Little Amal Goes to Wentworth Castle | John Anstie

My wife and I have been volunteering at Wentworth Castle Gardens in South Yorkshire for the past ten years. On Saturday 30th October, something very special happened here. We were stewards charged with a certain amount of ‘crowd control’, in the castle folly at the top of the fifty acre gardens. It was here that Little Amal would complete her visit to the site, after her walk through the gardens. This was no ordinary day here. Wentworth Castle Gardens had been taken under the wing of the National Trust only two years before. We were very fortunate to have been selected as the penultimate destination in the UK as part of Little Amal’s long walk of 8,000 km (5,000 miles). ‘The Walk’, which became the title of the project, started at Turkey’s border with Syria and went all the way across Europe to Calais, across the English Channel to Dover, to London, Birmingham and Manchester, including several destinations in between, before completing her journey on the streets of Glasgow in Scotland during COP26, which was a last minute and very appropriate addition to Little Amal’s extraordinarily long journey.

Photo: ©2021 John Anstie

The inclusion of Wentworth Castle Gardens to the list of destinations was brought about courtesy of the lead taken by Barnsley Museums in collaboration with the Northern College and the National trust.  I was already very impressed and I dare say moved by what I had already learned of this creative and artistically brilliant but challenging project. Whilst it had become known by the rather understated title of ‘The Walk’, it was actually a logistically very challenging project involving the crossing of many international borders on route, not to mention the planning and coordinating of events at over sixty-five cities and towns along the way. The result is no less than a triumph of the human spirit over adversity. To be present and witness to Little Amal’s arrival at the castle, and to feel my own as well as to see other people’s emotional responses to this huge demonstration of art was beyond all expectations. 

This project was an enormous feat of logistical organisation as well as being an extraordinary work of theatre and art, including some astounding puppetry, the quality of which we have come to expect of the South African based Handspring Puppet Company, makers of the famous puppet in the stage production of ‘Warhorse’. The often improvised art and theatre along Little Amal’s route over a period of four months from July to November 2021, added impact. But when she arrived at the castle, the meaning of the word ‘moved’ was transformed into something of a magnitude I could not have expected. By her shear size, the way she moved, the extraordinary look and design of her face, the movement of her eyes, mouth, body, arms and hands, all controlled by the stilt walker inside and the flanking puppeteers. The effect of the whole transcended her inanimate construction. The puppet’s design and puppeteers’ abilities enabled the puppet to become truly human, a little girl, who wants to be friends with everyone she meets, whilst at the same time she longs for a reunion with her family. A little girl, who was larger than life on many levels … and three and a half metres tall.!

Photo: ©2021 John Anstie

It moved me even more to experience the reaction of the crowds of people around her, who accompanied her with quiet and very courteous respect. No real ‘crowd control’ was required. There was music and singing and moments when poetry or thanks were read to her by a child, a woman then a man, in Arabic. Even though I didn’t understand a word of what was spoken, it was still somehow very moving, hugely moving. It brings that same feeling back, here and now, as I relate this story. Towards the end of her lengthy wander about the castle, Little Amal came as close to us as she was going to get. Her head raised and the gaze from her huge brown eyes seemed to look straight at us. It felt for a moment as if she was trying to connect with us. It left us feeling neither threatened nor exposed, but just as if she was asking for help, without actually asking.  

One further gesture that proved to be perhaps the most poignant moment of all, occurred when, in the centre of the castle, she walked around the circle of the crowd around her, then stopped and stood in front of and bowed, perhaps more in hope than expectation, to offer both hands to a woman dressed in a hijab. She paused there for a moment and then I knew what this meant. One of those many moments during her long journey, always searching for her mother, her family, when she thought she’d found her … and I choked. 

Official video of the day ©2021 Barnsley Museums
The conclusion of Little Amal’s visit to Wentworth Castle Gardens. Video ©2021 John Anstie

Footnote: ’Amal’ is the Arabic word that means ‘hope’ or even ‘longing’.

©2021 John Anstie
All rights reserved


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