Voyaging

Lesley Walker's Blog


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Voyaging in Unfamilar Territories

“Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilisation.”

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

img_1798Many years ago when I was working in historic houses in Australia, I observed a pre-school group being taken around Vaucluse House, on Sydney’s outer harbour. Bought in 1827 by William Charles Wentworth (of crossing the Blue Mountains fame), and much altered and added to by the family over 50 years, the house and grounds became a museum in 1915. The house’s public rooms were full of Victorian furnishings and decorative objets d’art, particularly the drawing room. This roped-off room was stuffed with burgundy red upholstered chaise longue and low chairs, delicate papier-mâché chairs, occasional tables, piano, every surface filled with aspirational objects – stuffed birds under glass domes, ticking gilt clocks, figurines, brass and silver candelabras, etc, thick woven carpets on the floor and heavy curtains framing French windows looking over an exquisite garden down to the harbour. As the guide encouraged the small children to look and talk about what they could see, one little curly-haired girl whispered, puzzled: “everything’s missing in this house”. She elaborated – no power points, plugs or light switches, no TV or video, no toys, no books, no newspapers or magazines, no electric lights, nothing that she would take for granted in a living room. There was no toilet, bathroom, kitchen as she would understand it, no appliances. There was no sign of habitation or of the people who might have used this room. William and his wife Sarah Morton Cox (isolated all her life from ‘polite’ Sydney society because she was the daughter of convicts and had borne William two children outside wedlock before he married her) had ten children. There was no sign of the servants and convicts who toiled and cleaned. I have always remembered this little girl’s “emperor’s new clothes” view of the recreated world we were gazing at – it was so upside down, so truthful, so looking through different eyes. http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/vaucluse-house

Ten years later, in 2004, I was hesitating outside Kalmar Castle in Sweden, having seen so many cold, draughty castles, empty whitewashed spaces, ammunition, cannons and cannon balls, pikes and staffs and armorial displays or lavish recreations of interiors in UK that yet another castle did not appeal. But what I found inside was so exciting, challenging and provocative that I have never forgotten it. Contemporary artists had created installations using sound, objects, fabrics, light, furniture, voices – in various rooms – the nursery, a dining hall, kitchens and cellars – which engaged and provoked visitors as they moved through the spaces inhabited once more by people and the stories of their lives. Wandering through the castle was a journey of discovery as you never knew what you would find in the next space. In the former 19th century women’s prison, life-sized dramatic and shocking black and white photographs brought the visitor face to face with named women and their stories, with historic cases and punishments from archives from 15th – 19th century. The disturbing and powerful image of one woman fighting with her hands raised, being buried alive after being found guilty of adultery stays with me still as does another of a woman hunched over, forced to carry two huge heavy stones hanging from each shoulder for weeks as a punishment for theft.
http://www.kalmarslott.se/english/kalmar-castle

I remember these two examples particularly as they each challenged, questioned or explored how visitors perceive what they are presented with in historic houses and buildings. In Vaucluse House the child could find little familiarity or relevance to her life. Watching from a barrier, there was no opportunity for her to directly experience, explore and connect with the house she was visiting. At Kalmar, aspects of Swedish-Danish history and life were suggested or interrogated through creative, momentary art installations which both delighted and surprised visitors. And the terror and resignation captured in photographs of women’s faces remain with me still, providing a direct emotional connection between me and their stories.

The past months I have been thinking a lot about relevance and meaning, value, “truth” and illusion in the way we approach heritage and history, spurred on by two conferences on opposite sides of the world: Re-Imagining Challenging Histories in Cardiff in June and the combined National Trusts and ICOMOS (Aust) People’s Ground conference in Melbourne, Australia in early October. Both offered much food for thought as I prepared a paper for the second one. Speakers in Cardiff reflected on the silences in our historic sites and challenged received ways of interpreting and communicating history. Where was interpretation of the bitter long-running quarry workers strike among all the splendour of Penrhyn Castle, a “19th-century fantasy castle” in Gwynedd? Why did some visitors to Southwell Workhouse leave thinking that treating poverty by reintroducing workhouses for the poor and those on benefits was an acceptable solution now? How were the stories these places were presenting relevant or even “truthful” today? Why are many historic buildings and houses still in the business of creating illusions about the “civilised” past? To what extent are our shared illusions about the past responsible for the uncomfortable places we find ourselves in at the moment?img_1797

As part of the Melbourne conference, I attended a workshop run by Franklin Vagnone, from New York. As I had worked in house museums in NSW from 1989-1997, the title of his recent book, The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, intrigued me. Anarchy and historic house museums? The workshop at the National Trust’s Rippon Lea did not disappoint and again the ideas of value and relevance came to the fore in Franklin’s discussion and inspired some radical questions. What happens if you open all the doors, take down the ropes and barriers and let people go where they will? What happens when you invite people to communicate what they like and don’t like about the way a house is presented and say what they would do if they were in charge? What happens if you have tea and sandwiches in the drawing room, sitting on the furniture and let people inhabit spaces as they were meant to be inhabited?

