Ancient woodlands and woodland memories: dreams of re-wilding, from Dartmoor to Caledonia

While on a field trip to Dartmoor last term, on a cold and windy day, we were all very relieved to be able to shelter in Wistman’s Wood. This is one of my favourite spots on the Moor. People talk about the place being enchanted and mysterious, but I think I like it most because it is always so full of life. … there is always the sound of bird song, even in the middle of Winter; the trees are draped with various mosses and lichens, and even a non-botanist can plainly see how numerous and diverse the plant life is.

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Wiseman’s Wood in Winter

Wistman’s Wood is normally referred to as an ‘ancient woodland’ – a glimpse of what much of Dartmoor might have looked like thousands of years ago; a magical piece our ‘natural heritage’, to be treasured and protected.

The biodiversity of the Woods was brought home to me during one visit I made with a colleague from the University of Minnesota, Professor Jim Perry. Jim is an ecologist, and as we sat down on a patch of nearby empty moorland, he implored me to “Listen!”… We sat and listened… Silence! …

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Dartmoor!

OK; we could hear the occasional skylark, but not much else. As an ecologist, Jim spent about 10 seconds rooting around on the ground before announcing that we were sitting in a desert – very few species; hardly anything able to live here. About 20 minutes later, we were sitting within Wistman’s Wood, and once again, Jim implored me to “Listen!”…

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Wiseman’s Wood in the Summer

A myriad of different vibrant bird song, and a humming buzz of insect life. Jim spent 20 minutes rooting around, counting up the pieces of plant, lichens, moss, beetles, insects and other inhabitants, just within a 5 yard circle from where he was sitting. We couldn’t actually stay there for very long though, since the insects started to bite, and we had to move on.

This is a familiar type of narrative, often repeated by those people who are enthusiasts for ‘re-wilding’ – the supporters of policies that seek to overturn many of the present agricultural practices of management in our upland spaces. Rather than (artificially) maintaining open spaces of moorland expanse, people like George Monbiot would curtail upland grazing by sheep and cattle, so as to encourage the progression of a ‘natural’ process of plant and animal succession towards that of a state of ‘ancient woodland’; rich in biodiversity – to be more like Wistman’s Wood, than an open ‘desert’ moorland landscape.

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Cattle grazing on the open moorland, just west of Princetown

I can see the point that the ‘re-wilding brigade’ are making – particularly when I am sitting in Wistman’s Wood! The re-wilding sentiment seems to have caught the public’s imagination, perhaps in connection to the recent popularity of New Nature Writers. So, I was a little surprised when I read an article in the Guardian, entitled “Scottish climbers and gamekeepers unite to oppose woodland plan” (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/feb/15/scottish-governments-forestry-strategy-called-into-question)

As the article noted, Mountaineers and Gamekeepers rarely see eye to eye. The former are usually diligently interested in issues of open access and the ‘freedom to roam’, while the latter are generally keen to restrict access for the sake of deer stalking and grouse shooting activities. Apparently, though, the Government is keen to increase the amount of forest in Scotland as a climate change measure – but of course, more forests might mean a reduction in open moorland; a distinctive character of Scotland’s upland landscapes. In a joint letter, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and Mountaineering Scotland say that they are worried about the threat of forestry to Scotland’s “dramatic open views and vistas”.

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Knoydart, Scotland – ‘characteristic’ open expanse of landscape

As a keen walker and occasional Munro-bagger myself, I can see the point. Indeed, looking back through my hill walking photos, I see that I have numerous examples of “dramatic open vistas’, in Scotland and elsewhere, including Dartmoor.

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A student on my Dartmoor field trip, however, put me on to a Blog, which followed this point up (https://adriancolston.wordpress.com/2017/02/16). Entitled “A Curious Row about Trees in Scotland”, the article picked out and developed some further points of clarification from Mountaineering Scotland. Despite the tone of the Guardian article, the Mountaineers and the Gamekeepers were mostly keen to get some clarification on a coherent policy from the Government, and were worried about the potential for the treasured wide-open vistas to be destroyed by commercial coniferous plantations.

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I can certainly see this point, being no fan of dense conifers myself. Whatever one might say about open moorland being a ‘desert’, replacing one green desert with another (slightly darker green) doesn’t make sense. But what intrigued me the most, however, was that in their clarification, Mountaineering Scotland called for the growth of native woodland, and conservation of Scotland’s “iconic Caledonian pine forests”. So, from a discussion of iconic open spaces, to one of iconic Caledonian pine forests. But what is a Caledonian pine forest?

