Memorable Bede

19th May 1995 at 01:00
A modest Tyneside museum is being transformed into a major Anglo-Saxon attraction. Nicki Household reports.

It's hard to imagine what the Venerable but unworldly Bede would make of the splendid new museum that has been built to celebrate his life and times at Bede's World in Jarrow. Designed by Evans and Shaley , the brick and stone building, with its pergola and atrium, is reminiscent of the Mediterranean world of the seventh century.

How does that connect with Anglo-Saxon Northumbria? Well, Bede's early mentor, Benedict Biscop, was so impressed by the buildings of Rome, when he went there on a pilgrimage in AD 653, that he came back and built two stone monasteries, dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, at Monk Wearmouth and Jarrow. Until then, almost all Anglo-Saxon buildings were made of wattle and daub.

Opened by the Duke of Gloucester on May 18, this handsome building (which houses a visitor centre and new exhibition area) together with a newly-created Anglo-Saxon farm, named Gyrwe, is the first phase of a multi-million pound project, due for completion by 2000, which will turn the formerly-modest Bede Monastery Museum into a major historical attraction, reflecting not only Bede the man, but every aspect of Northumbrian life between 410 and 866 AD.

To celebrate this week's opening, three precious medieval manuscripts borrowed from the British Library Bede's Life of Ceolfrith, a letter from Bede to the Archbishop of York and the third oldest surviving copy of his Ecclesiastical History will be on show until September.

While the farm and new museum, which contains replicas and some genuine examples of excavated chain mail, weaponry, jewellery and artefacts, reflect secular life in the Golden Age of Northumbria, the old museum in Jarrow Hall (open since 1974) is devoted to Bede's life and work. Exhibits include excavated evidence of the monastic site (bronze styli, stained glass, carved stones), illuminated manuscripts, a model of the monastery in its heyday with an atmospheric audio-visual account of everyday life there, and storyboards of Bede's life and achievements.

Given into the care of the monks at nearby Wearmouth monastery when he was only seven, Bede became a priest at 30 and died in Jarrow at the age of 62, just moments (according to his pupil, Cuthbert) after he had finished dictating a translation into English of St John's Gospel. He was an extraordinarily prolific writer. Besides his famous Ecclesiastical History of the English People, to which we are indebted for almost everything we know about English history up to the 8th Century, Bede wrote biographies of the saints, commentaries on the Bible, works on poetry, chronology (he was the inspiration behind our BCAD dating system), hymns, epigrams, and a History of the Abbots of WearmouthJarrow. He was also the first person to call the mixed races of southern Britain the English.

But most importantly, as far as the team behind Bede's World are concerned, the great historian was a local lad. Based on a long-term strategy called A Vision for Jarrow, the project aims not only to honour the town's most famous son, but also to create a prestigious cultural centre. Funded by Tyne and Wear Development Corporation, South Tyneside Council, and privatecorporate donations (a gift of Pounds 100,000 from local author Catherine Cookson was announced this week), the museum trust also has high hopes of a recent application to the national lottery.

From the autumn term, Bede's World will offer school parties three new Anglo-Saxon experiences in addition to its already very popular Monastic Day a Scriptorium half-day, an Archaeological half-day and a Saxon half-day. For the first, the children will dress as monks, enter a mock-up of a medieval writing room and use quill pens and coloured inks that they have mixed themselves from natural dyes, to create their own illuminated letters.

For the second, they will dig in a fake Anglo-Saxon grave (carefully planted with replicas of real archaeological finds) and learn how to wash, sort, bag and record their booty. For the third, they will visit the new farm, then dress up as Anglo-Saxons to learn traditional Saxon crafts like fence-making, spinning, working a pole-lathe and simple cookery.

The farm itself is constantly evolving. Created from the unpromising soil of a former Shell oil storage tank site, it has wattle fences, historically correct crops, vegetables and grasses, authentic breeds of sheep and cattle and even a wild boar, named Rosemary. It's managed, as far as possible, using Anglo-Saxon methods. The first farm dwelling, built from oak, wattle and daub and thatch is nearing completion and soon there will be Anglo-Saxon boats on the re-landscaped River Don.

Open throughout the year. Adults Pounds 2.50, children Pounds 1.25. For more information contact Elizabeth Bell, Senior Education Officer, Bede's World, Church Bank, Jarrow, Tyne and Wear NE32 3DY. Tel: 0191 489 2106.

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