As workshop participants we were given labels and invited to write down our responses to spaces, objects, furnishings, rooms etc and leave the labels in situ. Part of the fun was reading other labels that had already been left by earlier workshop participants. I wandered along corridors, opening closed doors, discovering narrow back stairs, cluttered attics, broom cupboards, storage under stairs, empty rooms and staff spaces and opened drawers and doors, trunks and wardrobes. I wandered into what appeared to be the Sargood family’s former nursery, silent and cold, the toys displayed in glass cases like so many Victorian children’s corpses all dressed up for display. I felt nothing but a sense of dread.

Later as we sat in the drawing room sipping tea and eating sandwiches, we discussed the experience and our responses. Given NT’s and other historic house organisations’ usually reverential approach to house museums and the families (but not the servants) who inhabited them, and the sacrosanct nature of the interiors and furnishings, this was brave of the National Trust and I hope that it found Franklin’s approach as refreshing as I did, offering new opportunities for future directions.

I am left with many unanswered questions – Do we just accept unquestioningly a curatorial view that these interiors are worth keeping, pickled in aspic, soaked in formaldehyde, frozen in time, telling stories that are so far removed from our experiences now? Are visitors doomed to be always voyeurs, traipsing around with guides, guide books or audio, through a static landscape, or could they become active participants in creating relevance for themselves and others? Could they become part of a conversation between the house and its caretakers and the public? How could these places begin to move beyond the illusions they create and support about life and people in the past and start to explore the at times uncomfortable truths about these pasts?

To be continued


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Decay and Resurrection? Voyaging in Hull 3

Fresh from an extraordinary two day conference in Cardiff, “Re-imagining Challenging Histories”, a stimulating conversation between academics and heritage professionals about spaces and silences, I headed again to Hull. I have been grappling with Brexit and its implications and I know Hull voted overwhelmingly to leave, possibly a modern incarnation of its historical tendency to defiance. For those who don’t know, in 1642 the Governor of Hull, Sir James Hotham, refused to open the Beverley Gate to Charles 1. This is widely regarded as one of the trigger points of the English Civil War. More on Beverley Gate later. William Wilberforce, the parliamentary abolitionist, was born and lived in Hull and the Cod Wars are part of its story. Hull has its own Daily Mail, and its own white telephone booths. It also has its own City of Culture 2017, the reason for my journey.

On Saturday night 2 July a French performance group were to close the Yorkshire Festival and open the first Amy Johnson Festival with Plas des Anges, promised to be a spectacle Hull would never forget. As part of the HLF team working with the Hull 2017 team, I was invited to participate and a spectacle it truly was. As night softly descended on Queens Gardens, activity on top of various tall buildings surrounding the gardens indicated something was about to begin. For over an hour we were spellbound watching white-clad “angels” moving along very high wires strung between buildings, showering us with a snow storm of white feathers as ethereal music filled the night. A huge white zeppelin of a cherub, guided by tall poles, loomed slowly over our heads, coloured spotlights changing it from bright white to electric blue and back. Breathtaking yet sinister, its slow pace in contrast to the flying angels who moved and danced and dangled from the overhead wires. As the performance came to a climax, a blizzard of feathers covered the ground all around us and children and adults alike scooped up armfuls and tossed them over their heads with delight. Hull was littered with feathers for days and we kept finding them in clothes and bags and along the footpaths and river where we walked. Such beauty momentarily transformed Hull and a transitory magic brought smiles and laughter to its people. That this beauty came from Europe seemed not to be noticed.

The next day we walked through the building site that is Hull’s central streets at the moment and were brought face to face with the site of the Defiance – the remains of Beverley Gate, uncovered by archaeologists in 1986. You might think that the site would have been cherished, a symbol of how Hull has regarded itself as standing apart, as different. But behind temporary wire barricades, the steps and remaining footings and structures of the gate and the Victorian bridge which crossed the link between the former Queens Dock to the Princes Dock and thence to the Humber, was a site of decay and neglect – rubbish, bottles, filthy peeling interpretation panels, a veritable ‘skip’.

Further research showed that it had been like this for at least four years, possibly more. A local councillor quoted in Hull Daily Mail said it was a disgrace in 2014 and declared, “If this was in any other continental European city, they would be having King’s Head Days or Defiance Days with bands marching, flags flying and people in historical costumes. As it is, we’ve just got a big hole in the ground”. So at some point Hull was regarded as a European city by its inhabitants, even if holding a King’s Head Day was seen as a good idea for a celebration!

