Realising a childhood dream to recreate Sutton Hoo of the North
September 7, 2022
As the Lindisfarne Gospels make a brief return to the region of their foundation, another North East venture is readying itself to tell the story of Northumbria’s Golden Age. Opening in the spring, the Ad Gefrin whisky distillery and visitor experience will take enthusiasts back to a seventh century royal court of kings and queens. Here, Dr Chris Ferguson explains more about the endeavour and its significance in shining a light on a hugely important period in North East history.
As a child, Chris Ferguson remembers standing on the grassy plateau at Yeavering, imagining the kings and queens, bards and thegns, slaves and artisans of the seventh century royal court beneath his feet – all mingling around him.
So, where did this childhood passion for Northumbria’s ancient past take him?
Well, today, Dr Chris Ferguson is at the forefront of delivering one of the most anticipated museum openings in the world this year (Smithsonian Magazine, January 2022), which will celebrate exactly what inspired him all those years ago.
An archaeologist and museum professional, with a PhD in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria from Oxford, there was no hesitation in grasping the opportunity presented to him to come home to the North East, celebrate Northumbria’s Golden Age and bring it to the attention of the world.
When his father Alan and stepmother Eileen mooted they were going to spend their children’s inheritance on building a whisky distillery and visitor experience on an old derelict site long-owned by the family at the edge of the hill town of Wooler (only four miles from Yeavering), little did they know just how much the idea of the Ad Gefrin visitor experience would grab the imagination of locals and media alike.
It was Chris and Eileen who together landed on the name for the new development.
Ad Gefrin means ‘By the Hill of Goats’, with the latter being the ancient name for Yeavering.
Driven by Chris’ passion for the largely untold story of the period and the international significance of the archaeological site at Yeavering, and supported by the absolute commitment of Alan and Eileen to create something world-class, Ad Gefrin is stirring significant interest.
Housed in a state-of-the-art building designed by local architect Richard Elphick – with world-renowned Studio MB (of Durham Cathedral Open Treasure, Richard III and Titanic Belfast visitor experiences’ fame) undertaking the interior design – Ad Gefrin will re-imagine the Great Hall discovered at Yeavering by archaeologist Brian Hope Taylor in the 1950s, one of the century’s most remarkable archaeological finds.
What is more, the visitor experience will bring to life the people that populated the court through immersive AV projection, giving the visitor the feeling of being right there among them.
This was a time when kings were celebrated for their generosity; women could own property and were equal in the eyes of the law; diversity was embraced; and there was the expectation that new friends and visitors would give, not take away.
People travelled from North Africa, Europe and Scandinavia to visit the court, and brought with them extraordinary craftsmanship, accomplishments and creativity – giving rise to a rich culture that ultimately spawned the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Some fourteen centuries later, the importance of hospitality, cultural exchange and kinship endure in the values of the new development.
Chris says: “People are aware of Sutton Hoo – the discovery of the burial longboat unveiled the riches placed in a king’s grave, but what the story encompassed by Ad Gefrin does, is reveal for the first time the riches of the royal court found in life.
“King Edwin would have been at Sutton Hoo – he was exiled in East Anglia before returning as king to Northumbria in 616 AD.
“This was no ‘dark ages’ – this was a melting pot of glorious craftsmanship, embroidery, music and language.”
He goes on to explain the significance of the Northumbrian court at that time.
Chris adds: “It was King Edwin who presided over the first mass conversions to Christianity in Northumberland, and although many fell back to paganism on his death, when King Oswald succeeded him, in 634 AD, it was he who brought Aidan to Northumberland, founded the monastery on Lindisfarne, and ultimately led to the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels.
“As a ‘hidden’ period at the cusp of written history, wedged between the Romans and Vikings, this couldn’t be richer or more important.”
So, is Chris excited by the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the North East this autumn?
“Absolutely!”, he says.
“Between us and Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, we are creating a compelling voice for the historical significance of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria and its relevance to today.
“The exhibition from this September to December is a wonderful precursor to the opening of our permanent museum in February 2023 – and it will hopefully whet everyone’s appetite.”