Storytelling at Assington Mill, Suffolk
Learn the ancient art of spinning a country yarn to your friends, children and grandchildren, in the heart of Suffolk.
Crisp fields of grass and vast blue skies welcomed me as I drove into Suffolk, and I was beginning to understand why Gainsborough and Constable were inspired to paint landscapes of this magnificent countryside. And as if to validate the wonder to be had in painting here, I saw a man at his easel on the farm track leading to Assington Mill, six miles outside the Saxon market town of Sudbury.
Assington Mill is the home of Anne Holden and her husband Bob Cowlin, who set up their beautiful 17th-century home as a centre for rural crafts, where you can learn about hen keeping and bread making, or even how to care for a tortoise or use a scythe.
Anyone can be a storyteller
I was here to attend a beginner’s course in storytelling and, while anxious at the prospect of regaling tales in front of people I’d just met, I was reassured by course leader Paul Jackson, who told us that there is a storyteller in every one of us. The basic tool is the ability to talk, and, of course, having a story to tell.
East Anglia is full of folk tales that bring the landscape to life, and our aim of the day was to learn to tell these stories in the oral tradition, and find the storyteller within. There were 15 of us with a story to tell – writers, actors, budding poets and those who just appreciate a lively anecdote.
Paul started us off with some warm-up exercises. Working in pairs, we told each other a story about ourselves, then we chose an object from a box and told a story inspired by it. Paul taught us how the use of pauses, emotion, gesture and pace can change the way a story is told and received.
Paul used a Tibetan singing bowl to punctuate each exercise – when the mallet is stroked around the rim of the bowl, it produces a singing noise that at once focuses a group. He’s also a dab-hand on the Kora – a 21-string African harp that he plays in the background to create a calming ambience for those a bit apprehensive about performing in front of strangers.
Chilling local tale
After the warm up, Paul led us to the Storytelling Hut. We sat in a close-knit circle, snuggled around a fire. The smell of burning cedar and hazel, and the floating smoke caught in the sunlight streaming in from outside, created the primeval setting for the ancient art of storytelling. Paul told us a local ghost story, called the Potter Heigham Drummer Boy, about an old woman who spends her life waiting for the lover she lost in the icy grip of the Norfolk Broads. His narration was compelling. No mobile phones or cars could be heard, just the cluck of chickens outside, the crackling of the fire and the transfixing lull of Paul’s voice.
After a lip-smacking lunch of homemade apple and ginger soup, we finished the day with a group storytelling performance. I teamed up with two actors and a poet, my worry being that I was going to let them down. We chose the tale The Pedlar of Swaffham, which is set in the Norfolk town just over an hour way, about a pedlar (a travelling salesman) who discovers buried treasure in his garden. You can read this country tale on page 130.
Paul told us that to be a great storyteller, it’s best to sit with your audience facing you, so you can see their reaction and react to it. You need to hold your audience’s attention completely, and allow them to use their own imaginations to enter your story. Whether your story is traditional, modern, personal or funny, as long as you can let go of the nerves, you should be able to hold an audience. “The main rule is to be yourself,” Peter said.
We took it in turns to narrate the tale, remembering what we learned in the warm-up exercises, and my team was engaging, fearless and brilliant. I did my best to let go of my inhibition and nerves, and when we finished we were met with rapturous applause. I think we pulled it off.
I came away from the course feeling ready to test my newfound storytelling skills on anyone and everyone. As I left, I joked that they should look out for me at the M11 services, telling country tales to groups of people I had never met. However, I saved my enthusiasm for my children at bedtime when I got home.
HOW TO GET THERE
Take the M11 to Bishop Stortford junction 8. Then take the A120 to Braintree, A131 to Sudbury, and the A134 towards Colchester. Assington Mill is six miles from Sudbury.
FIND OUT MORE
Sudbury C010 5LZ
Assington Mill offers short one to three-day courses on many rural and traditional crafts throughout the year. Their next storytelling course run by Paul Jackson is a two-day workshop on 23-24 June, £120, including lunch.
Day long courses at Assington Mill include lunch and refreshments.
The Crown Inn
Stoke by Nayland C06 4SE
Friendly boutique hotel and restaurant in a picturesque hilltop village. A special deal is available for those attending courses at Assington Mill.
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