Experience a real medieval banquet!

Monday 15 February 2016

Courtiers, court jesters and a whole lot of good cheer. We spent the night at a historic hotel, just over 30 minutes south of Birmingham, which was once an abbey and then childhood home to ‘The Winter Queen’ – Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia – to experience a dinner party 16th-century style… Medieval characters perform on stage at Coombe Abbey Hotel, Warwickshire. ‘Huzzah!’ We all jeer, knocking back our first beaker of mead. It’s super sweet, much as you might expect alcoholic honey to taste. My boyfriend Tom and I are at Coombe Abbey, a short drive north from both Warwick Castle and Shakespeare's birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon, for one of their much-lauded medieval banquets, which have been running for 40 years. As a history-geek at heart, I’ve wanted to go to one for ages – it’s a chance to play time traveller. I’m not sure what our Tudor ancestors would have made of my costume though. I’m dressed as ‘Knight Linda’ – in an indigo tunic emblazoned with a red velvet lion, and thick black tights, wielding a plastic sword. To top it all off I’ve got a silver-sequinned handbag, a cursory nod to real chainmail. Tom’s opted for a sinister-looking brown monk’s robe, complete with oversized hood and wooden cross. In the Court of Coombe, I notice authenticity is taken to varying degrees of seriousness. I spot one couple in full Tudor finery: a robust Henry VIII in white hose with (presumably) one of his 6 wives, who is gliding around in a bejewelled crimson gown. Then there’s a big group of guys in dodgy wigs - one looking ludicrous on a child’s hobby horse. Another man has got the wrong era entirely, and is jovially sporting a Viking horned helmet. Wooden banqueting tables at Coombe Abbey, lit by candlelight. We’re seated on long benches illuminated by flickering candlelight, as they would have been at the abbey back in 1539 when and this evening’s folly begins. The Abbot has invited the local peasants – us – for a feast. We’re a lively crowd, fuelled by a couple of ales in the Hairy Monk Tavern beforehand, but we calm down quickly in anticipation of feeding, detecting the comforting aroma of a hearty broth wafting in from the kitchen. The procession of servers cast shadows with their hooded cloaks as they enter the dining hall, Gregorian chants echoing in their wake. Heads down, they pour out small bowls of steaming leek and potato pottage, which are passed down the rows and eagerly drunk. We’re soon introduced to the de Clapper family who announce the year is 1595 and, following the dissolution of the monastery, they have taken up residence at Coombe Abbey. Sir Robin delights in informing us we’ve had a status upgrade – we are now his noble guests. Reception at Coombe Abbey with dramatic vaulted ceilings. True to the era, we’re not given forks for the feast – they’ve not been invented yet. So we’re left to tuck in with our hands, with just a knife to cut food into manageable chunks. It’s intimidating at first, but when the pork ribs arrive, delivered by a coterie of buxom wenches, we find we need no encouragement to get stuck in. To clean up we just wipe our sticky fingers on the white towelling bibs that have been tied around our necks. By the time the main course is wheeled out – a quarter roasted fowl – the revelry is well under way. We link arms with those next to us for a bawdy ballad or 2, led by Sir Robin. ‘Huzzah!’ Then, suddenly, the banquet comes to a halt. ‘The PLAGUE has come!’ cries our host from on stage. Fortunately, a cup-bearer is on hand with more wine to help soften the blow. Until, that is, we’re swiftly dealt another blow… ‘We are now at WAR!’ declares Sir Robin. Even his cap, woven from cloth of gold, is visibly shaken. He rallies the troops and, aided by his brother, the drunken Sir Nicholas, his mother, the dowager Lady Ethel, and his niece, the flirtatious Frances... Somehow, amid much hi-jinks, they manage to save the day. Lady Craven Bedchamber at Coombe Abbey, with elaborate golden bed on a plinth and candelabras in the foreground. Eventually partied out, we stumble back to our bedchamber. Our regal-looking room, with a sumptuous bed on a raised platform, is in the oldest part of the building and overlooks the moat. Outside snow has begun to fall, dusting a certain magic on the scene. Driveway leading up to Coombe Abbey, with parkland either side blanketed in snow. We stick our heads out of the window to admire it. Ancient trees line the driveway which cuts through the abbey’s acres of parkland, its resident deer cloaked in darkness. For a moment, I can almost picture Sir Robin and his merry band of men on horseback, disappearing into the night…

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