be the method used. Indeed, this form of turning proved so efficient that multiples could be turned, pointing possibly to the earliest form of mass production?

Stuart King image Oct 2013,  (10)

Bronze Age chisel alongside neolithic flint chisel

The original studs were so well preserved that one could see evidence of final finishing on the some of the side walls, as if the turnings had been rubbed on a course stone to remove the uneven surface where the studs had been finally parted from the main stock, possibly with a knife. This was my first encounter with spindle wood and I was amazed at the fine finish that was achieved directly from the bronze skew chisel.

Stuart King image Oct 2013,  (9)

Within a couple of hours I had taken woodturning back another 500 years to the early Bronze Age. My next challenge is to take woodturning back to the Neolithic!

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ear studs bronze age

The forthcoming BBC2 TV Documentary will be broadcast 28th February 8.30 pm then on iplayer for a while 

 

 

Mary Rose Comb

Back in Time, Mary Rose visit  Mary Rose Comb by Stuart King 2013 (9)

Henry the Eighth must have been gutted when on the 19 July 1545 at the Battle of the Solent, His flagship the Mary Rose sank because it was top heavy while leading the attack on the French invasion fleet. Five hundred sailors perished watched by a horrified King Henry from the shore.

Between 1979 -1982 the ship’s contents are excavated by divers and more than 19,000 artefacts were brought to the surface. The wreck of the hull was raised in 1982 and now after years of pioneering conservation work the whole story of the Mary Rose, her crew and much of Tudor life is set out in a brand new, state of the art Museum.

It is calculated that it would have taken about 16 hectares (40 acres) of woodland, more than 600 large oak trees to construct the great ship, but in many ways it is the small, sometimes tiny and personal items that really enthralls. Rosary beads, fine toothed nit combs, wooden bowls, pomanders and eating spoons, the preservation of all these artifacts is truly amazing.

I recently visited the new Mary Rose museum at Portsmouth. What a fantastic job they have done. I was so taken by the sailor’s boxwood hair combs that it was straight to the workshop, I just had to make a couple, one a basic Jack Tar example and another that I envisaged Henry commissioning for him self.Mary Rose Comb by Stuart King 2013 (3)

Making these combs using onlMary Rose Comb by Stuart King  July 2013 (3)Mary Rose Comb by Stuart King  July 2013y hand tools is the only way that a craftsman can have an insight into the skill of the Tudor and earlier specialist artisan.Mary Rose Comb by Stuart King  July 2013 (10)

Henry, your loss is our gain,Mary Rose Boxwood combs by Stuart King, July 2013

 

 

Wildwood flowers

The tree fellers have gone, but not without doing considerable harm to the sensitive ecology and shallow archaeology in my opinion, I think that the Forestry Commission needs to be more aware of this threat to ancient and historic woodland when drawing up felling plans and major work. The oak below was 157 years old. Wildwood  - Stuart King- image March 2013

The long awaited spring warmth has been very slow to materialise but the Wildwood is now populated with a variety of specialist Chiltern woodland plants and flowers, some areas are completely transformed. This is especially so with the ‘sea of blue’ created by our bluebells, the Chiltern woodlands contains 20% of the worlds population of bluebells, and as yet there is no sign of the dreaded Spanish variety! Below is an example of a white mutation, whitebells. WildWood ,Blue and Whitbells

It only this time of year that the casual walker will be aware of just how many wild cherry trees we have in our local woodlands. These cherries grow tall and so their plumes of white blossom contrasts to the many shades of green within the high canopy and are best admired from a distance beyond the woodlands boundary. WildWood, Wild Cherry in full bloom,Stuart King image

The flowers of Yellow Archangel come into bloom just as the Bluebells are fading, replacing the blue carpet of spring woodland with patches of yellow. An indicator plant of ancient woodlands and hedgerows, Yellow Archangels common name is dead or dummy nettle from its virtue of not stinging. WildWood, Wild Cherry in full bloom,Stuart King image (2)

Dog’s mercury is coming up on the woodland floor. It is a flower, but only just. It has tiny insignificant green blossoms that one hardly notices among the thrusting, bright green leaves. But it is a welcome plant, because it begins to give the woods a green appearance long before the leaves break on the trees. It can spread right across the dark layer of leaf mould on the ground. Wildwood,Dogs Mercury, Stuart King

Wood sorrel goes by many names in Britain, including Cuckoo’s Meat, Fairy Bells and Wood Sour.  The wood sorrel is a member of the Oxalis family, it has shy qualities and for that reason it is said to be a favourite of fairies and other wood sprites. It likes shady places and grows well in woodland along with bluebells, wood anemones and others. It is the most delicate and shy of flowers and many folk will go through life without ever making its’ acquaintance.

