Saturday 23rd July was our first Open Day of the season – and, thankfully, after a week of showers, torrential rain and a chill wind, the sun came out – and welcomed a host of visitors. I enjoy our Open Days (although I do experience a fair bit of advance anxiety!) because everyone joins in, dresses up, helps out – and the day gleams with enthusiasm and a love for what we are doing, both from the participants on site, and from our Visitors.
The day always starts manically for me – and I was on site from 7.30am to help the BBC Learning Unit set up their stall and sandpit. The Radio Berkshire Radio van was also there; Mike did an early morning breakfast interview from home, and I spoke to Henry Kelly on his radio show at 9.45am. Before that, I gathered all Open Day helpers together: a crowd dressed in togas and blue paint, all excited and eager for the day to begin…and Laura and I bossed Jon about – collecting tables, putting up signs, sorting out prices for teas and coffees, giving guidance to all about the day ahead. Jim went down to the Public Car-Park to oversee Visitors’ parking, and at 10am sharp we opened the gates and a steady stream of people headed into the excavation area.
The day revolves around an hourly site tour from myself and Mike…..
…..and this year we had help! In the form of 50 plastic headsets….Mike and I dance around on site with a microphone…and everyone else wears a headset! They were a brilliant addition to the day – in the past Mike and I have had to contend with the weather, sore throats, extremely large numbers – and, no matter how loudly we shout (and Mike does have the appropriate professorial ‘boom ‘), people do struggle to hear us. Additionally, we have had to stay close to the walkways so that our audience can catch our every word, and this limits our ability to go into the trench and point things out – which would seem to me to be essential for any good site tour. So….our wonderful headsets were hired for a 2-week duration…and today was their first outing. Mike loved them from the start…I was a little more apprehensive….but after my first tour, I was a convert. It is odd for anyone watching who is not part of the tour….they cannot hear what Mike and I are saying without wearing a headset, and so we appear to be conducting a fabulous mime from the site’s centre! Downside of the headsets…they cost…..a lot…..and we could only afford to hire 50. This did mean that some visitors were unable to join a tour of their choice – and for that we apologise…but until we win the lottery we can afford no more……
We had several special guests at the Open Day: Reading Museum brought along their travelling exhibits and drew the crowds with their artefacts and childrens’ activities. But this year we also had the BBC’s Hands On History event, aimed particularly at young children…especially popular was the ‘Dissect a Poo’ activity…..need I say more?
But the star of the day was, without a doubt, one of the UK’s biggest and best producers, Oscar-nominated Duncan Kenworthy. Duncan has produced, amongst other films, ‘Love Actually’, ‘Notting Hill’ and ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’…..and Silchester’s association with him began with the recent release of ‘The Eagle’, based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s classic childrens’ book ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’. The Eagle of the book – seen as the badge of honour on a legionary standard - is inspired by an actual find from the Victorian excavations of the forum-basilica – a bronze eagle, now resting in the Museum of Reading. It’s a great read – and the film is fun too, very ‘boys’ own’ to my mind but enjoyable nonetheless. And Silchester – Calleva – features in the film as the place from where the great adventure begins. Duncan gave us 2 talks this Open Day, about the making of the film – one to the public in St. Mary’s Church, and one to the students in the marquee.
Duncan spoke about his love for Rosemary Sutcliff’s book as a boy, and how that had led his desire to make a film of it. And so….Silchester and Hollywood unite! I was sorry not to hear Duncan speak myself, but someone had to keep the dig running! And run it did – despite the numbers of visitors (we had nearly 1000 over the course of the day!), and the challenges of digging in a bed sheet, we managed to keep digging!
I enjoy the afternoons of Open Days the best. By then I am into my stride with the tours – my morning tours can be a gaggle of mixed-up words and phrases as I try to tell my story! – the area outside the trench is inundated with visitors, all chatting, asking questions, drinking tea, taking photographs, being face painted….It can take me half an hour to get from one side of the trench to the other as so many people stop me and ask me questions…it is very rewarding to hear the fascination and interest visitors have for the site. At least we are not alone!
And so the day drew to an end…I had done 4 tours and my voice had all but given up….but my body could not…as that evening the entire excavation was invited to a Barn Dance organised by Suzie Williams and the Silchester villagers. Nick and Biddy West had very kindly lent their barn for the occasion – and the villagers had provided a hog roast, a subsidised bar and a band. So Mike and I donned our ‘yeeha’ gear…checked shirts, cowboy boots and hats…and off we went! What a fantastic evening! The sun went down perfectly, the hog roasted itself to perfection’ alcohol always tastes better outdoors – and we all danced (or tried to..). How we danced….how did we dance?? I have to say that I had some of the funniest moments of my life watching Mike attempt to apply reason to a Strip the Willow…when everyone is drunk on a long day, sunshine, hootch and hog. We all had left feet only – and there was no rhyme – nor reason – to anything we did! But, we did have fun. Thank you so much Suzie and villagers – it was a great occasion….I left when my feet would not carry me anymore, still hoarse from one of our most successful Open Days. Lie-in on Sunday for an extra hour!