 

A walk around the city and along the River Hull towards the oddly-named quiet and deserted High Street enroute to the Museum Quarter (see my earlier blogs on Hull) was interrupted by another wire barricade blocking off the path. A man in a vicar’s dog collar and his lady companion lifted up the barricade and encouraged us to crawl through and we then repeated the favour for another group of people trapped by the wire. Our small act of defiance! IMG_0677We explored the interestingly engineered Drypool Bridge, and discovered a rather rusty iron plaque which obviously once marked something that Hull wanted to remember but is now only forgotten.

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In 1888 something to remember, in 2016 forgotten

Visiting Wilberforce House where William was born told us much about him but I looked in vain on the ground floor for a mention of any other abolitionists. IMG_0699I did finally find Thomas Clarkson, Olaudah Equiano, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Hannah More and others upstairs along with a rather oversized rendition of Clarkson’s famous chest. In this he collected and carried the wealth and skills and natural products of the African continent throughout England for years trying to convince British citizens and politicians that Africa offered far more attractive (and moral) opportunities than the slave trade.

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Model of Clarkson’s chest. Smaller, original one is in Wisbech Museum.

Clarkson was an East Anglian, born in Wisbech, educated at Cambridge. He carried out the major research into the evils of the trade, risking his life to get the evidence needed to provide Wilberforce with credibility in parliament. Clarkson lived and died in Playford near Woodbridge, Suffolk. His brother John was responsible for bringing the free former enslaved Africans from North America to Freetown, the first governor of Sierra Leone and is buried in St Mary’s churchyard in Woodbridge where I currently live. The idea that Wilberforce singlehandedly ended the British slave trade is one of those enduring myths of British history which the Wilberforce House, despite its refurbishment and new exhibitions for 2007, does not actively dispel. A futile search for a cafe on Sunday in the Museum Quarter was another disappointment. The Museum Quarter consists of three museums side by side and a beautiful park-like garden and backs onto the River Hull. It was a shock to discover there was no cafe and the attendant apologised for the lack of a vending room which had existed but was no longer in operation. A room with vending machines wasn’t quite what I had in mind so I was not dismayed by its closure. Thinking that Hull needed to hurry up and think about meeting the needs of the anticipated thousands who were going to arrive in 2017, and presumably would require cafes and non-pub food on a Sunday, we repaired to the nearby Sailmakers Arms for a cold drink. IMG_0698

We walked north of the High Street and found Blaydes, yet another impressive former merchant’s house and office, alongside another derelict dock, white feathers settling among red poppies on the wasteland. There is something very sad about all this dereliction. Many of the empty sites are car parks but none of them that we saw had become community gardens or parks or even temporary allotments or wild green spaces.

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The white spots are feathers!

The people have not reclaimed their city. I was struck by the evidence of how wealthy Hull had been and how poor it is now in so many ways. What happened in between? Wars, depression, loss of industry, declining fish stocks, containerisation, urban planning disasters, Thatcherism, banking disasters, and finally Austerity. This is the austerity agenda in action, piled onto decades of urban decay and industrial decline. I thought of Westminster, George Osborne and Brexit and the famous lines from Shelley’s poem Ozymandias,Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Can Hull City of Culture 2017 in some small way compensate Hull for the last 100 years? Could some of these small white feathers among the red poppies symbolise a possible future where beauty and magic, dreams and prosperity, make “Hullness” possible once more?


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Voyaging with Volunteers

This month we have had Volunteers’ Week and it seems appropriate to highlight and acknowledge the role of ordinary (extraordinary) people who labour long and hard to save, salvage, protect and preserve heritage precious to them and their local areas.

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The past few weeks I have been working with groups of volunteers in Scotland and Northern Ireland who are doing just this. In one case the heritage was threatened by local authority’s tendency to demolition by neglect, in another by careless and directionless failed private ownership, in the third case, “inevitable progress” and a blindness to the future value of remnants of past technology. In all three cases, volunteers have worked indefatigably to secure the building, the grounds, the ship and the locomotives and rolling stock for the future and then to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund for the money to be able to share that heritage with other people. The value of the work these people do cannot be over-estimated. Without them, much of the local heritage of the UK would be lost forever.

When I first visited Whitehead, between Carrickfergus and Larne, County Antrim, three or four years ago, the site was a collection of sheds and tracks filled with rolling stock and railway paraphernalia and weed-infested backyard littered with rusting metal.

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On my recent visit, the activity in the Whitehead engineering workshops is impressive, the apprentices and volunteers readying the site for its public opening later this year.