Neither the flowers nor the leaves have a smell although the leaves taste pleasantly acidic. They and the flowers can be added to salads, although you shouldn’t add too many leaves as they contain oxalic acid, so people suffering from gout should avoid this plant.  If you use it in a salad there is no need to add vinegar to a dressing, just use olive oil. Wildwood, Wood Sorrel- Oxalis-Stuart King

All the beech trees that grow in the Wildwood are self seeded; self regeneration was a major part of woodland management in the Chilterns, felling was carried out using the selection system and only rarely was replanting undertaken.  At this time of year small two leaved beech seedlings are emerging from the rich leaf mould, some of these will eventually replace the mature trees that were felled in February. WildWood beech seedling, Stuart King WildWood-wood spurge - Euphorbia amygdaloides-Stuart king (2)

There is one area of ash where wood spurge (Euphorbia Amygdaloidal) pops up and lords it over the shorter plants in the vicinity. It is interesting how certain plants like this colonize just a small area. The rare Green Hellebore is another that occupies a tiny spot, just four square metres, and is often an indicator of charcoal rich areas.  Much is claimed for this plant; Mr. Google tells us that, “It is used in magic for healing of mental/emotional afflictions and for banishing and exorcisms. It has been used also for increasing intelligence and for protection and invisibility spells. Apparently the plant was dried and powdered and scattered around the person to be made invisible. Ancient magicians also used hellebore to change the nature of other plants, this is a baneful herb which should never be ingested and you should wear gloves when handling it”. Mind how you go!WildWood-wood spurge - Euphorbia amygdaloides-Stuart king

 

 

 

Stuart King on TV 2012

Alan Titchmarsh Show ITV

Stuart King on Alan Titchmarsh's ShowIt is good to see the media seemingly taking more interest in traditional crafts these days, let us hope this is a continuing trend.

I was asked to contribute my expertise to three very different programmes in 2012; the first was the Alan Titchmarsh Show.  Being studio based meant an early morning trip to London to give the show host a lesson in woodturning on a power lathe. Continue reading

Drovers Road

Holmer Green - Sheep in King Street lane - Stuart King - image (4) - CopyIn my village of Holmer Green we have a number of old track ways that through history, from time to time would have been used for droving animals, particularly sheep. There are historical references to sheep still; Penfold Lane, Sheepcote Dell, the Sheep Wash pond and Mutton Bottom, all echoing the importance of these animals. Continue reading

Stuart wins Strictly Woodturning

Strictly WoodturningOn the evening of Friday 23rd October 2009, attended by 170 guests, delegates and turners, Axminster Tool Centre hosted the Strictly Woodturning event.

Similar to the BBC’s popular Strictly Come Dancing, this was a competition in which the 12 turners competed against each other at the lathe.

They were tasked with creating items such as a vase, goblet and lidded box in an incredibly short eight minutes. Continue reading

History of Marquetry (with Glossary)

Marquetry

The earliest evidence that I am aware of for marquetry/inlay is a remarkable casket from the city or UR, in Mesopotamia dated c2600 BC. Much of the work is cut from ivory and set in bitumen and is a pictorial representation of a mixture of royal and daily life. Not until the European renaissance do we again encounter pictorial decoration using contrasting veneers in the form of intarsia. This inlay technique was originally centred in the Italian city of Sienna in the 11th century and much used to decorate church furniture and panels. Continue reading

History of the Lathe: part one – reciprocal motion

Chinese pedal latheAll lathes by their very nature rely on a revolving work piece. To capture and impart this motion, to devise and create the required force has challenged mans ingenuity back into pre-history. Man has been using the momentum provided by a spinning weight for tens of thousands of years in the form of drop spindles for spinning wool. The potter’s revolving ‘wheel was almost certainly the first machine used by our ancestors. It maybe that the reciprocating bow drill and pump drill in it’s many forms was the first mechanical hand tool, Certainly it could be used to create fire as well as bore holes and with a profiled cutter fitted could be used to produce buttons, counters and beads. Continue reading

History of the Lathe: part two – continuous rotation

French giant wheel latheThe wheel is probably man’s most important technological discovery.  A Sumarian pictogram dated 3500BC is the earliest reference for the wheel. By 2000BC man was making spoked wheels yet the earliest pictorial reference we have of a wheel driven lathe seems to be from the 15th century.

