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North Walsham’s festival for the future

PUBLISHED: 11:36 07 June 2016

North Walsham market place and its famous Market Cross.  Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

North Walsham market place and its famous Market Cross. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

Archant Norfolk 2016

A new annual festival is attempting to put the town on the map as well as fostering a sense of pride and community for its residents

A trail through Bacton Woods, managed by the Forestry CommissionA trail through Bacton Woods, managed by the Forestry Commission

Having worked as a performer, playwright and artistic director around Britain, Joseph Ballard started work at The Atrium, based at North Walsham High School, four years ago fresh from his role as an Inspire programmer for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

“Working for the Olympic team was an incredible experience, both in the build up and during the games. I was working all over the country, which I loved, but I grew up in North Walsham and found it was always the place I loved to come back to. I finished working at the Paralympics’ closing ceremony and got into Norwich at 4.30am; four hours later I was at my desk at The Atrium thinking about the programme we could put in place to really make the most of this amazing facility. It was a strange transition, from a stadium of 85,000 people to a small community project, but in many ways the challenges were the same, to encourage participation and to bring people together.”

The theme of this year’s festival is the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Great Battle of North Walsham.

“As a kid I loved hearing the stories of the Peasants’ Revolt, this huge battle happening in the church,” says Joseph. “I would look for slash marks from swords in the walls. It was gruesome but it was fascinating, so I began thinking about this amazing history and how we could bring it to life.”

The 14th century St Nicholas Church, built when North Walsham was at the heart of the wool and weaving industry, is thought to be the largest Wool church in NorfolkThe 14th century St Nicholas Church, built when North Walsham was at the heart of the wool and weaving industry, is thought to be the largest Wool church in Norfolk

The medieval battle will be recreated, but not in a way you might expect.

“Rather than having a show with a battle re-enactment company, we have created a mass dance –The Battle Project. Anyone can join in with the big performance in the park and the moves are easy to learn, it is all online. Whether you are in a dance group, a sports club or are a family or individual, we hope it will be an amazing collective experience.”

Another of the key elements of this year’s festival is North Walsham Knits – a project to engage those who are unable or not keen to get involved with the performance side.

“During the 14th century the town was at the heart of the woollen and weaving industry and it was this prosperity which saw the building of St Nicholas Church, so the ‘knits’ seemed perfect. The premise is simple, you knit something of your choice, give it to us, and then we will create a large piece of artwork in the town to be revealed during the festival. We are not telling people what it is they are knitting bits for and it has really got people talking, they love the element of surprise and the response has been amazing.”

Pigneys Wood and Nature Reserve by the North Walsham and Dilham CanalPigneys Wood and Nature Reserve by the North Walsham and Dilham Canal

As well as the festival, Joseph and his team run a packed programme of shows, music recitals, cinema screenings and performing arts courses throughout the year at The Atrium, carefully balancing different interests and needs. “I can programme shows for certain sections of the community and know they will do well, but I am interested in the town as a whole, especially the 16-to-25 age group. If young people aren’t engaged now, where do we go in the future? We have a really strong youth theatre and an adult drama group and we have also launched our community choir, which has more than 70 members. There is a great sense of wellbeing among the group, and to so many of our members it is more than just a chance to sing.

“We could do none of this, of course, without our volunteers. A lot of those who give up their time aren’t even necessarily interested in the arts, they are interested in the town and that is the very thing we want to achieve.”

Wood and water

Joseph Ballard of Arts North Norfolk with some of the donated knitting for the secret project as part of the North Walsham FestivalJoseph Ballard of Arts North Norfolk with some of the donated knitting for the secret project as part of the North Walsham Festival

Explore just a mile or so outside of North Walsham and you will find meandering waterways, expansive woodland and beautiful north Norfolk countryside.

Bacton Woods, which is managed by the Forestry Commission, is an ancient woodland with more than 30 species of tree, including Scots and Corsican pPine, wWestern hHemlock and lLarch, as well as two sSessile oaks, thought to be more than 200 years old.

Not only is thisat a habitat rich in flora and fauna, with plenty of walking trails, it is a working woodland carefully managed sustainability for timber and wildlife.

Close by is access to a once- forgotten waterway which has now become a haven for wildlife and exploring the great outdoors.

The North Walsham and Dilham Canal Trust formed in 2008 to protect, conserve and improve the canal for the benefit of the community and the environment.

It is Norfolk’s only artificial locked sailing canal, opened in the early 1800s and running nine miles from Antingham to Wayford Bridge.

The trust has helped promote access to the waterway, enabling it to be used by walkers, nature loves, fishermen, boaters and canoeists.

A town together

This year’s North Walsham Festival runs from June 18 to 26, featuring and the eclectic programme features everything from music, and dance, to drama, street theatre and art. The programme includesfeatures 25 free events and there are a number of ways the public can get involved with performances.

The town’s Memorial Park will be transformed into a medieval camp on Saturday, June 25 and Sunday, June 26, bringing the smells, sights and sounds of the 14th century to life, with activities, performances and demonstrations for all the family. It will culminate in the performance of the town’s ‘Battle Project’ dance on the Saturday evening, and the festival parade through the town on the Sunday morning.

There will also be events during the festival centred around the church, which remains such a dominate feature of the town, with its ruined tower - which collapsed in the early 1700s - an important part of the landscape.

Moment in history

The Peasants’ Revolt was a major rebellion which spread throughout mediaeval England. Discontent had grown among the country’s peasants following the introduction of tough wage controls. The fortunes of wealthy landowners soared, the behaviour of nobles, who ruled on behalf of King Richard, and the position of the church also enraged commoners.

In the summer of 1381, thousands of peasants led by local man John Litester, marched on Norwich, taking control of the city. They were eventually forced to retreat to the countryside just outside of North Walsham by the King’s army and the forces of the Bishop of Norwich, Bishop Henry De Spenser.

It is believed that there, they were confronted by Bishop Des Spenser’s soldiers, and thousands of peasants were killed in the ensuing ‘Great Battle of North Walsham’. Many fled to the town’s church and barricaded themselves in, but were unable to escape the army and were also slain. Reminders of the battle can be found in and around the town today.

For the full festival programme or to get involved, see www.artsnorthnorfolk.org or visit Arts North Norfolk at Market Place, North Walsham, NR28 9BP.

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