Gathering offers lots of learning opportunities

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It isn’t possible to do everything at the Morpeth Gathering. While you’re busy attending one event, three more are going on somewhere else.

On Friday I went to hear Hautbois in the Market Place. They are there every year, come rain, hail or snow. This year it was sunny.

Because St George’s Day fell on Gathering Sunday some of the songs were about our noble patron saint.

It seems we can forget about the maiden and the dragon. All parties agree that they were later inventions.

The best information about the real St George is found in the online Catholic Encyclopedia.

Two important facts are, first, that St George was the patron saint of several early churches in Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece. And second, that a decree of Pope Gelasius I in 495 already mentions various spurious claims that had been made about him.

We can thus say with reasonable confidence, first that George was a real person, secondly that he was a Christian, and thirdly a martyr.

There was a Great Persecution between 303 and 311, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. It went on sporadically until 324, when the Emperor Constantine introduced toleration throughout the empire.

It is a reasonable guess, therefore, that St George suffered martyrdom some time in the early fourth century, but even this is only a guess.

An attractive story makes him a soldier in the Roman army. He refuses to sacrifice to the official Roman gods, and even debates theology with Diocletian, but to no effect and dies for his faith.

It is true that Diocletian ordered everyone in the army to sacrifice to the gods or face dismissal. But there is simply no evidence for George being a soldier.

In short, we can agree with Pope Gelasius that while his name is honoured by all men, his deeds are known only to God.

The Morpeth Gadgy Alex Swailes was indisposed so the Gathering was opened by the Rev Ron Forster in the character of William Turner.

Turner's New Herball, 1551-58, was the first scientific study of plants in the English language. He is known as the Father of English Botany, hence the Turner Garden in Carlisle Park.

On Sunday, the Morpeth Waites gave an open-air concert in the garden. The original Town Waits were disbanded in 1836.

Their obituary in the council minutes is short and brutal: “At the quarterly meeting of the council held at Mrs Bells on the ninth day of May 1836. The Mayor in the chair. On the motion of Mr R. Lewins, seconded by Mr Jobling, that the waits be continued, the motion was negatived.”

But now, on a beautiful afternoon, we listened to the music of Turner's age amongst the herbs and flowers of his great Herball.

Nearby was a Tudor gentlewoman in her kitchen, in the person of Louisa Gidney of Rent-a-Peasant.

The ornate chests are similar to the boxes that were used to store high-value materials like sugar and spices, giving visible proof of the wealth and status of the household. Beside them stands a sugarloaf. You broke pieces off with a hammer and chisel, then reduced them to powder with a pestle and mortar.

Next to that is a butter churn. Pumping the plunger up and down made the fat in the milk separate and stick together and so make butter.

Louisa kindly told me that: “The pot with a spout is an alembic, used for distilling rose water for flavouring sweetmeats and toilet waters, for example Hungary water, similar to Eau de Cologne.”

At the end of the table are several moulds and gingerbreads. The small decorated box with a red lid, just in front of Louisa, contains cloves. This is where kitchen meets politics and high adventure.

Sir Francis Drake left Plymouth in December 1577, entered the Pacific and attacked Spanish settlements on the west coast of South America. He also captured not one, but two rich treasure ships. The significance of this for Anglo-Spanish relations needs no comment.

Sailing northward, he probably reached Whale Cove, Oregon, at 45°N, and perhaps even Prince of Wales Island, 55°N. He sailed west, bought a great quantity of cloves in the Moluccas or Spice Islands, and reached Plymouth in September 1580. It was the first large cargo of cloves ever to be landed in England.

Nearby are two plates of sweetmeats. Louisa said: “The dark sweetmeats were prunes stewed in red wine, the paler ones were calishones, marchpane (marzipan) flavoured with coriander and formed in the adjacent mould. These, with the gingerbreads, were all classed as Banquetting Stuffe, the sweetmeats served to High Table at the end of a formal dinner.”

The York Waits gave a concert in the Chantry Bagpipe Museum on Saturday. Like the Morpeth ones, the York Waits were disbanded in 1836. Their successors first met in 1977.

One of the things they told us was that, in the 40 years since, a lot of music has been discovered in the archives of towns in Poland, Italy, Germany, and all over Europe.