The great advantage of a wheel driven lathe is that continuous and controlled rotary motion is possible. This was not an automatic benefit to every aspect of woodturning though, as is illustrated by the continuing use of the reciprocating bow, strap and pole lathes. These ancient, simple lathes could still compete and perform efficiently in certain specialist areas such as small spindle and bowl turning. Continue reading

History of the Lathe: part three – mechanical power

Electric power drillFrom classical times man has harnessed wind and water to work heavy machinery, to relieve him of hard physical labour and to speed up production. A Roman settlement C.200AD in southern France boasted sixteen water mills for grinding corn. It may be that this form of motive power was used to drive lathes also but if it was there seems to be no record of the fact. If this were the case, it would have probably have been the exception rather than the rule.

It does appear that the woodturners of old were content to continue with their tried and trusty traditional methods long after other sources of power were available to many of them. There were good economical reasons for this. No advantage was to be gained by expensive investment when the simple reliable technology of the strap, bow, pole and latter wheel lathes was usually just as efficient and more reliable. Continue reading

History of the Lathe: part four – the machine takes over

Man has always tried to find ways of making manual tasks easier and the businessman methods to reduce manpower, speed production and lower operating costs. A good illustration of this was the manufacture of rifle butts. Hand held firearms have existed since the Middle Ages and virtually all these weapons incorporated a hand fashioned wooden butt. Making rifle butts was a highly skilled and time-consuming occupation and in time highly protective guilds were formed and prices kept at a high level.

This was just the sort of situation where a machine solution would be welcomed by firearm manufacturers, and in 1820, an Englishman, Thomas Blanchard designed a ‘reproducing lathe’. Blanchard’s lathe was capable of making two rifle butts an hour and it was not long before he had built one capable of producing ten or twelve in an hour. He went on to devise other reproducing lathes to manufacture shoe lasts and axe handles. Continue reading

Marquetry and Me

Stuart King at the marquetry cutter’s donkey

I left school in 1957 aged 15 years with notions of being an archaeologist or naturalist, or even a film cameraman, but with not one qualification to my name. My furniture-making farther said that I had no choice but to seek a job in the local furniture industry. There has been such an industry in my home town of High Wycombe (35 miles north of London) for over 200 years so it seemed perfectly natural, although not very exciting, to follow in my father’s footsteps. Continue reading

Raymond Harvey makes his (wooden) bed

Raymond Harvey, woodturner from High Wycombe

Raymond Harvey, woodworker from High Wycombe

“These are my most important tools”, said my host, looking at two home made knives, one ground from a worn-out hacksaw blade, and an old ‘Surform’ rasp. I was standing in Raymond Harvey’s makeshift back-garden workshop, which reflects his general approach to his work, being a structure consisting completely of recycled materials. There, standing majestic in the midst of this ramshackle shelter is the most stunning four poster bed I have ever seen.

It is bedecked, one could say almost bejewelled, with the most beautifully coloured and grained exotic woods, all vying for attention. These are arranged in very precise geometric patterns reminiscent of the Islamic art of the Moors. Continue reading

Bone up on Bobbins : the craft of lace bobbin making

Lace maker

‘Yon cottager, who weaves at her own door,
Pillow and bobbins all her little store;
Content though mean, and cheerful if not gay,
Shuffling her threads about the livelong day,
Just earns a scanty pittance, and at night
Lies down secure, her heart and pocket light.’

Lines written by the poet William Cowper (1733-1800) describing the plight of lace makers in his hometown of Olney, north Buckinghamshire. For the most part lacemaking was an occupation of the poor, mainly women and children, and although the financial rewards were low it often made the difference between independence or the workhouse. Continue reading

Khokhloma Ware: Folk art for the masses

Kohkhloma painted ladleVirtually no visitor returns from Russia without a painted wooden souvenir reflecting the traditional ‘Khokhloma’ folk art. Khokhloma ware has a very long tradition and can be traced back to both the monastic and peasant culture of the seventeenth century. The predominant materiel used in making these various decorated containers and tableware is Birch, Lime and Maple. Continue reading

Samuel Rockall: last of the chair bodgers

The two RockallsThe proud brick quoined flint cottage still stands alone on Summer Heath, once home to the Rockall family for an uninterrupted 180 years. But no longer can freshly cut Beech butts be seen stacked in the shade of a tall hedge or the whinny of Dapple, the family cart horse be heard from the meadow.