Since the 1960s extraordinary restoration work has been carried out in the unheated, uninsulated sheds, and volunteers worked on carriages and locomotives in very primitive conditions. As the local foundries closed down all over Northern Ireland, they set up their own, as heavy engineering workshops modernised or shut, they bought machinery and equipment from clearing auctions. And perhaps most wonderful of all, this voluntary group kept steam trains running on the mainlines throughout Ireland including the Portrush Flyer. Now with funding from HLF and Europe and the Northern Irish Tourist Board and others, the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland is about to open a heritage engineering and railway centre where people can see conservation and restoration work in action: heavy machinery dating from the glory days of British engineering in use, locomotives, diesel and steam, running and static, carriages, the older timber ones built like coaches, the cranes, wheel drop, forge and foundry in action, see the locomotives being turned on the newly installed turntable, smell the grease, hear the steam, the hammer, shunting, and of course ride on the trains.

 

All of this has been achieved by dedicated teams of volunteers who would not let Ireland’s steam and railway heritage disappear and the interpretation on the site will celebrate their extraordinary achievement by featuring them and their stories.

The same commitment was responsible for saving the 1953 paddle steamer Maid of the Loch from the scrapyard when she was left to rot. Sadly many of her fittings and equipment were stripped and stolen, as her owners, a private English-based company, went into receivership. The last paddle steamer builder on the Clyde, equipped with a massive steam engine and boilers to drive her two paddles, she was first built, then dismantled and transported piece by piece overland to Loch Lomond where she was reconstructed and operated on the loch until 1981. Having rescued her from the scrapyard, the volunteers have been opening her to the public on her pier at Balloch, using her for events and functions. Now the volunteers want to get her steaming again around Loch Lomond.

First they needed to get funding to restore the steam-driven Slipway and Winch House in order to slip her to determine the condition of her riveted steel hull. With that project successfully completed, they are in the process of developing their final application to the HLF to make this dream a reality. imageIn glorious sunshine two weeks ago, we held our meeting on deck to discuss and plan the work they need to do (to conserve and restore the ship and the paddle wheels, to fit a new boiler, to engage people, schools, families, students in the project) to ensure a successful outcome.

The third project, the saving and restoration of Moat Brae, a Georgian townhouse on the River Nidd in Dumfries, is another triumph for a group of determined local people. Once a private house, then a nursing home, then derelict and threatened with demolition, part of the original garden had already been sold off for building housing.

But the empty boarded-up shell of the house with what was left of its river-side garden, overgrown and impenetrable, held a special story. Here J.M. Barrie had visited as a child, played and adventured in the garden with the children of the house. Like them, he was a student at Dumfries Academy next door. IMG_7348It was at Moat Brae that he experienced the wonder and freedom that became Neverland and Peter Pan. It was this connection and this story which meant Moat Brae should not be lost. Local people got together and saved the house and what was left of its grounds, raised money to replace the roof and secure the building. Then they set out to get HLF and other funding to realize their ambition of a Centre for Children’s Literature and a place where children and their adults could dream, play and adventure again. With funding secured, they are now ready to make that happen. In the meantime they have been using the building as place for their communities to visit, and the day I was there, displaying amazing students’ work from Dumfries and Galloway College. IMG_7367


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Voyaging in Hull’s Maritime Past 2

There were once huge docks in and around the centre of Hull – The Dock (built between 1775-8) was the largest dock in the country. Renamed Queen’s Dock in 1854, it closed in 1930, and was filled in and grassed over as Queen’s Gardens. Junction Dock (1829) was renamed Prince’s Dock in 1854 and closed to shipping in 1968.  Since 1991 it has housed a futuristic shopping centre. Humber Dock (1807-09) closed in 1967 and with Railway Dock (1846) later became part of Hull’s marina where at least boats can still float and enter and leave from and to the mighty Humber River.

A day’s meetings focussing on City of Culture partnerships, programmes and priorities over, I headed for the former 18th and 19th century docks, retracing my steps through building works, following a maze of orange cones, past the ornate Italianate Maritime Museum and Civic Hall and the classic facade of the Ferens Art Gallery, alongside the former Queen’s Dock, now Gardens.

P1100031The painted facade of the pub was inviting but I wanted to get to the Humber before it was too dark. I found the Prince’s Dock, now the Princes Shopping Centre, a huge silver building apparently floating in the dock. Hull does seem to have an awful lot of shopping centres, despite the huge number of closed and empty traditional street fronting shops. No doubt this is connected!

I spied masts ahead and like a homing pigeon, drawn to boats and water, I crossed a very busy main road and found myself at the marina, the former Dock and still attached to the Humber. The black lightship was moored alongside and barges, yachts and motor boats of all shapes and sizes sat quietly at pontoons inside the mighty walls of the dock. Captured in a glass case, a single beam engine sat quietly contemplating its fate like a stuffed bird under glass, its immense unmoving wheel an exhibit rather than a living breathing engine.

The inevitable maze of cones, dug up streets and fenced off footpaths appeared again as I walked past bars, a few eateries and mostly empty umbrella covered tables towards the river. The entrance to the brown sluggish Humber from the dock was lined in curving mud banks. I walked along the river towards where the Hull flows into the Humber, the huge silver prow of The Deep dominating the east bank.

