Feather trimmings

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Medieval monks in Cheshire used quill pens to produce illuminated manuscripts and copied books. Gary Hayden watched primary pupils discover the ancient craft

In the 12th century, the Baron of Halton established an Augustinian Priory at Norton in Cheshire. Religious life continued there for more than 400 years, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. The canons wore black woollen capes, and were nicknamed "black canons". They lived according to the Rule of St Augustine, which governed every aspect of their lives: prayer, worship, eating, drinking and even sleeping.

In 1545, local landowner Sir Richard Brooke bought the priory and its estates, demolished many of the buildings and built a Tudor mansion. This was later replaced by his descendants with a Georgian country house.

The family left Norton in 1921, and the house became derelict. The site was excavated in the early 1970s, and Norton Priory Museum opened in 1975. It is set in 38 acres of beautifully tended grounds, which boast a wildflower glade, a sculpture trail, a Victorian walled garden, the remains of the priory, and a splendid medieval herb garden.

Inside the museum, every chapter in the site's long history is on display.

Most impressive are those which depict life in the medieval priory: an 11ft (3.35m) statue of St Christopher; a model of the priory being built; a skeleton in a stone coffin; illuminated manuscripts; a collection of tiles and mosaics; and much more. Monkish chanting reverberates around the semi-darkened exhibition room, creating an atmosphere of timelessness and mystery.

The museum holds a Sandford Award for the excellence of its education service and a Reed Award for special needs education provision. It is also one of four finalists for this year's Gulbenkian Museum of the Year prize.

Education officer Gwen Walker provides an impressive range of workshops for key stages 1 to 4, including Tudor lives, Historical detective, Woodland trail and the Victorian garden. New this year is Quills and thrills, a workshop for KS23. This works best as an afternoon session, after Daily life of the canons in the morning.

"One of the skills the Norton canons had was that of copying books," Gwen Walker explains. "There were no printing presses, so everything had to be done by hand. It was a painstaking process, and one book might take months to complete. Novice canons would learn from older ones. Quills and thrills gives pupils a glimpse into this aspect of Priory life. They can follow the process of making an illuminated manuscript through from cutting the quill pens to adding the final embellishments."

A class of Year 45 pupils from St Berteline's Primary School in Runcorn are all to be novice canons. Gwen Walker tells them: "I am an older canon, and I am going to teach you how to make an illuminated manuscript." She presents an informative slide-show about the "scriptorium" where monks once spent many hours writing and illustrating manuscripts. Then it's time for the children to have a go.

For the next hour, the "novices" are absorbed in the task of writing their names in illuminated lettering. They take a craftsman's pride in carefully marking out the paper, drawing ornate letters using quills and ink, and decorating borders with pictures of plants, animals and grotesques.

Finally, gold ink is applied to selected areas. Gwen Walker points out that real gold leaf was used to decorate medieval manuscripts. The monks would rub or "burnish" it with a dog's or wolf's tooth to make it shine.

"Properly burnished gold doesn't fade. So these manuscripts still shine brightly today," she explains.

By the end of the afternoon, each child has a souvenir to take home and has gained a fascinating insight into the history of writing and printing.


Norton Priory Museum amp; Gardens Tudor Road, Manor Park, Runcorn, Cheshire WA7 1SX

Admission pound;2.50

Tel: 01928 569895 www.nortonpriory.org

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