A traditional Chiltern Hills way of life ceased when Sam Rockall died aged 84 in 1962. The local newspapers announced: Samuel Rockall, the last of the Bodgers is dead. Continue reading

The International Turning Exchange

Stuart King at the International Turning Conference

There is nothing parochial about the International Turning Exchange (ITE); this is born out by the number of residents who have participated from many parts of the globe over the last ten years. For me an indicator of the programme’s great success was the number of past residents who chose to return to Philadelphia to repeat the experience. I see the ITE as a ‘melting pot of artistic creation’; dare I say, as unique for its time as was the 19th century English arts and crafts movement or the French impressionists! A prime mover in the world of wood-art. Continue reading

The Caversham Village Sign: carved by Stuart King

In some parts of England there is a tradition of carved wooden signs depicting the unique qualities of the area and often erected on the village green. Usually created by a local craftsman, they instill a sense of identity and pride, and are rivaled only by the English pub sign for originality. They are part of our folk art heritage.

Some time ago I received a commission from the Caversham Residents Association, supported by Reading Borough Council, to design, carve and paint a sign to represent the history of the village. Continue reading

Making Gypsy Flowers

A gypsy flower made from ElderToday’s flower arrangers are spoilt for choice. Wonderful natural material is available from around the globe, all the year round. Fifty years ago one had to rely on what was grown in season in one’s own garden or the limited range stocked by the local florist whose main business was supplying weddings and funerals.

It’s the same with artificial flowers. Remember those awful plastic examples from Hong Kong, heavily molded lurid reds and greens that fooled no one? Today, artificial flowers and foliage can be unbelievably life like, but until very recent times there was only another source of artificial flowers for the ordinary home: from the Romanies or Gypsies. Continue reading

How I built Leonardo Da Vinci’s lathe

Leonardo's lathe and its modern reconstruction

How long has man been turning wood? Almost certainly longer than we have evidence for! What did the first lathe look like? We are not sure, but we can come to a reasonable conclusion bearing in mind the materials and technology available. There are just a few early illustrations that give us some insight plus the continuing use of simple technology in parts of the under-developed world. Continue reading

Chair Turnings

Roman chair from NaplesWoodturning has played more than a supporting role in the history of chair making. From the ancient Egyptians, who used the lathe for turning chair parts, to the latest computer-controlled copy lathes man has endeavored to decorate his furniture and solve the practical turning problems that arise.

Some of the earliest evidence of turned work in English chairs date from the twelfth Century where a chair of state is depicted in an illuminated manuscript written by Eadwine, a monk from Canterbury.

Continue reading

German Toy Town

German wooden toysForget Lapland and Father Christmas, cease searching for Gusepie’s fictional workshop where Pinocchio was created. The real ‘toy-land’ is alive and well in old Saxony, This beautifully rural East German region encompasses the Erzgebirge mountains that shares a border with the Czech Republic. This whole area is dotted with small medieval towns and villages with half-timbered buildings that would be quite at home in any European fairytale. In fact when I reached my destination, the toy-making village of Seiffen, I had to suspend belief that this little community was part of a Disney film set. Continue reading

Making a Wassail Bowl

Wassail bowl by Stuart KingThe height of wassailing could be said to have occurred during the 17th century, at a period when magnificent bowls elevated on a stemmed foot graced many a magnificent table. Wassail bowls were traditionally turned from Lignum Vitea, a newly discovered timber from South America. The function of a wassail bowl is to hold ‘wassail’, a hot punch like beverage of which there are many recipes, most will contain amongst other ingredients, Wine, Ale, Ginger, Apples, Honey and beaten egg whites. ‘Wassailing’, the tradition of drinking wassail took many forms.’ Wassail’ is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon phrase waes hael, a term often used as a toast meaning, be hale or good health. Continue reading

Marrakesh is so Moorish

Having ‘done’ much of Europe including some of it’s least visited areas, tasted the US and experienced Hong Kong and China, choices of reasonably priced but exotic destinations were diminishing. My wife Joan and I wanted a complete change of culture, somewhere exotic and maybe just a little challenging, definitely not just sun, sea and sand.

