Q&A | 'The Anglo Saxons had a diverse community – I’m so excited to bring that to life' - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘The Anglo Saxons had a diverse community – I’m so excited to bring that to life’

We have so much more to learn about Anglo Saxon society, says Chris Ferguson, the visitor experience director of the new site Ad Gefrin in Wooler, Northumberland
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Chris Ferguson is the director of visitor experience for Ad Gefrin, which will open in Wooler, Northumberland, in 2023
Chris Ferguson is the director of visitor experience for Ad Gefrin, which will open in Wooler, Northumberland, in 2023 Photo Sally Ann Norman

Yeavering Bell in Northumberland, believed to have been the site of a major settlement in the early middle ages, is the inspiration for a new visitor experience exploring the rich Anglo Saxon heritage of the area.

In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731CE, the Venerable Bede, the monk renowned for his historical writings, recounts a time when Anglo Saxon King Edwin and Queen Aethelburga were in Yeavering.  

The Anglo Saxon translation of Yeavering, Gefrin, forms the name of a new attraction in the town of Wooler, Ad Gefrin, which is due to open in spring 2023.

A 10-minute drive from Yeavering archaeological site, the Ad Gefrin experience aims to not only regenerate the town with jobs at the attraction and an adjoining restaurant and whisky distillery, but also to reignite a passion for the history of the area.

The site of the new attraction is owned by the Fergusons haulage company, which acquired it in 1931. The site has been disused since the 1990s and the company's current owners, Alan and Eileen Ferguson, have wanted to regenerate it for two decades.

Their son, Chris Ferguson, who is a doctor in Anglo Saxon history, is now the director of visitor experience for Ad Gefrin.

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How did Ad Gefrin get off the ground?

Chris Ferguson: It all started in 2018. My family runs a haulage business and the site that we’re creating the Ad Gefrin visitor experience on was a haulage yard for well over 90 years but had been redundant since 1995 and we’d been looking for a use. I never got directly involved with the family business as I work in the culture and heritage sector. Immediately prior to becoming visitor experience director for Ad Gefrin I was head of collections at York Museums.

Before that, I was at Bishop Auckland, and I was at the Ashmolean in Oxford before that. But Anglo Saxon Northumbria has always been my passion and it’s what I did my PhD on. So, Ad Gefrin is a meeting of all those components. But it’s also a regeneration project built for and with the community. It will bring new jobs to Wooler, as well as celebrate local heritage and a local story.

The iron age hill fort opposite
The iron age hill fort opposite

How much did we already know about Yeavering Bell?

CF: We knew about the iron age hill fort opposite, we knew about Anglo Saxon King Edwin of Northumbria, his marriage to Queen Aethelburga, and we knew that bishop Paulinus of York converted him to Christianity and baptised others in the area, but we had no idea of the other buildings and activities that went on at this site.

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My PhD was on early medieval Northumbria, coastal communities and landscapes – I looked at how people moved around the British Isles by coast or by river. I was already very interested in the area, being from close by as well. I even remember my grandparents showing me the plaque by the side of the road when I was a child.

The layout of buildings at Yeavering Bell, showing the Great Hall to the left, and the grandstand to the far right

What discoveries are you excited about?

CF: The site has a royal hall, which we’ve known about for years, but opposite we’ve discovered a grandstand, which is clearly about bringing people together in the form of a court or hearing. This large timber structure would have been capable of holding 360 people. They built that for a reason. Why would you build a structure like that unless it had an important purpose? This is what makes Yeavering such a fascinating site.

Another thing that makes this period and location particularly interesting is that they talked about “the kings of the Northumbrians” rather than the “kings of Northumbria” – in other words, they thought of themselves as kings and queens of people rather than the geographical place, which is actually a really important distinction.

And when the grandstand wasn’t being used as an assembly chamber, it may well have been used for theatre – this was a world of sagas, storytelling and performance so it’s also very possible that went on here too.  

An impression of Ad Gefrin when it opens in spring 2023

What will the visitor experience be like?

CF: We’re recreating the Great Hall, painted with bright colours and the smell of cooking and smoke inside and lit by firelight with a throne at one end. But we’re not actually going to concentrate on the royal story too much. It's not all kings and battles. The Anglo Saxons had a diverse community with a migrant population coming in, and people coming and going all the time. And the women were just as central to the operation of the site and the kingdom as the men were.

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Basically, so long as you survived childhood, battles if you were a man, childbirth if you were a woman, you had a good chance of living into your 70s. We want to tell the stories of the older people who made the site tick over too. I’m so excited to be able to bring to life this rich period of storytelling. We have names and characters and a story to re-animate, and I just want visitors to experience what it would have been like to live during Anglo Saxon times at Yeavering Bell, when King Edwin and Queen Aethelburga were alive.

Cam you tell us about the distillery?

CF: There has been a lot of growth in English single malt whisky making and Northumberland is a prime site for growing malted barley. So, as we were developing the cultural side of Ad Gefrin, we wanted to make it financially sustainable without being reliant on grants. As a result, adjacent to the main Anglo Saxon experience, single malt whisky is already being distilled with local barley in stills on site, and we’re also creating a lovely bistro where visitors can have lunch or an evening meal.  

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