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It always strikes me that the phrase ‘Caledonian pine’ is often misunderstood, and greatly misused; as Christopher Smout of the Scottish Forestry Trust has recently noted “It is often assumed … that Caledonian Forest was composed of Caledonian pinewoods, which is not true at all” (http://www.scottishforestrytrust.org.uk/userfiles/file/projects/p13-243%20inaugural%20rsfs%20annual%20lecture/scots%20pine.pdf)

It turns out that there is no such thing as a “Caledonian pine”, most people – seemingly – confusing and conflating what they think is a ‘Caledonian pine’ with a ‘Scots Pine’, which is one of the most widely distributed trees in the world today. Indeed, as Smout goes on to say, much of the diverse mix of trees, flora and fauna that might be found in a ‘Caledonian forest’ has had a very long history of co-evolution with humans: “to assume, as many environmentalists do, that you can get ‘back to nature’ (i.e. to a time before human influence) by seeking to recreate the world before farming is wrong” – and it might even be that blanket bog and the open moorland country might actually be the natural climax vegetation for much of northern and western Highlands of Scotland.

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So, where does this leave us? A debate about ‘re-wilding’ in several forms – certainly a general conclusion that the ‘wild’ part of ‘re-wilding’ is always an imaginative pretense. There is a strong notion that it is never a good idea to apply a blanket policy in our uplands – either to ‘re-wild’ or not. But also, implicit within these debates is an often-glossed over recognition of human-non-human co-evolution and co-existence.

Somehow, I feel that the re-imposition of a vast ‘Caledonian pine forest’ (comprised of scots pines, and running with wolves, lynxes, beavers and bears) would be an injustice to the memory of numerous generations of human inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland; their lives, experiences and activities. Taking just one (almost?) entirely unpopulated Glen in Knoydart as an example, a cursory examination of a map of Glen Carnoch reveals a multitude of Gaelic place names:

Coire na Gaoithe n’Ear: Corrie of the East Wind

Beinn an Aodainn: Mountain of the Face

Allt Achaddh a’Ghlinne: River of the field of the glen

Bealch na h-Eangair: Pass of the mill

Who once lived in this valley, and who named these features? The Glen is ‘empty’ today, but the names suggest that there was once a mill (probably a simple ‘clach’ mill), and that the side valley once contained a ‘field’. If we carry out a policy of ‘re-wilding’, the memory of the field will be erased. In striving for a ‘Highland Wilderness’ that never existed, the exploits and experiences of real people who once lived in these glens, the descendants of whom are now spread around the world, might be lost forever.

On a more prosaic scale, as much as I always enjoy visiting Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, I would hate for the whole of Dratmoor to be covered by such dense forest, ‘ancient’ or otherwise.

The Dynamic Heritage of Woodland Management: Destruction, Renewal and the Art of Coppicing

In February, I spent a day on a coppicing course in the Cotswold Hills, with Cotswold Rural Skills. Coppicing is an ancient form of woodland management, which involves the chopping down of trees close to ground level for the extraction of timber and in order to encourage new growth. It requires a delicate balance; leaving around 15% of the canopy, and should be done on a rotation (about every 7-15 years), depending on the wood. A well-managed coppice has a slightly open feel to it, and is a haven for wildlife and a diversity of flora, insect life and fungus.

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The practice can be seen as one of the key elements of intangible woodland heritage; one that celebrates the lives and skills of woodland workers, craftsmen and charcoal makers. As such, it is a key element of the long-term curatorship of the countryside in Britain (as well as in much of NW Europe). Many of the ‘ancient woodlands’ owe their longevity and upkeep to the practice of coppicing, with its language of coupes, standards and stools, and specialist equipment of bow saws, loppers and characteristic billhook.

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Our trainer was Simon who, as well as passing on some basic skills of coppicing and billhook work, including splicing and directional felling, also told us about some of the history as well as the environmental context of coppice work. In most ancient woodlands in southern England and Wales, coppicing was done regularly up until the Second World War, and in some areas into the 1960s.

This knowledge made me reflect on my childhood reminiscences of woodlands in the 1970s and early 80s – that perhaps woodlands really were ‘darker places’ in the memory of youth; a very full canopy allowing very little to grow on the woodland floor of what, in my youth, I thought of as a ‘natural ancient woodland’, but which was, in fact, a poorly managed coppice! I remember that many of the trees had multiple trunks coming up from the ground, but what I only now realize is that these were overgrown coppice stools, probably untouched for 40+ years. The darkness and strange woodland shapes that provided a sense of romantic mystery were ghosts of an ancient activity that had maintained the woodlands for previous generations; traces of human endeavor and injenuity.

In my memory, the ‘Great Storm’ of October 1987 in southern England was a ‘destructive force’ that threatened the very existence of the woodlands. But in opening up the canopy and ‘extracting’ many of the older trees, perhaps the Storm should be seen as a prompt towards heritage action. Mistakes were certainly made following the 1987 storm, as some ground was cleared, dead wood removed, and woodlands re-planted with plastic-wrapped saplings in rows. But the increased biodiversity and richness of flora and fauna in the ‘devastated areas’ can also call attention to the benefits of coppicing and the paradox that it encompasses – that the healthy maintenance and longevity of a woodland requires regular destruction.