An elegant verdigris sculpture by an Icelandic sculptor gazed up into the sky from the west bank and empty pontoons reached out into the river. As the Hull rushed into the Humber, the mud-stained rivers mingled created disturbance on the surface and a sense of conflicting movement.

P1100090An A4 sheet of paper in a plastic sleeve attached to the railing caught my attention and I stopped to read it. Entitled The Lincoln Castle docking at Minerva Pier in 1977, it depicted the same docks I could see from the promenade in 1977 with a paddle steamer coming alongside. The text explained that the writer, a newcomer in 1977, had not realized that this was one of her last voyages, the ferry being replaced with the new bridge. Despite a campaign to save her, the beautiful and elegant steamer which used to connect the two shores was dismantled in Grimsby as recently as 2010. So much for maritime heritage. The page ended with a web address and a note to the reader, to leave the image there for others to see or an invitation to take it home and the lines “Our streets, our public spaces, are there to daily celebrate that we are not alone in this world, a place where we talk, we laugh, we enjoy, we cry, we joke with strangers … Let (sic) keep them out of private and corporate control.” I was heartened to see and share this unsolicited fragment of “visitor generated content” as it is known in the museum and gallery world and the small piece of Hull’s lost heritage which I had stumbled upon. Someone cared enough to display this and share it and I appreciated that. I later looked up Pablo Luis Gonzalez and he is a Hull-based photographer http://www.pablo-luis-gonzalez.uk/about/

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I turned to follow the West Bank of the Hull River back towards the building sites that dominated the surroundings and again discovered something wonderful – a huge stone and brick-lined dry dock reminiscent of the ones at Garden Island in Sydney Harbour.

But inside the remains of rusting lock gates, a huge new concrete wall shut it off from the waters of the Hull. And upon new pillars rising out of the dirty water lying in the bottom of the dock, an enormous timber stage with rising tiered seating levels was being constructed. Artist’s impressions on a developers’ sign showed the entertainment and performance space surrounded by green planting in the dock and I consoled myself with the thought that at least the dock would still be there and had not been destroyed. A new Digital Quarter was being built all around, a symbol of Hull’s hopes for a more prosperous future.

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Skirting more cones, piled paving and rubbish, I walked through a small street of what looked like former interesting shops and galleries back to the marina dock. A restaurant 1842 in a Victorian warehouse caught my eye and the menu appealed and again I had found serendipitously another of Hull’s maritime treasures. A quirky restaurant and wine bar was in the former Ropery built in 1884 to serve Hull’s shipping industry, humming with groups of people enjoying excellent food and good wine. Under its chandeliers and huge black and white industrial photographs, I reflected on the day’s meetings, and the programme of contemporary cutting edge art, performance and cultural spectacles being planned for 2017. Was there room in all this culture, national and international, for Hull’s past, for the shadows and stories of defiance, war, fishing and maritime tragedies, for white telephone boxes and whaling, for activists and merchants, philanthropists and dockers, Hanseatic and Baltic connections, for buried Tudor military installations and lost Victorian splendour? For language and dialect, secret places and community, for local stories, for “Hullness”? I hope so.P1100084

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Voyaging in Hull Part 1

“Behind her domes and cranes enormous skies/of gold and shadows build; a filigree/of wharves and wires, ricks and refineries,/her working skyline wanders to the sea.”

This week I spent whatever time was available outside meetings, wandering around Hull, Larkin’s “lonely northern daughter”, getting to know a city that has had much bad press. Hull is about to become the 2017 City of Culture, the second UK city after Derry/Londonderry (Glasgow and Liverpool were European Cities of Culture, a different programme altogether).

IMG_7259When I left the York train at Hull Station on Sunday night, I was greeted by a bronze statue of poet and former Hull librarian, Philip Larkin in full flight for a train at Whitsun, his words inscribed in slate circles in the paving and in the timber seats on which passengers waited for their trains.

Being on Turkish time after travelling straight to Hull from Antalya after sailing from Cyprus to Finike, I was up and out well before breakfast. With a very inadequate map from the hotel, I headed in what I hoped was the direction of the Hull River. Hull is somewhat lacking in street signs and as all of the streets in the centre are building sites, this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. With the help of a friendly man in hard hat and fluoro orange work gear (I think most of the population of Yorkshire is employed on digging up and repaving Hull at the moment), I worked out where I was and then stumbled with delight into the Land of Green Ginger – the mysterious and intriguing name of a street, the origin of which no one seems to know.

