Living with history

Living in Cornwall means living with an awareness of history. It’s one of the things I love about the place. I can leave my house and in less than half an hour drive to (and I’m naming just a few spots) a stone circle, the remains of a medieval field system, the vague hints of a medieval hamlet, the ruin of a 16th century castle, and behind the castle a much older set of foundations that may have been a monastery. At least I think the current theory says it was a monastery.  A more romantic theory holds that King Arthur was conceived in an older castle on the same site and that his final battle was fought a few miles away, at Slaughterbridge.

In November, the Royal Clarence Hotel in Exeter (just over an hour from here) caught fire, and the news reports said it was the oldest hotel in England. That led the Guardian to run an article on other hotels that are also the oldest in England. It turns out they all have a reasonable claim, because there’s more than one way to define oldest hotel: oldest building now used as a hotel; building used as a hotel for the longest time; oldest building originally used as an inn but now used as a hotel; oldest small piece of a building now used as a hotel but that’s been added on to and changed over the years. The list could go on, I’m sure. Everyplace wants to be the oldest. Because people here value the history. Which, to be crass, means it sells.

Relevant photo: A castle ruin near Edinburgh. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Relevant photo: A castle in the Firth of Forth (don’t you just love saying that?), near Edinburgh. No, it’s not Cornwall, but it’s about as relevant as the pictures here get. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Visiting heritage sites is a national pastime, and in 2015 over 40 million people did exactly that. That’s almost 75% of the adult population of Britain, although some whacking big chunk of the visitors must have been foreign tourists. But never mind, because an even larger chunk weren’t. That’s based on Hawley’s Small and Unscientific survey of the accents I hear when I visit those places myself.

Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey is never wrong.

Heritage sites include castles, stately homes, and archeological sites but doesn’t seem to include the old ships, churches, mills, factories, and small bits of steam railroad dotted around the country. The steam railroads are lovingly refurbished and run by volunteers. A lot of Wild Thing’s family worked for the Santa Fe Railroad and she grew up around steam trains, so I’m particularly conscious of them. We once drove halfway across Minneapolis to figure out why we were hearing one. It turned out to be a beautifully restored Canadian train that had been brought in for who knows what reason.

Add the people who go to those sites to the heritage site numbers and you can probably bump up the number of visitors by some impressive amount. By my calculations, 136% of the British population has visited one of the sites in the past year.

No, I can’t be trusted around numbers. The point, though, is that history isn’t just a high-end obsession here. The article where I found the number of visitors notes that the participation gap between rich and poor and between white and everybody else had narrowed in five or so years.

I used to wonder what it would be like to grow up surrounded so visibly by history, then I met a kid who told me in all seriousness that he was descended from King Arthur. I didn’t ask how that worked, being descended from a king who may well be mythical, I just took it as a tribute to the power of story and to the way history affects the imagination.

But history’s a tricky thing, and when it collides with imagination it gets even trickier. A lot of us like to imagine knights and lords and ladies and King Arthur and all those Druids, whoever the Druids were and whatever they actually did. We look at the stone circles that haunt the landscape, and because they’re silent we can imagine them to mean anything we want. Someone once told me that at one of them she felt a powerfully female energy. I don’t doubt that she felt it. I do doubt her feelings had anything to do with the stones, the place, or the history.

Popular imagination holds that the bowl-shaped rocks on the moor were used for blood sacrifices, but a geologist neighbor says they were formed by the wind spending eons blowing pebbles around in the hollows. Which is a lot less evocative but more convincing.

As easy as it is to edit in a romantic tale or three, it’s also easy to edit out the conflict and misery behind the archeological sites. The gorgeous hill forts that dot Cornwall stand witness to warfare and the expectation of attack. The field system I mentioned in the first paragraph was originally a common, which means it was owned collectively by a group of people who had the right to use it in certain traditional ways, which would have been spelled out. It continued as a common until at least the seventeenth century. In 1844, fourteen owners were recorded. By 2000, the field had one owner.

I’m inclined to mourn the loss of common land. The families who had a right to it depended on it for food at a time when food was scarce and hunger wasn’t. The loss of commons is commemorated by a folk poem that says, “The law locks up the man or woman / Who steals the goose off the common / But leaves the greater villain loose / Who steals the common from the goose.”

I don’t know how that one particular field changed from common land to owned land. If it had followed the usual pattern, the change would have come earlier and the marks of the medieval system would have disappeared by now. But in general, the change was marked by desperation and the destruction of a way of life. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t a good way of life (unless you lived somewhere the top of the class pyramid) or an easy one, but for anyone on the wrong end of the change, what came next was worse.