The Square in Marrakesh

We had never visited an Arab country before and the thought of exciting Souks in a walled Medina, the Kasbah, carpets, spices and Camels, this had to be our next holiday. Morocco beckoned, to be precise our destination was to be Marrakech. Flight time from Gatwick was just over three hours, and with a ten-minute transfer to our hotel everything was very relaxed. The hotel (El Andalous) is situated two kilometres from the old city centre, half an hours stroll or a cheep taxi ride.

Two types of taxi operate in Marrakech, the’ taxi petit’ or the ‘taxi grand’. The petit is all you would normally need within and around the old or new city, being the smallest they are also the cheapest, ten-twenty Dirhams (60p-£1-20p) will take you to most places during the day, prices rise during the evening slightly. A ‘taxi grand’ will cost a little more, and being mostly Mercedes have extra room for larger parties, they are also uniquely allowed to travel outside the city boundaries and so are available for longer sightseeing journeys. Always agree a taxi fare before you start your journey.

As usual we were keen to leave the confines of our hotel and eager to explore. We headed on foot towards the highest landmark in all of Marrakech, the imposing tower of the Koutoubia mosque (C1184-1189) still resplendent in it’s rather refined Moorish style. This led us to the old walled city (Medina) and into a world unlike any we had previously experienced, only a visit to Goa a few years ago came close. Standing in ‘Place Djemaa el–Fna’, referred to in general as ‘la place’ in French or ‘the square’ in English, we were presented with a 360 degree panoramic spectacle such as one might find in an Arabian storybook.

With the large Koutoubia mosque behind us we surveyed a frenetic scene of minor commerce. Wizened old men wearily pulling handcarts laden with all manner of merchandise, colourfull carpets piled high, new made chairs and mysterious boxes. Other goods, building rubble and the detritus of everyday living were being conveyed in carts pulled by sad looking donkeys, their drivers giving them an occasional prod with a stick to remind them of whose boss. Green horse drawn carriages conveying newly arrived tourists added some serenity to an otherwise frenetic scene. Entertainers were in the Square en-mass, all trying to extract some loose change from our pockets, usually in exchange for a ‘photo opportunity’.

Kaftaned-attired dancers with their shell lined, tassel swirling hats and bells were complimented by an assortment of other ethnic musicians. Burka wearing women were doing good business decorating arms, hands and faces with traditional henna designs, others were squatted beneath parasols in readiness to tell ones fortune. Storytellers and elder educators attracted large crowds of locals, as did the ‘medicine men’ with their stalls laid out complete with jars of mysterious remedies and skins of long deceased animals.

There were no western hippie groups muscling in on the entertainment act, as is the case in most European countries, the entertainment was purely indigenous, and very colourful. The brightly dressed ‘water carriers’, with their Day-Glo ‘lampshade’ hats, shiny brass drinking cups and bells would have been prime contenders for a leading role in any British pantomime. I found the snake charmers less than charming, but there were still many who could not resist having the ‘snake around the neck’ photo to take back home. I do have to admit though, that the wailing of the snake men’s trumpets and the beat of the drums certainly added to the atmosphere.

Again, we were not enamoured at all by the men with their captive monkeys forced to endure an alien environment in the pursuit of tourist cash. Towards the periphery of the square were stalls selling spices and local fruit, I have never seen so many dates, and strung-up figs piled high tempting passers by. Enclosing all this are numerous cafes and restaurants encouraging the visitor to relax and do some people watching.

The best advantage points for an over-view of the Square is from one of the terraced roof top restaurants with a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice or a glass of the local sweet mint tea, or maybe a coffee with a plate of petit pours. Any time of day is good for this relaxing and entertaining experience but late afternoon in March with the sun low in the sky is particularly evocative of the Eastern spirit.

This is when the square prepares it’s-self for the nightly feasting of it’s inhabitants. Food stalls illuminated by gas lamp and light bulbs push the daytime entertainers to the margins as cooking stoves and copper tea urns smoke, steam and hiss into the ever-glowing skyline. Customers seated around the bustling stalls can indulge in various delights such as boiled sheep’s head, snails served hot in china dishes seeped in snail liqueur or hard boiled eggs stuffed into a large bread roll.