Instinctively I followed narrow cobbled streets and lanes until I saw a bridge ahead and then under my feet in an open space, the words mizzen, top gallant, royal, thwart … As anyone with a passion for maritime heritage will know, these are the names of sails and parts of sailing ships. A small open space had been landscaped to appear as a horizontal sailing ship with sailing language in bronze lettering in the order in which the parts of the sails or ship occur, from royal to keel. It was subtle – probably far too subtle for anyone who knew little of maritime language or heritage – and a couple sitting drinking coffee on a bench were astonished when I started photographing the ground! There was a garishly-coloured interpretation sign nearby, completely at odds with its surroundings, which did explain the space and its heritage but no one was stopping to read it except me.

I found myself on the River Hull in a space designated “The Museum Quarter” but apparently I was at the back entrance of the quarter as from the river, it looks like a series of empty buildings, a vision gone wrong.

Among surviving warehouses, now student accommodation with peeling woodwork and a planning application to replace wooden window frames with PVC in a listed building, was a typical late 20th century building, all dark brown bricks and large span empty V-shaped windows. The backdoor covered space provided night shelter for a bearded man and his black bin bags. Between two warehouses, behind a locked gate in a landscaped space and car park, stretched huge beams on iron columns; another warehouse, the charred black beams presumably indicating the building’s fate.

The River Hull itself at low tide is brown muddy like so many east coast tidal rivers and sticking out of the mud was a wellington boot, the remains of bicycles, traffic cones and shopping trolleys, a dead bird and quite a lot of other rubbish. Two mud-covered articles of clothing were lying on the boardwalk, an intriguing mystery possibly linked with the wellington boot! P1100060Across the river another building was being demolished while others still standing, were no doubt awaiting the same fate. Beyond the flood barrier, where the Hull meets the Humber, the shining silver walls of The Deep, Hull’s successful millennium aquarium, loomed up like the prow of a spaceship. In contrast the Arctic Corsair, tied up alongside the boardwalk, looked rather abandoned. A sidewinder trawler built in 1960 by Cook, Gemmel & Welton Ltd of Beverley, she broke the world record for the landing of cod and haddock from the White Sea in 1973. In 1999 she became a museum ship, the last survivor of Hull’s massive “Sidewinder” trawling fleet. She does look rather sad these days, possibly the inevitable result of becoming a museum ship and requiring more attention and money than most local museums can spare.

The man with the bin bags passed by me, moving out onto the river bank and stowing his bags beneath a footbridge. It was only when I passed Drypool Bridge that I discovered the High Street, the public face of the Museum Quarter with a series of museums including Wilberforce House, the Hull and East Riding Museum and Streetlife, the Transport Museum. The High St must be the quietest High St in the country – I seemed to be the only thing stirring at 8am. I would be in meetings during the museums’ opening hours so they will have to wait til my next visit.

I headed back through cobbled lanes towards my hotel near the station, passing through the Queen’s Gardens. Until 1930 this was the first mighty Victorian dock to be constructed in Hull. From the top of his column, Wilberforce looked down upon the gardens and I passed a sitting bronze figure, entitled “mankind under threat”, to which some local ‘artist’ had added features.

I passed Hull’s distinctive white phone booths and couldn’t help but notice the numbers of post WW2 commercial buildings standing empty with prominent For Sale, Redevelopment Opportunity signs – in some streets these were more numerous than any other signs. I wondered if the promises of  the City of Culture project would make a real difference to Hull, its people and prosperity.


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Voyaging Far North 2

Private history or public history?
Small local museums are both repositories of local memory, artefacts and documents and community storytellers. As I wander Helmsdale, my base for the first two nights of my Caithness and Sutherland visit, I am reminded also ofIMG_4850 how inaccessible and hidden so much of this history is.

Driving up to Helmsdale on the east coast from Inverness means crossing Moray, Cromarty and Dornoch Firths, place names that resonate with anyone interested in maritime matters.

Helmsdale itself is a product of the infamous Clearances, planned to provide accommodation and employment to those evicted from their lands to make way for sheep. In the early 19th century as the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland “improved” their estates for productive and profitable sheep farming, their tenants were evicted from the straths and glens and moved to planned settlements on the coast such as Helmsdale.  Many went to Canada and other parts of the New World. Between 1813 and 1819, more than 1,500 people were forcibly moved from Strath of KIMG_6994ildonan and by 1831 there were only 257 people left.


Later Helmsdale was a herring port and the village population grew to several thousand during the herring fishing season. Local families provided crews for the herring boats and the trade supported coopers, curers, blacksmiths and labourers. Women gutted and packed the herring and sold it around the district  from creels on their backs. The earlier inner harbour and single lane stone arched bridge further upriver gave way in the later 19th century to a man-made outer Harbour and more recently, a flying modern metal span tying southern cliff top to town. This magnifies the intrusive sounds of huge trucks as they hurtle down through the town and over the bridge and changed the place and landscape for ever. Local people told me that an ancient castle ruin, shown in old black and white photographs standing on the cliff top, was destroyed to make way for the bridge.

