While the national attention seems focussed on commemorative statues in public places can l just suggest that, if we’re looking for more recent – and living – examples of people Bath could place on a plinth, then ‘Lady Margaret’ looms large in my thoughts.
She could be said to be the alter-ego of actor and performer Ralph Oswick – one of the founder members of the Natural Theatre Company, which is based in Widcombe.
The ‘naturals’ have been creating the best in outdoor ‘street’ theatre for fifty years – both here and in more than 80 countries around the world. As it says on their website – ‘We show up, we’re funny, we go home.’
Amongst the characters they have invented – and apparently, there are 187 to date – are the coneheads and the flowerpot people and Ralph’s personal contribution to hilarious entertainment – Lady Margaret!
Ralph was also Artistic Director of the NTC for many, many years and though the frocks have been put away, still takes a lively interest in local affairs.
He sent me an email after reading my story about the Grade II listed Tin Tabernacle in Bailbrook Lane – which sadly appears to be rapidly deteriorating.
Ralph told me: The Tin Tabernacle was/is owned by Graham Boys who lived in it for years. The inside was shown in The Sunday Times ‘A Room of my Own’ feature.
Graham organised the famous Tin Church fetes in the field opposite. These were wonderful one-day community festival, and as everyone loved Graham and the church, they all gave their services free.
The event was always declared open by Lady Margaret, who arrived in a different mode of transport every year (Rolls Royce, carried by bearers, Tardis) …most memorably when she parachuted from a plane onto the church ro
The ‘spire’ can actually be made to rise by way of ropes and pulleys to facilitate a balloon release! Just one of the many ‘improvements’ carried out by Graham and his pals. He would every sad to see it now., having had to move to more conventional accommodation due to ill health.’
Ralph didn’t let the matter lie there. After a rummage through his files he came up with a story he’d written about one of those ‘Tin Church fetes’ and sent it on to me.
As a practitioner of alternative theatre, I’ve mad some daft entrances in my time. But last Sunday was possibly my daftest.
The location was the splendidly eccentric Tin Church Fete. For those of you who have not experienced this event, it takes place in and around a somewhat rusty corrugated iron edifice in Bailbrook Lane, high above Bath. For the last thirty years, this redundant church has been occupied by the equally eccentric Graham, who dresses as a vicar for the occasion. The programme includes a dog show, a Beatles tribute band and cream teas and is a favourite annual gathering for what one might call the more mature hippie.
My Natural Theatre Company alter-ego, Lady Margaret is usually called upon to declare the fete open, with her ladyship arriving by ever more unusual modes of transport. This time, a fantastic stunt was devised which involved persuading a burly South African ex-policeman to parachute in, wearing a replica of Lady Margaret’s red polka dot dress. On the way down he pretended to get into difficulties, thereby missing his target on the fete field and disappearing behind the church.
A huge crash of breaking glass was heard, whereupon a dishevelled Lady Margaret, similarly attired in polka dot finery, popped up on the crest of the church roof. This had the desired hilarious effect, but the problem remained as to how to get down. She couldn’t go back because of the broken glass, so she had somehow to heave herself over the apex and descend by means of a second ladder.
The gap between the ladders meant that Lady M had to shuffle along the ridge on her bum. I can tell you that corrugated iron gets very hot in blazing sunlight! The ‘vicar’ came up to help, but just as he was assuring her ladyship that he had her held firmly, he suddenly developed cramp. Try as she might, Lady M couldn’t get her trailing leg unaided over the ridge, and not only did she lose a shoe, but developed cramp herself.
So there we had it, two middle-aged men, one dressed as a vicar and the other as a dowager duchess, writhing in agony on top of a church roof, while a large crowd of onlookers guffawed and cheered.
All very amusing, but hidden inside my larger than life comic character, little old me was getting panicky. I couldn’t go forward and I couldn’t go back and my nether regions were getting roasted. What’s more, my rescuer had been reduced to a helpless writhing being.
Eventually, needs must, and with a superhuman effort, I/she managed to ‘dismount’ from the roof ridge and descend with some semblance of dignity. Well, as dignified as one can be with a rope in one hand, a polka dot handbag in the other, skirt all hitched up and a shoe gripped between one’s teeth. And a writhing vicar following in one’s train.
Of course, the photographers on the ground had a field day as Lady Margaret’s exposed battleship greys plunged towards them.
Meanwhile, Guy Hodgson has written to say:
‘The tabernacle is such a lovely structure. The tower is a particularly nice feature and not that common- as you say it was a ‘deluxe’ model.
I believe the owner lives in the Snow Hill flats now and if you ask around in Bailbrook someone will know. He is quite a colourful character by all accounts.
As the structure is both listed and unmortgageable someone will need a lot of cash! My experience on working on another was the metal sheet was fine but the timber elements were a write off at ground level.’
While, ‘Kay in Bath’ comments:
‘Our lovely local late 1880s tin tabernacles in Swineford, Bitton was the Swineford Congregational Church and after languishing derelict for many years has been reopened as a very successful nursery school.’
Hilarious, and thank you both for that post. Just what is needed to brighten up a rainy morning in semi lockdown. We walked past the tin church on a walk a few months ago and wondered about its history. Hopefully someone will now recognise that the history of eccentric Bath deserves to be celebrated and conserved.
Dear Richard and Ralph You have totally brightened up this grey old morning — I loved the descriptions of Lady Margaret whom I had the honour of meeting on many occasions especially when I was Mayor and she inevitably tried to steal My Show — on one memorable occasion even stealing the scissors from my hand as I was about to cut a ceremonial ribbon ! Oh , how I miss her ! Marian
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