History is alive and well and living near you
History has enjoyed a huge revival as, increasingly, people take more interest in their surroundings; their towns and counties. At the beginning of local and community history month, LYNNE MORTIMER celebrates East Anglian heritage.
There was a time when everything was about the present and the future... you only have to look at some of the disastrous town planning decisions of the 60s and 70s to appreciate this.
Historic buildings and neighbourhoods were flattened in the name of progress and, while we should not hang on to the past for its own sake – we need new homes and businesses, after all – it is sad that our realisation of the importance of heritage has come too late for some monuments.
In Ipswich, for example, Wolsey's Gate, the sole physical remnant of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey's plan to build a college in his home town, stands alone having suffered centuries of neglect. Over the years a few voices in the wilderness have called for it to be restored but now, I understand, it is beyond help.
Part of the trouble, I suspect, was that Wolsey died in disgrace during the reign of Henry VIII and no one was very keen to acknowledge his legacy... until it was too late.
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Ipswich once had a castle... that's gone too. Meanwhile, Norwich has a magnificent castle, as does Colchester. Colchester's castle stands, indeed, on a site that has been important since Roman times. And while we may regret the loss of the temple it replaced, the building of the castle meant it held on to its status. Norwich castle, a project of William the Conqueror's, dates back to 1066 or thereabouts.
But these monuments fall into the category of 'big history' while community and local history can be celebrated in its smallest manifestations. We all live in parishes associated with churches; we all live in council wards and divisions. (Oh and don't forget to vote tomorrow).
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If you live in an old property, it will have its own history. My first house was Victorian and built on farmland. The deeds went back to its first tenant in 1870. These days, bundles of deeds no longer automatically accompany house purchases as the registration of property has superseded these documents. It is another small sadness although some deeds may still exist in, for example, in county records offices, which are a rich source of information both for local and family historians. My second house was built on a market garden in the 1960s and my current home, built in the 1990s, was formerly the tennis courts at a girls' public school. We may not have deeds but we do have lumps of hard court dug up from our garden (we shall not be offering these to the local museum!)
The church in your parish is often a good place to start if you are interested in the history of your community. The churchyards, with epitaphs on gravestones and the body of the church with its dedications to notable parishioners, can reveal much about the residents who once lived in your community.
The aim of local and community history month is to increase people's awareness of local history, promote history in general to the local community and encourage people to participate.
If you want to explore your local history of your home town, bigger towns and cities have official blue badge guides who will offer various tours of the area. Smaller communities often have a local history society to join and most of these have websites. There are at least 30 in Norfolk, reaching from Long Stratton to Wells and from Yarmouth to Downham Market and 36 in Suffolk (www.local-history.co.uk)
As a birthday present, one year, I went on a tour that took in places associated with notable citizens of the town... in this instance Suffolk's county town has a claim for a small share of Norfolk's great naval hero, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, who bought an estate in Ipswich where he installed his wife. There is, I believe, no evidence Nelson ever stayed there. There is a further cross-border link, however, as Nelson, entombed in St Paul's Cathedral crypt, rests in the imposing sarcophagus that was commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey for himself.
What has sparked the surge of interest in local history? Perhaps, in this hectic modern world where everyone works fracturing community interaction, it is the desire to feel a part of something, to have a relationship with our surroundings and, maybe in doing so, to connect with local people over a shared interest.
Television, literature and media has also driven our renewed interest in the past. Channel 4's Time Team, for example, with its archaeological excavations; the historical novels of writers such as Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel; media coverage of anniversaries such as notable Shakespeare dates or First World War battles.
The trail of local history can lead beyond the environs of a home village and town and on to great and new discoveries. This is the joy of mounting your own investigation. So why not take advantage of the clement May weather and venture out into your own community to discover more about its history; its buildings and people... even if, in the end, your research leads you only to the local pub.