I stay in the old Customs House at the end of the outer harbour, a generous B&B run as B&Bs used to be when I first came to UK: a shared bathroom down the hall, fresh milk brought up to the room, conversations with Mrs Macdonald and a fabulous breakfast with no irritating portion control packets. Mrs M’s father and brother were herring fishermen, owning their own boats and her house is lined with photographs and memorabilia of a lost world. She would like to see a monument or memorial of some kind to the fishermen and their fleets such as stand on other harbours up and down the coast but is not sure how to go about getting such a thing.

 

In the morning from my bed I watch the sun rising over the harbour, the snow on the far southern shore of the firth glittering in the distance. Bunillidh, the last boat to fish out of Helmsdale, stopped  in the mid 1990s. Only a few small fishing boats stacked with lobster and crab pots are against the Harbour wall. At times they head out through the narrow entrance, a few men busy with lines and pots.IMG_6991

High above the small town an impressive stone war memorial towers over the landscape, out of all proportion to the surroundings. Built in 1924, it commemorates the 38 men from the parish who died in WW1 and 16 men in WW2.

At some angles the poignant memorial to the Clearances becomes visible also above the town. The Clearances Memorial itself has a history. The 10 feet high bronze “Exiles” statue was funded by a Canadian millionaire who left Sutherland and made a fortune in South Africa.  He originally envisaged a 30 foot family of emigrants atop a 90440px-The_Higland_emigrants_monuments_Helmsdale foot plinth, towering over the landscape, complete with visitor centre but due to lack of financial support, his plans never eventuated. It was to be a response to the huge and controversial statue of the Duke of Sutherland which towers over the neighbouring town of Golspie.

 

But there is little  information for visitors unless they can visit Timespan, the impressive heritage centre beside the river. Timespan has limited opening hours out of season and has been closed on both of my visits to the area which tend not to be in the tourist season. I am sure it tells wonderful stories but I wonder should access to the stories of place and people only be available to those who can visit a “Heritage Centre” in season?

On both my visits I wander the shore in the early morning before breakfast. Like so much of the UK coastline the beach is filled with rubbish of many materials and a lot of plastic – some obviously dumped here from the land, some washed up.

I can’t resist picking up sea glass, marbles and pottery sherds, an obsession of mine for many years. I eat in the Bannockburn Arms most nights, chatting to the landlady who moved here from Brighton 12 years ago. People talk to you here, other diners in the restaurant (all visitors from somewhere else) and drinkers in the pub. They all know the Flows Country project, the reason I am here, and are interested in its progress. With pubs and shops closed, they are hoping it will bring more trade to this quiet, somewhat forgotten town.

As I walk down to the river under the stone arched bridge, I think of Mrs Macdonald’s wish to have a memorial to the herring fishermen she remembers at the harbour. As Alex Salmond said in 2007 at a ceremony in Helmsdale to remember the Clearances, “this statue is not only a reminder of the Highland Clearances, but a great example of the skill and vision of those who remain”.  Perhaps the monuments are not only testament to the pain and poignancy of the Clearances and the Great War but also symbolic of how selective the history is that we choose to commemorate. Those who remain might well believe that their more recent history, instead of being hidden and private, is worth the public telling.

I hope Mrs Macdonald gets her monument to the generations of men and women who worked the herring. And perhaps seeing such a memorial would remind us that the herring disappeared along with jobs and a way of life. Just as with the degraded blanket bog of the Flow Country, there are lessons we can take for our own times from this.

 


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Voyaging Far North 1

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Forsinard – the Flow Country

Over the years several people have asked me to write about the projects and the places I visit as part of my freelance work. Having completed, for the time being, the posts connected with my research and the 38th Voyage in 2014, I am changing my focus to a different kind of voyaging.

Consulting for the Heritage Lottery Fund and others provides wonderful opportunities to travel to some very beautiful and sometimes remote parts of Britain as well as for engaging with the people who work with heritage as staff or volunteers and are passionate about what they do.

I have just returned from travelling in the highlands, peatlands and coastal districts of the far north of Scotland in Caithness and Sutherland. At Forsinard I explore the extraordinary world of the Flow Country, Europe’s largest blanket bog and a hugely important carbon store, with its wealth of mosses, insects, plants and wildlife. I walk out to the stunning and sculptural watch tower along the new boardwalk rippling like a pale carpet over the peat bog and its pools.