And the great houses so many visitors admire today? The money to build some of them came from stealing the common from the goose. For others, it came from slave plantations overseas. For the rest, it came from other charming arrangements. But the houses are beautiful. We pay our admission and drift through, admiring whatever we’re inclined to admire—the dishes, the architecture, the clothing, the lush life they housed.

In a great house outside Bodmin, the lady’s parlor is laid out with a permanent afternoon tea and, if I remember right, four chairs. I can’t help imagining myself into one of those chairs, drinking tea, eating scones and little lovely whatevers. Set out food and I’ll imagine myself eating it. Then I imagine doing that every day, and the perfect boredom of a life where that’s pretty much all you can count on to break up the day. Then I remember how many underpaid, overbossed servants it took to keep one lady eating little whatevers at 4 p.m. every day, and the poverty and lack of alternatives that drove them to take those jobs, and  how long the work day was, and how little of that beauty they could claim as their own.

Isn’t it just fun hanging around with me? Don’t you just feel uplifted? I’ll see if I can’t be more fun next week.

46 thoughts on “Living with history

  1. Glad to know I have company in thinking about the downstairs folks when touring these beautiful houses. All that history, all those people who lived in a particular location is what fascinates me about England. We just don’t get much of that in California. I’m sure no one occupied the sand dune on which I live until the 1970s. I’m looking forward to being at a stone circle and investigating Hadrian’s Wall next time I visit. Taking FutureLearn’s online class on the wall was one of the best things I’ve done lately.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. There’s a path and I entertained that idea when I was younger and in better shape. Now I hope to stay st an inn near the middle, walk as much as I can and visit the fort and museum. I’ve probably already gushed about the FutureLearn course on the wall taught by Newcastle University profs that I took right here in the comfort of my home with my feet up. Loved it–free and as stressful as I wanted it to be.

        Hope your New Year celebration was peaceful. It’s 8:18 pm here so it is still 2016. I’m going to focus on my bird neighbors next year–crows, hawks, eagles, owls and all the little guys. I’m sure their feathered world will make more sense than our human world, especially after January 20.

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        • New Year’s Eve was quiet at our house, but Fast Eddie celebrated New Year’s morning by bringing in a bird and trying to dismember it on the bed. I gave up and got out of bed around 6:30. That’s not what you had in mind when you said you were going to focus on your bird neighbors, is it?

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          • You are 100% correct! My bird neighbors would be horrified. On the other hand, I’ve had a couple of long term cat children. They both brought me live, gently held hummingbirds and sparrows, and a field rat once which was enough. I swear they loved the indoor human and bird chaos that would ensue. Each sat innocently and watched, trying hard to suppress kitty laughter. The bright glittering eyes always gave them away. I miss that but I now have a close friend who is allergic.

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            • Great picture. We had one who brought a live mouse to the Thanksgiving party and abandoned the thing for Wild Thing to catch and release. But my sense of it was that he’d just gotten bored.

              We told our guests that they’d now been initiated into what Americans really do at Thanksgiving.

              (Actually, I don’t know if the cat brought it in or if it brought itself in.)

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  2. Well then, thanks for pointing out the dreary underbelly of history :) Truth be told, I like knowing those things. Several of the “philanthropists” that I grew up learning about and whose donations to the community we toured on field trips, had previously been known as robber barons. At least, in the end, they gave something back.

    One of the places I toured during my short stay in your history-filled country was a working water-powered flour mill. It’s fascinating to watch, and to consider the ingenuity that brought that bit of mechanical revolution to light. It’s also interesting to see the conditions in which people labored.

    You have a great wealth of history within easy reach. I don’t blame you for touring on a regular basis. Imagining yourself as the lady of the manor is certainly better than imagining yourself as the wench toting the mop bucket. I hope you have a wonderful time ringing in the new year, and I look forward to visiting here throughout 2017. Of course, I imagine that you are the modern-day Shakespeare called home to England to finish some great literary work.

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    • Well, damn, I wish I was, but I doubt what I’m working on is going to get quite that sort of reception.

      I worked for a writers organization, and at one point they decided they could raise big bucks by slathering donors’ names on rooms and walls and doors. I can’t help thinking that it let them all imagine themselves as robber barons turned philanthropists. The only thing the exercise turned for me was my stomach.

      Water power really is fascinating. So simple and at the same time such a leap of imagination. Non-working bits of the technology are still in place not far from here–yet more reminders of what was. (Want to bet is was all hellishly noisy?)

