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July 2012 Canterbury Cathedral. It is my son’s graduation ceremony and in addition to the traditional hiccups on such days, painful new shoes and a quick shirt swap with a scruffy son, the bank has decided to experience one of its ‘computer melt down’ events and it seems that we will be paupers for the day. Now safely ensconced in the cavernous interior these worries recede as my mind begins to wander.

After all, to those of us who are historically minded none of this is really matters. It’s not my day after all and my son is about to receive his diploma at the very spot that King Henry II’s knights martyred Thomas Becket on the 29th of December 1170, only one hundred and four years after the conquest of William the Bastard. Bursting through the doors behind me they swept past the very spot in which I now sit. Thomas, a Londoner like myself, refused to flee and save his life and was hacked to the ground. As he fell to his hands and knees one of the knights lopped the top of his head clean off, just as you or I would to our breakfast egg. Scrambling Thomas’ brains with the point of his sword he scooped them out and spread them all over the floor just there. As Will steps forward he stands within the very space once occupied by the church of St Augustine. Sent by the Pope to introduce Christianity to the Pagan English the building was consecrated soon after his arrival in 597 AD.

September 11th 2001.  I am removing blocks of medieval daub from between the joists of my house for reuse. A mixture of clay, straw and 600 year old cow/horse dung they mush up nicely in the bucket with a small amount of added water. As I mix I reflect on the fact that the man who originally ‘knocked up’ this mixture was born not long after the first great onslaught of the Black Death claimed the lives of up to half the population of Europe. The daub had sat there, mute witness, as people celebrated the return of the King and his tiny army from their great victory at Agincourt. It would be almost two hundred years before another Will would immortalise the ‘happy few’ in his play Henry V. Reformation, armada, civil war and empire would all come and go as they stared silently down. The phone rings, it is my wife calling from work. New York City is under attack. I worked in finance during the 1980′s and I undoubtedly know people still working in the towers. My brother in law still works in the money markets and I check that he is in London. All work stops for the day. It is a horrific event but my daub helps just a bit as I realize that it has seen out plagues, famine, war, gas chambers and killing fields from its nook. The Spanish influenza outbreak lasted from 1918 to 1920 and killed between three and five percent of the World’s population, 50 to 100 million people died. The China floods of 1931 killed an estimated 3 million people.

A family gathering in Benfleet, Essex. I look out across the estuary of the River Thames. Most people see an expanse of silt laden water, oil refineries across the river in Kent, the ‘World’s Longest Pier’ jutting out from gaudy Southend but historically minded people see far more. We can see a fleet of Roman triremes clip the estuary on their journey up the coast to the River Blackwater, safely delivering the Emperor Claudius to the capital of his newly conquered province of Britannia. Move on one thousand years and the year is 893 AD. Below us the fortified camp of the Danish viking Haesten is being stormed and taken by the men of London under the command of King Alfred the Great’s son, Edward, soon to become known to history as King Edward the Elder. The charred remains of ships were recovered from the old shoreline in the 19th Century during excavations for the train station there. A Century later and 1000 long ships pass below the cliffs on their way to attack Danish controlled London.  It is the year 1014 and a combined English/Norwegian force led by Aethelred II and Olaf Haraldsson, Saint Olaf to be, are about to destroy the bridge which connects the town of London to the burgh on the south bank at Southwark. The event is reputed to have been celebrated in song. You may have heard it sung one thousand years later. It is known worldwide as ‘London bridge is falling down’.

Now it is 1778 and as war rages in the American colonies a new 100 gun ship of the line is added to England’s ‘wooden walls’. ‘Victory’ points her bowsprit out from the River Medway opposite and makes for the open sea. Warped into deeper water, the shrouds and ratlines come alive as we gaze across from our lofty perch. The topmen scurry up like so many ants and unfurl her, as yet, unstained and weathered sails for the first time. The leviathan takes her first breath, filling her lungs as the canvas billows in the following wind and shakes herself free of the land. She is making her maiden voyage out into the North Sea from her place of birth at Chatham and sailing away to earn her place in the nations history.

Time ticks on again. It is late in the afternoon of September 7th 1940 and the rhythmic thrum of thousands of aero-engines draw our eyes skyward. Overhead hundreds of Heinkel and Dornier bombers are following the great river to London. It will be the capital’s heaviest raid during the Battle of Britain, the prelude to, in most people’s view, the invasion itself. High above them the sun glints on polished perspex as the escorting fighters wing over and plummet down on the handful of Spitfires and Hurricanes which are attempting to engage this latest armada to threaten their homeland. Half a century later I will meet one of those pilots at a book signing. He shares the surname of his better known ancestor, Drake. Francis went on to become a Knight of the the Realm and Member of Parliament for Plymouth. Billy moved to Spain after the war and opened a bar. My family live in the heart of the great City and they watch spellbound as our heavily outnumbered fighters dart into the mass of enemy aircraft above the nearby dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. The bombers return in force that night and for almost every night until the following May. It is the start of the London Blitz.

