Jests of Queen Bess

7th February 1997 at 00:00
It is a weekend in July and the courtyard of Penshurst House, near Tonbridge in Kent, is adorned with brightly coloured pavilions. Two stages set the scene for the players, and at a booth surrounded by children an armourer explains the intricacies of Elizabethan weaponry and armour. The court jester, with hobby horse, canters among the crowd, while the rat catcher plies his trade.

Visitors are greeted by Elizabethan music, played expertly on period instruments by a the group Tarleton's Jig. Plays of the period, acted by the Pie Powder Players, have the crowd shouting responses, hooting with laughter. The open stage bears the message, "God Bless Elizabeth our Queen".

Tarot the Jester has the children gazing in wonder at his tricks and capers. He is played by Stuart Fell, a stunt arranger at Pinewood studios, who also handles all the stunts for Compo in the TV series The Last of the Summer Wine.

As I sit under a tree watching it all happen a loud roar arouses me from my reverie. Into the courtyard lumbers Gustavus, the dancing bear, followed by Igor Tomsk, the bear tamer. The children are delighted but I feel for whoever is baking inside the bear costume.

"Elizabethan Entertainment and Revelry" put on at Penshurst during July by Nunn's Productions, is the brainchild of James Bisgood, who not only stage manages the production but is also director, musicians and acts in the plays and makes his own period musical instruments.

Good Queen Bess often visited Penshurst to hunt with her favourite suitor Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Built in the 14th Century by Sir John de Pulteney, a rich draper and wool merchant and four times Lord Mayor of London, it is one of the great houses of England.

It was the home of the gallant Elizabethan soldier-poet Sir Philip Sidney, who died after the battle of Zutphen. In 1587 he was given a state funeral in St Paul's Cathedral, the first commoner to be so honoured. The Sidney family has lived at Penshurst for more than 400 years.

The vast Great Hall, built in 1340, has a superb timber roof carved with life-size figures of the lord of the time's retainers. The apartments are impressive, as is the armoury and the collection of antique toys and games in the stable block should not be missed.

There is also an adventure playground for children to let off steam.

Penshurst Place, Tonbridge, Kent. Tel: 01892 870307

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