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  3. A stupendous post as per usual. I hope your local shrine dedicated to Saint Blog is attracting visitors. Have a wonderful 2017 and I look forward to your posts …. especially the ones about King Arthur … the once and future posts.
    All the best. Chris.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I just made an offering of chocolate chip cookies at the shrine of St. Blog, so all should be well in 2017. As long as she (or possibly he) isn’t offended by the Americanness of it all. But I’m currently in possession of a sizable stash of American chocolate chips, so that sort of decided the nature of the offering.

      Wishing you all the best in 2017.

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  4. I feel fully ‘Funned up’ and ‘Rightly Uplifted’ with, yet again, an Excellent post from a wordsmith of note… thank you, Ms Hawley. Mind you, us Brits can hardly turn a corner without bumping into a blue Plaque or listed building and all the myths and legends associated with them. History can be a ‘bit’ of an obsession … for example, Yorkshire, and Lancashire (known as Yorkshire’s overflow car park by the Tykes) are still fighting the War of the Roses (verbally..with passion !!)…and The English Civil war is still being fought between Leek and Bidulph in Staffordshire (again verbally, but with the odd punch or kick thrown in ). This Sceptred Isle is soaked through with history … and we all know what happens when we get soaked through … we get a cold. (sniff). Keep on writing, I for one will keep on reading xx

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  5. I do like that about Europe. My husband and I were discussing the fact that obviously because we are much younger as a country, we don’t have the wealth of historical sites that the UK does. I guess I would love to see castles and ancient monuments. The closest I got to “ancient” was a graveyard that had several headstones from the 1700’s. See, I can be just as uplifting as you, Ellen! ;)

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    • Perfect choice for optimism. Gravestones here don’t often go back past the 1700s. Before that, most people had, at best, temporary markers. The rich and powerful tended to be buried inside the church, with impressive markers on the walls and floors. I sometimes wonder how often they dug up the floors. For older history, we have to look elsewhere.

      I’ve never lived in parts of the country where Native American history was visible, but I did visit one of the Pueblos in the Southwest, and they also make you catch your breath.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Enjoyed your thoughts on history and heritage. I didn’t appreciate how popular historic buildings are with the Brits. Rich people taking ownership of what had been common land puts me in mind of Billy Bragg’s song ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ – about the 17th century Diggers who protested. Rousing stuff – just listened to it again on YouTube.

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  7. I love reading historical fiction. Partly because it makes me happy to be in the here and now. And your tea table is the perfect example. How did those women not just run screaming from a life of teas and sewing?!?!

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    • Good question. I can’t help thinking that all the scream had been trained out of them by then, but that’s just a guess. I sometimes wonder how it is that societies’ richest people are so careful not to share what they have (and get it, if you look closely at even the purest of them, by such unsavory means) but live such deadly lives. Strange old world we live in, isn’t it?

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  8. Hi Ellen, I found you through the New Year Meet and Greet at Mostly Blogging.

    Funny, I’m reading a book right now set at least partially in Cornwall. I enjoyed your post about visible history. The end bit even got an out loud chuckle out of me. Best of success to you. Oh, and I’m following your blog now too.

    Here’s my Meet and Greetpost.

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  9. Two thoughts on this brilliant post:

    1) History usually gets written by the winners; that is, the relatively few people in societies who have accumulated the most resources and power at the expense of everyone else. However, that bias is being addressed, in the UK at least, by an increasing interest in social history, The difficulty being, of course, that it’s hard to unearth records of how ordinary people lived in past times; the “winners” weren’t interested in recording that.

    2) The fact that we can visit so many stately homes now is a sort of “win” for the ordinary people. Many of the aristocracy have had to open up their houses to the hoi-polloi in order to keep some of their land and other resources. That, or they’ve sold up to the National Trust!

    And another thought (in accordance with the Monty Python Spanish Inquistion sketch)
    3) One side of my family hails from Cornwall, and the story handed down through the generations is that we’re related to the famous 18th-19th century scientist and Cornishman, Sir Humphrey Davy. We’ve not yet been able to establish the truth or otherwise of this legend, but my bet is that one of my Cornish ancestors was merely a servant of Sir Humph – and probably a pretty lowly one at that!

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  10. Actually, you ~do~ make me feel quite uplifted! I love the idea that there’s a young man running around in the world, certain in his certainty that the Round Table was his great-great-grandpa.

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    • Understood. The funny thing is that I remember a guy with a horse and cart selling fruit (and probably vegetables, although I don’t remember them) at the corner of our street when I was a kid. And that didn’t seem romantic at all. It was neat because it was unusual, but no more than that.

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