A Norfolk Nativity - our 21st century shepherds, angels and carpenters

The Christmas story is set more than 2,000 miles away and more than 2,000 years ago. Yet the characters gathered around the baby in the Bethlehem stable are not as far away as we might think. ROWAN MANTELL begins a two-part search for a Norfolk Nativity.

It has been called the greatest story ever told. Alive with angels and miracles, precious gifts, and a tiny baby with an awe-inspiring destiny, the Christmas story is both completely familiar and comprehensively strange.

It features a pregnant virgin, prophetic visions, a baby king asleep in an animal trough – and people in jobs still found in Norfolk today.


'The angel said to her 'Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will name him Jesus.'

Most Read

Parts of a vast drama, ranging from the beginning of the world to the end of time, were this month staged in Norfolk for the first time since the words were silenced 500 years ago.

Medieval dramas, known as Mystery Plays, once told the history of the world from Adam and Eve to doomsday, plus colourful legends of hell, the devil and demons.

Now an East Anglian version has been revived by students at the University of East Anglia.

UEA head of drama Anthony Gash has been working towards restoring the plays to the people of Norfolk for several years

He would love to think this student performance could be the start of a major revival of the Norfolk Mystery Plays.

The original medieval drama had 42 scenes and would have been performed in towns and villages across East Anglia over several days. The UEA students presented 11 of these, centred on the life of the Virgin Mary.

Twenty-one-year-old Alex Stuart, who played an adulterer, an apostle, a monk and Pontius Pilate, said: 'This is so much more than just learning your lines and your character. It's part of East Anglia's heritage.

Roberta Morris played the Virgin Mary - the second time the 21-year-old has taken the role. 'I was the Virgin Mary in my school Nativity play when I was six,' she said. 'I was so worried I tried to swap with the girl who was playing a cow. And I forgot my words!'

Today Roberta is better prepared for the role of Mary – but still awed by the responsibility of playing a woman who learns she is to give birth to God's son, must then watch him die, and is ultimately crowned queen of heaven

'I thought she might be quite a bland character, but she is the most fascinating character as she goes through so much, from people doubting her when she is pregnant to the anguish of watching her son being crucified,' said the 21st century student breathing life into a version of Mary last seen in Norfolk almost 500 years ago.


'Joseph also went … to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.'

Joseph was a village carpenter – a man who probably made anything from doors to tables and sheds to beds.

Carpenter Will Hall has a fianc�e, a baby son – and would happily make a manger if asked. And Christmas is a special time for this carpenter, who will be celebrating Henry's first Christmas this month and marrying his fianc�e, Victoria Groom, next Christmas.

Will, of Poringland, learnt his craft at Norwich City College and then through jobs as a furniture maker with local companies.

He also created his own pieces of woodwork, for friends and family, and in January last year decided to set up on his own.

He now has a purpose-built workshop in Brooke, a job he loves, and a full order book ranging from whole kitchens to small cupboards.

<blob>For more info on Will and his Fitted Furniture Company will@theffc.co.uk

David Bartram was all set to be a cartographer when, in a previous jobs squeeze, the 18-year-old found his map-making job offer withdrawn.

So, like Joseph, he would have been able to find his way from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

However, it is unlikely that Joseph's carpentry career began with constructing boxes for science experiments at his local university.

David became a lab technician at the University of East Anglia. He had always loved woodwork and after enjoying making the boxes he decided to retrain, taking courses first at Norwich City College and then a prestigious antique restoration course in Sussex. He set up his own business in 1981. Now 50 he is a restoration specialist for the National Trust and works at its stately homes across eastern England, as well as creating his own new pieces at his workshop in Heckingham, near Loddon.

As a restorer he works with wood up to 600 years old and his very favourite material is English oak. 'Joseph would have worked with olive wood,' said David.

<blob>For more information visit www.davidbartramfurniture.co.uk

<blob>Today the term carpenter is generally used to describe someone building the wooden parts of a house – rafters and floors and window frames. The woodworkers who make furniture today are called cabinet-makers but in Biblical times Joseph would almost certainly turn his hand, and tools, to building, furniture-making and carving.

<blob>Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because a Roman census required all men to return to their birthplace. In Britain a census is held every 10 years – with the next due on March 27 2011.


'In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.'

Two thousands years on, and several thousand miles from Bethlehem, shepherds still watch over their flocks.

David Cross is a shepherd in 21st century Norfolk, but much of the work he does today would have been familiar to the shepherds of Bible times.

He finds grazing for his flock, shears them in spring, watches over them for illness, helps deliver their lambs, and selects the sheep to send to market and the ewes to breed from.

On his farm near Wymondham he has 200 sheep and also looks after another 1,200 for other people.

David grew up on a farm and, after agricultural college, has been a shepherd all his working life.