The ‘Place Djemaa el-Fna’ was just the start of this Moroccan adventure, just a fraction of the old city). There were still fine monuments to discover such as the utterly unmissible Bahia Palace decorated in rich arabesque splendour with its painted ceilings and stucco carvings. The Ben Youssef Medrassa is another must-see masterpiece for those interested in historic architecture. It was founded in the fifteenth century as a university for the study of the Koran. Once it housed nine hundred students, or so we were informed by a weasely old man dressed all in white, who immediately latched on to as a (unofficial) guide and who became more irritating by the minuet, hoping for a tip.

It is common to be pestered by locals offering to take you some where, usually places you don’t want to go like their brothers carpet shop or the tannery where they will receive a small payment from the proprietors. On the other hand you may well be lost as we were at one time. We were pleased to pay the young boy who offered to guide us back to the main square, for his trouble. I imagine he regularly tops up his pocket money this way! The Medina is a large and confusing place and unless you have plenty of time to explore at your own pace it would be worth hiring an official guide for a day (about £30). A guide will also help you deal with the thousands of shopkeepers in the souks and the Kasbah.

The Souk and Kasbah are the two main areas of commerce, made up of alleyways, winding streets and small shops fronting the thoroughfares, and the proprietor of each will insistently ask you to look at his goods as you are passing in the hope of a sale. You learn quickly to politely ignore them, unless of course the amazing array goods on offer tempt you. If you are tempted, bargaining is the order of the day or you will pay severely over the odds! If something is offered for 500 Dirhams, the vendor will probably, after a bit of haggling accept 50! Good buys are clothes, carpets, inlayed wooden items, leather goods and metal work. Lanterns hang everywhere and like much of what is seen for sale will have been made just a few streets away.

If you have the time, seek out some of these artisans. I wanted to find some traditional woodturners using medieval type bow lathes and was successful. Marrakech is a microcosm of pre industrial revolution technology, it’s all there; metal bashing, tanning, ceramics, textiles and all the wood-working trades.

Marrakech can be very tiring on the feet, but in my view is best seen on foot, but hiring a horse drawn carriage will introduce you to many of the sites and experiences at a more leisurely pace. Depending on your bartering skills this will cost between £5-£10 per hour. We took to a carriage to visit the Majorelle gardens, a welcome oasis of peace and bird song just outside the city wall. This was the perfect antidote to shopping in the Souk and dodging the ubiquitous mopeds that form the main means of personal transport, and seemed some times to come from nowhere.

If you tire of the old Medina there is always the new city to explore with its upmarket shops and restaurants, but we decided it was not for us. As a break and an opportunity to see some more of morocco we booked a long excursion through the High Atlas Mountains to the old city of Ouarzazate. This proved to be a good choice. We boarded our minibus at 7am and travelled from the plains of Marrakech to the lush valleys of the Berbers, whose pink hued mud brick homes clung precariously to the steep hillsides. Access to these was often only by way of a rickety rope bridge across a ravine. There were opportunities for those who collect stones and fossils to make some worth while purchases as momentos of the region. After a couple of hours we reached the snow-line becoming unexpectedly stuck behind other vehicles that were having difficulty driving on the ice. This added to the excitement of being more than 3000 metres above sea level. The views were stunning, especially looking back to the winding hairpin roads we had just travelled on.

Once over the summit the landscape slowly changed though snowy white to green, and then to a more desolate but warm rust-red semi moon like landscape so beloved of epic filmmakers. Indeed, Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator were both filmed here. After stopping to admire a hilltop Kasbah and visiting a ‘typical’ Berber home we reached the small town of Ouarzazate. After lunch it was time to retrace our steps for the long journey back to Marrakech.

Our visit to North Africa was full of the sights, sounds, and aromas, characters and colour that I was promised by all the guidebooks with one exception. Even the tour operator dose not recommend Morocco to vegetarians. We are both vegetarians and experienced no problems at all, either at our hotel of eating out, so go and enjoy!

Bow lathe turner in Marrakesh

The use of bow lathes has a long tradition. The first recorded example is an illustration on an Egyptian tomb circa 350 BC. Its actual usage almost certainly goes back much further than that. In Marakesh these lathes are used to produce small items such as chess pieces.