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Bard of the Fens: bard work begins here for those hoping to be star storyteller

This weekend the new Bard of the Fens will be crowned at Flag Fen. Hannah Gray finds out about the tradition of poetry reciting and storytelling in this area.

This weekend the new Bard of the Fens will be crowned at Flag Fen.

Hannah Gray finds out about the tradition of poetry reciting and storytelling in this area.FROM MP3 players to PlayStations, our entertainment options today are endless.

But what we often forget is that we all possess the ability to entertain in a way that doesn't cost money, require electricity, games or downloads.

Each one of us can tell a story, and, by doing so, transport those around us to another place or time.

The art of storytelling is not one commonly practised these days, but one place it is still popular is Flag Fen.

This weekend, the Bronze Age centre will be holding an Eisteddfod, a summer arts festival, and, among other attractions, this event will see contestants waging a war of words as they compete to become the Chief Bard of the Fens.

Legend suggests that more than 31 English cities once held a bardic seat, with their right to elect their own bard each year through a contest.

Last year, Flag Fen held its Eisteddfod and the Battle of the Bards for the first time.

And this year's contest looks set to be a particularly exciting one, as Peterborough's current Poet Laureate, Keely Mills, and last year's Laureate, Mark Grist, are among the competitors.

Last year, it was 39-year-old college lecturer Robin Herne who was crowned Bard of the Fens.

In his year in the role, Robin has been delighted to return to Flag Fen to take part in events there and to help with the entertaining.

Robin has been a storyteller for more than 15 years, initially telling religious stories, but then expanding his repertoire.

"People enjoyed it so much that I've branched out to tell virtually any story," he said.

He now tells a combination of his own stories and other myths and legends, and thoroughly enjoys his hobby.

"It's just seeing people enjoying themselves and creating a world. It's quite fun just to lead them on and have a surprise ending and watch the look on their faces," he said.

Robin said that the Fens is a rich area for traditional stories.

"The Saxons and the Vikings and subsequent people who've come in have all brought their stories with them so it's a very varied area," he said.

He believes that it is a loss that the art of storytelling had dropped out of popularity in our culture.

"I work as a teacher and the kids' attention spans are very short these days from watching TV shows," he said.

"Something such as story telling, they can sit there and listen for an hour or more at a time, completely wrapped up in the story.

"It expands their concentration. It also connects the generations. How many people these days sit and listen to their grandparents or aunts and uncles?"

Next page: 'It gives our imagination a free reign''It gives our imagination a free reign'

A CHANCE trip to a storytelling event led Richard Storey to find a new passion in his life.

Richard (53) said: "Somebody my wife knew had been along to this event and said 'why don't you go'? It was a very powerful experience."

"It's indescribable really. There was just something about when I first heard the storyteller, he had the audience hooked. I'd never seen that before, where people were hanging on every word."

After this amazing experience, Richard, who lives near Ramsey, joined a storytelling group in Cambridge and went on a workshop to learn more about the art.

Later he decided to set up a group closer to home, and Ramsey Storytellers was born. This group quickly took off.

"We just went from strength to strength," he said. "We started off in pubs and places like that, but now we do a lot of things in schools and centres for the elderly, hospitals, all sorts of stuff."

The range of stories taken on by the Ramsey group varies enormously, and Richard said often there are groups of stories which lend themselves best to a particular group of people.

"We've got a few of the typical stories you might expect such as Little Red Riding Hood, tales from King Arthur, mystical folk tales, right up to the Arabian Nights and Beowulf," he said.

As well as their subject matter, the stories can vary in their length, and can even be a group effort.

Richard said: "It can be anything from a two-minute story up to something two and half hours long. That's working as a group, each doing individual parts."

The difference between what Richard and other members of the group do, and what parents up and down the country do at bedtime is that he tells stories without the aid of books.

So how do they remember the stories, or is it a case of cramming just before a performance?

"You take out the key points which are the stepping stones that you use to help you remember it," he said. "It's not quite improvisation, but you break the story down into its key bits and then build it up in your own words.

"You're not memorising it word for word as an actor would memorise his lines.

"Different people have different ways of remembering. Some do it visually, some do it as if you're going through a series of rooms. They're all memory tricks you use to remember.

"I can picture an event and can picture the characters in my mind, that's how I remember what they're doing next."

Although it might be easy to assume that children are more receptive to the work of storytellers, Richard believes that young and old alike are open to the magic of it.

"They're not quite sure what to expect," he said. "I think children are amazed by it, because they love the imaginative side of it and adults probably more so, because they've lost that ability to listen, which children still have."

But some groups are harder to enthral than others.

"I think the most difficult audience to engage would be young adults, teenagers, possibly because they don't think they can learn anything from it.

"They're at that difficult transition between adults and children. They see it as a thing for children, they think 'that's not for me, I'm not going to give it the opportunity'.

"But when they do they are pleasantly surprised, there's still something of the child in them."

Despite the number of activities vying for attention when it comes to entertainment, Richard believes the storytelling tradition will survive because it lets us unleash our imaginations.

"It's great for the imagination because it just plants the seed of an idea and you do the rest," he said.

"Very often, it's as much what the storyteller doesn't say as what they do. People never know what's going to come next. It gives the imagination free reign."

Host of activities to be held at EisteddfodHost of activities to be held at Eisteddfod

The Eisteddfod at Flag Fen this weekend will feature a host of family events including face-painting, arts and crafts stalls, storytelling, poetry reading, children's craft activities, games, competitions, badge making and a hog roast.

The event is based on the ancient Celtic festival which our ancestors who lived at Flag Fen took part in every year.

The Eisteddfod tradition, which can be traced back to the 12th century, celebrates creativity, music, poetry and the art of storytelling and performance.

General manager of Flag Fen Neil Hart said: "This is the second year we have held the Eisteddfod event at Flag Fen. The event is set to be a fantastic weekend with lots of family fun planned.

"On the Saturday we have the young poet of the year competition with Peterborough Library, and the Battle of the Bards on the Sunday. There will also be a host of activities on both days including story-telling, poetry readings, children's workshops, arts and crafts stalls, music, and dancing."

The Eisteddfod will run from 10am to 5pm on both Saturday and Sunday. Admission for an adult costs 5 with free entry for children under five.

Flag Fen can be accessed by bicycle and foot via the Green Wheel (approximately five miles or one and a half hours from Peterborough railway and bus station on foot and 45 minutes by bicycle). By car, Flag Fen is just 10 minutes away from Peterborough city centre and can be accessed from Junction 5 of the A1139 or via the B1040 from Whittlesey or Thorney, turning at the Dog in the Doublet Pub. Brown signs direct travellers from Peterborough.

Visit www.flagfen.com to plan your visit.

 

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