Part of his job is to find grazing, on other farms, for his sheep. Just like the shepherds of bible times he must move around, keeping watch over his flock. However, this involves travelling around in a four-wheel-drive rather than living alongside the sheep and, unlike many modern shepherds, he has no night-shifts, even at lambing time.

His lambs are born in April, when the sheep can be outside.

David and his wife, Kathryn, have three sons, and Alfie, Ted and Rufus each have their own sheep. Eight-year-old Alfie has been luckiest – his sheep, Mater (named after a cartoon pick-up truck) has had twins each year. Six-year-old Ted has a sheep called Bumblebottom (from one of the names guessed in Rumpelstiltskin) while Rufus, three, has a lamb called Emily.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night in Norfolk, in centuries gone by, they sheltered in specially-built wheeled huts.

Today these shepherd huts are being rediscovered and restored.

And one, from Norfolk, has been named one of the most significant historical objects in the country.

Ian and Carol McDonald, of Barford, first fell in love with shepherds' huts when they saw one in the garden of a farmhouse for sale in the village.

Eventually, when the house and land was sold, the purchaser said Carol could have the shepherd's hut, in exchange for a donation to charity.

Enchanted by their very own shepherd's hut Ian and Carol began researching. They discovered that these wheeled huts can date back more than 400 years. They were used to house a shepherd as sheep were moved from field to field to graze and fertilise land.

A typical hut had a small stove, a medicine cupboard and a straw bed for the shepherd, above a cage where sickly or orphaned lambs could be kept.

The advent of artificial fertilisers and the decline of the wool trade meant the end of travelling flocks, each with their shepherd hut. But during the second world war were pressed back into active service as home guard outposts or to house prisoner of war labourers. With peace they were pushed back to the edge of fields and used for storage, or left to slowly decay.

Fascinated, and keen to save as many of these historic huts as possible, Ian and Carol set up a website and were soon getting inquiries and information from all over the world.

Ian, works as a technical director for a company involved in establishing the infrastructure for a network of electric cars. Previously he was chief engineer at Lotus and rebuilt that first hut with help from friends at Proton and Lotus. He put his plans online and they have been used by fellow-enthusiasts all over the world.

The McDonalds also discovered their first hut (they have since adopted two more) arrived in Barford in 1945 and became home to an Austrian prisoner of war.

This autumn it was named as one of the top 10 individually submitted items in the BBC series charting the history of the world in 100 objects.

Ian said: 'I submitted it because it is part of Norfolk's history. People don't always realise that the history of Norfolk is based on sheep. Our beautiful architecture all came from wool and mutton and lamb.'


'The angel said to them do not be afraid, for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.'

Norfolk is alive with angels. Translucent stained glass angels leave trails of coloured light through our churches, swarms of golden angels roost in roofs, a winged messenger of peace alights amid city centre traffic, and in the quiet of a village church, medieval angels roll back the thatch to get a view into the Bethlehem stable.

Norfolk has one of the best collections of angels in the world and its medieval stained glass angels, playing musi-cal instruments, are unrivalled.

Now a Norwich husband and wife are unlocking the heavenly sounds which have been frozen in coloured glass for centuries.

Tony and Jane Scheuregger specialise in playing reproductions of medieval musical instruments - the lutes and harps associated with angels, and the gitterns, nakers and shawm which only angel music enthusiasts could name.

'Norfolk is famous for its medieval stained glass, and in particular it's got hundreds of angels,' said Tony. There are a few elsewhere, but Norfolk has got a phenomenal number and they are very important pieces of art in their own right.'

Norfolk's stained glass angels play a full range of medieval instruments - including the psaltery, lute, harp, gittern, viol, shawm, bladder pipe and nakers - and this is reflected in the instruments played by Tony, Jane and the other musicians in their Minstrels Gallery group.

Tony and Jane, who live in Norwich's golden triangle, began Minstrels Gallery to play for weddings and corporate events. Now their main focus is working with historic venues all over the country.

This year they put together a concert based on the instruments played by Norfolk's stained glass angels. Music in the Glass brings to life the music imagined by Norfolk craftsmen more than 500 years ago. Next year they hope to take the concert to some of the churches where the angels have been playing their silent, heavenly music for centuries – and help to spread the world about a little-known Norfolk treasure.

<blob>Music in the Glass was developed with Hungate Medieval Art, based in the Norwich church of St Peter Hungate. The centre will reopen for the February half term. In the meantime, 10 trails around Norfolk churches ablaze with some of the world's greatest medieval stained glass can be downloaded from www.hungate.org.uk

<blob> If you would like to find out more about the Music in Glass concert coming to your church, contact Tony and Jane at www.minstrelsgallery.com or on 01603 454402.

A Norfolk Nativity continues in the Evening News on Tuesday December 21 when you can meet an innkeeper, a camel, three wise men and a whole family of donkeys.