The rich warm colours of the bog astound me – an artist’s palette of russet, lime, gold, ochre, crimson, dark plum, burnt sienna. Jewel-like dragonflies hover above the dark waters and the calls of invisible meadow birds – skylarks, meadow pippets – intrude on what would otherwise be the deep silence of the place. From the tower you can appreciate the extent of the bog, its intricate patterns and colours laid out like a glorious patchwork quilt. We talk about whether the tower needs interpretation for visitors. In many ways the surroundings are so breathtaking that words seem unnecessary. Then again, opening people’s eyes to the beauty and the complexity of what they are seeing – once regarded as bleak and useless waste land – is important in the wider scheme of things. Listening to the land is a powerful experience but at times we need trained ears to hear!IMG_7007

One of the project staff is responsible for working with landowners and managers to communicate the importance of conserving the peatlands in their natural state. This often means undoing or modifying practices encouraged and funded by past governments like bog drainage and planting thousands of conifers. As we talk about his work, I become more aware of just how painstaking and challenging undoing mistakes of the past can be. Draining the peatlands to create grass and heather growth for sheep, grouse and other economic uses and planting conifer plantations means disturbing the delicate balance of the bog, drying out and degrading the peat and ultimately creating conditions where carbon will be released. He shows me the myriad of GIS mapped drains up and down the peatlands and explains the intricacies of decision-making to determine whether they can be blocked again and how and where so the bog will return to a healthy state. I am impressed by how technology can be used to both record and explain what happens and why.

Heading further north, the next morning I drive along single track roads from Helmsdale through Kinbrace and across the awe-inspiring landscape to Syre and up Strathnaver, the valley in which the Naver river flows. For many miles the only other signs of life are a red Royal Mail van, men filling potholes along the narrow track, and hundreds of deer and stags almost camouflaged in the red-gold landscape.

In the river valley, I keep stopping for large black shiny SUVs carrying fishing rods and men in the universal “hunting, shooting and fishing” uniform and one lone Tesco delivery van. As I turn onto the main road along the north coast from Tongue to Thurso, a vivid blue sea sparkles among the gold-black fields and green-black cliffs. There is so much beauty in this northern landscape.

Later I join a workshop in a primary school in Thurso run by the Flow to the Future project’s learning officer and volunteers, where P5/P6 students  are getting their hands dirty comparing ph levels and drainage-water holding ability in sands, potting mix, clay and peat. Relating this to their study of the causes of climate change and understanding the process of decomposition, using maps of the world, photographs and small national flags, they consider the planet’s variety of climates, wetlands, desert, peatlands. Using local to teach global is vital if today’s young people are going to make a difference for the future of the planet.

I visit a small volunteer-run local museum in a former church in a small dispersed settlement on the north coast. They need funding for repairs and refurbishment of the building and its interior and we meet with the volunteers and part time staff to discuss a way forward. Like so many small volunteer-run museums, they lack funds and resources and access to professional expertise. At the same time the museum plays an incredibly important role in their local communities, a focus for meeting people in an isolated place, a welcome for newcomers, a place to explore stories and the history of the local area, to contribute, to communicate, to learn and to share that learning. When we start exploring the variety of engagement with the community and the opportunities the museum provides, the discussion became very animated. One volunteer talks about how the museum has “saved her life”, offering her a focus, company and inspiring her interest at a very bleak time in her life. She is now undertaking a museum studies course and is a passionate advocate for what might be possible. Another who moved up from England, explains how she knew no one and the museum gave her an instant community and offered new friendships and connections. Talking about their vision for what the museum could be rather than focussing simply on the repairs and building issues hopefully will give them access to what was missing in their application for funding.

While the building has significance in connection with the Clearances, the museum is not the building! Many museums are hampered by the box they inhabit, whether it be an historic but redundant church, school, cottage, or country house. Having to fund repairs, display collections and engage with modern visitors and groups in entirely unsuitable conditions or spaces makes their job so much more challenging. Too large collection items – transport vehicles, agricultural machinery, furniture and maritime objects – shoulder display cases with small and delicate items up against walls and into corners. Poor and damp climactic conditions make paper-based and photographic items curl at the edges, or mean only scans or photocopies can be displayed, and fluorescent tubes glare down on items that shouldn’t be so exposed. Steps and narrow doorways create accessibility issues and volunteers have to make cups of tea in tiny dark sub-standard basements and protect all supplies from visiting vermin. Specific collections built up by an interest group and donated to the museum at some point in the past end up taking up valuable public space even though few visitors may share that interest.

Should a museum focus so much on the box it exists in by historical accident however well-meaning, and is now limited by, or should it re-invent itself as a community space? If it is housed in a listed building which is entirely unsuitable for housing a museum, what other options does it have? Should it reconsider its collection and make some hard decisions about the significance or otherwise of all this “stuff”? These are difficult questions and I am not proposing to answer them here but working so much with small groups of hard-working volunteers committed to conserving and communicating their past for the present and future, I can’t help but feel that some more radical solutions might be considered.

I was hoping that I might see the northern lights for the first time but it was not to be. But for my final evening in Thurso, the sunset and its reflection on Dunnet Head more than made up for the disappointment.