My grandfather drives the bus down the centre of the road, the buildings lining both sides are in flames but the buses still run. In Wapping a group of firemen are resting exhausted against a wall. Suddenly one of their number hauls himself to his feet and hails the bus, his smoke blackened face unrecognisable beneath his steel helmet. Grinning like a fool the fireman pulls himself up to the level of the cab and my grandfather realizes that the man is his brother. His engine has been sent down from East Ham to help the beleaguered firefighters at the London Docks which are ablaze from end to end. Relieved that they have both survived the raid they shake hands and return to work.

Summer 1944. My grandmother drags a reluctant daughter to the shops to buy a loaf of bread. She is almost eight years old and argues that she is old enough to be left alone for a short while. My grandmother insists and they return later to find that Peabody Building’s are now one block less. A V1 Flying Bomb has scored a direct hit while they were out. Were it not for that loaf these words would never be written.

Many people say that history is dry and boring. Some ask why I find it so fascinating and I always make the same reply. ‘How can you not?’



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History and mass tourism-a double edged sword?

I touched on the differences which I have witnessed over the years on how the treatment of history and historic sites has changed in my lifetime after my visit to the British Museum and I thought that it would form a good basis for this week’s post.

The main engine of  change has clearly been the development of mass tourism. Affordablestonehenge-car-park-may-2012 air travel has opened up the wonders of the world to people of quite modest means and increases in population density have only added to the presure.

Like many things, the change seems to have occurred with the increase in housing values from the 1980′s onwards. Two trips to the U.S which I made, one during the mid 80′s and the other in the early 1990′s are good examples of the changes which occurred during this period.

In the mid 1980′s we took a fly/drive holiday in the western United States. One of the places which we visited was the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument in Montana. This site, famous in world history, consisted of a small visitor centre (center!), alongside which small stone markers had been placed where the bodies of  Custer and his men stock-footage-little-bighorn-battlefield-headstones-and-deep-blue-skyhad been discovered by the relief force soon after the battle in 1876. A road led along the ridge to the place where the remainder of Custer’s force held out as he and his detachment were slaughtered. This road ended in a loop before retracing its journey back to the visitor centre. Beside the road were the remains of the hastily thrown up earthen banks which the surviving troopers had dug for their protection from the attacks by Cheyenne and Lakota warriors that fateful day. The only protection that these poignant reminders had been afforded were a few signs dotted about warning people to keep to the path because of rattlesnakes. I would be surprised if the cartridge casings from the battle were still not lying in the grass thereabouts!

By the time of our visit to the Plimoth (sic) Plantation in 1994 things had changed dramatically. This historical recreation of the first settlement made by those who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower in 1620 was far ahead of any then found in Europe. The level of detail involved in recreating the buildings, crops and animals of thatimages (4) time was fantastic but the detail which was most impressive was human. Every man, woman and child on the plantation, and further up the coast on the replica Mayflower, represented a person from the original settlement and each one of them had researched that character and their background in meticulous detail. I lived in a place called Wickford in Essex at that time and many of the original settlers had left for the New World from those parts. One of the ‘villagers’ noted my accent and asked where I ‘hailed’ from to which he replied, ‘Oh, I am from Billericay. We were neighbours!’

As with many things, Britain finally caught up with this level of concern for the past a little later, but in a sort of ‘neither one way or the other’ way. Perhaps one of the best examples at home is Sutton Hoo. The first visits which I made to the burial site entailed parking the car in a layby and walking along the side of a field of crops to a completely open area near the lip of the ridge. There were several attempts at looting there before the present National Trust buildings and visitor centre images (3)were built and opened to the public in 2002. The centre has since developed into an important focus for studies into Anglo Saxon England but some feel that its very popularity has detracted from the burial field itself. Most visitors look around the visitor centre, exhibit hall and visit the restaurant, never bothering to take the short walk along the ridge to the burial mounds. Re enactors and craft exhibitions tend to concentrate in the same area because that is where the visitors are and no doubt they are paid by the National Trust, which I believe own the visitor centre but not the field which contain the burial mounds themselves. A similar thing is happening at Stonehenge where a visitor centre is being constructed fully two miles from the standing stones themselves. As with many things in the U.K it often feels like profit comes before the ‘attraction’ itself. It is the double edged sword of the title, how best to display and protect our great ancient monuments and history, assailed as they are by increasing visitor numbers, without overshadowing them. Although the new buildings and exhibitions are usually fantastically well executed I still feel that we may have lost a small element of ‘magic’ in our relationship with the past. Free (literally!) access to places where our ancestors lived and died has been traded for gift shops and National Trust sourced organic crisps. In the same way that our airports have now largely become shopping malls with a few aircraft outside, many of our historic sights have become cafe’s and gift shops (usually poor and/or selling objects which have little connection with the site). A sign of progress? Personally I feel that the ‘history’ ship is in danger of sailing too close to the ‘entertainment’ lee shore. I pretty much gave up on t.v history several years ago as it seemed that the subject was increasingly becoming more of a ‘vehicle’ for the presenter than a serious historical programme.  How do you feel?

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