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There is a strange mix of sensations in felling a tree. On the one hand, there is a pang of guilt, as you cut through the living bough and the feeling that one shouldn’t be ‘killing’ such a mighty being; an organism that is probably older than I am and will be here after I am long gone. But of course, the knowledge that ‘death’ is not straightforward, and that the tree will recover and live for many decades helps to ease the worry – and, to be honest, the dramatic energy and sense of satisfaction as the trunk topples towards the ground is irresistible! There is almost a sense of electricity in the air as the ‘crack-crack-crack’ is followed by a moment’s silence before the crash of branches on the ground.

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During the afternoon of the course, I felled four trees all on my own. My first effort was a fairly small tree, which was already leaning at a fairly good angle, so as to make the direction of fall very clear and un-risky. Even a novice couldn’t go wrong here! And I was very pleased with the outcome; the ‘gob’ was cut precisely, and the back-cut allowed a nicely-sized ‘hinge’ to work in the favour of a very clear direction of fall.

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I moved on to a second, which worked in similar fashion. Then a third; slightly bigger and in a more difficult situation and angle. I concentrated hard; got some advice from Simon, and over it went. Simon and trainer inspected it, and said it was the ‘best of the afternoon so far’ – and I glowed with more than just sweat and hard work! I was now a very small part of the intangible heritage of woodland craft – and act of ‘creative destruction’.

Perhaps it was the kind words of encouragement from Simon, the trainer, which led me onwards – towards tackling a much bigger tree? Anyway, I made a hash of it! … it didn’t kill anyone, but my back-cut went awry and the ‘hinge’ actually cracked completely wrongly, and so it was absolutely down to luck, rather than judgment, that it actually fell (roughly) in the right direction. It left an embarrassingly bad stump of torn wood and a wonky cut … long-lasting evidence of a piece of shoddy woodland heritage craft practice!

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Oh dear!

But all was not lost: The official ‘Deadwood Code of Practice’, tells us that we should “LEAVE broken or shattered branches, they are far better habitat than straight cuts and encourage decay”.

So: what I thought was a terrible piece of woodland heritage skill, turns out to be an ‘expert’ piece of heritage management! … with hindsight, perhaps I could claim that I was just showing off – balancing a nice straight cut that reflected my newly learnt heritage skills, with a purposefully broken effort, to encourage decay and biodiversity?!

More seriously, I feel that the wider world of heritage management could learn a thing or two from coppicing. Good coppice work has very little to do with traditional ideas of ‘preservation’ – it is all about process and dynamism…. Material ‘heritage’ must be destroyed – in order to conserve the dynamic context of a world-in-being. As with the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, the (creative) forces and processes of destruction are required for heritage value to be realized – only with coppicing, the processes of destruction are very much human-made, and reflect a heritage of skill and know-how (plus a bit of serendipity!).

Rodney Harrison (among others) has been recently pondering on the necessity for what he calls the ‘decommissioning of heritage’. As a society, we are laden down with a surfeit of heritage; what on earth can we do with it? How can we get rid of it – suffocating under a burden of material pastness? Well, I think woodland management practice has a partial answer to these quandaries – coppicing is all about ‘decommissioning’!

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Stonehenge, Big Roads and Heritage Process

Plans were announced by the UK Government in January 2017 to spend £1.4billion on building a large tunnel so that the major A303 trunk road can be put underneath the Stonehenge landscape. According to the National Trust and Historic England, the continuing presence of the road spoils the setting of the site, and so the tunnel will ‘improve our understanding and enjoyment’ of Stonehenge World Heritage landscape. Dan Hicks, of the Pitt Rivers Museum and School of Archaeology in Oxford has written an excellent commentary on the episode in the online Conversation (http:/theconversation.com), entitled “Archaeologist: the A303 is a crucial part of Stonehenge’s setting”. Although the title of Dan’s piece gives away his basic point of view(!), I feel it is worth reflecting upon and developing a little further here, since it strikes me that the episode chimes with so many crucial elements of present day heritage management – and identity politics in the UK.

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Bouncing off Jacquetta Hawkes’ phrase that “Every age has the Stonehenge it deserves – or desires”, Dan Hicks charts the conceit of seeking to ‘preserve’ Stonehenge as an ‘authentic ancient monument’ by tunneling a dual carriageway under it; the fabrication and management of the illusion of an unchanging Neolithic relic. Stonehenge has been built, re-built, viewed, ignored and/or engaged with for at least five millennia. Developing this idea of Stonehenge having an on-going biography – or life history – Dan Hicks likens the present attempt to conceal the ‘modernity’ of the big road to a revival of Georgian aesthetics, whereby landscapes are curated by the scraping away of present day ‘eyesores’, in order to allow cultured elites to stroll through an ‘authentic’ landscape of artful charade.

image-0065This line of thinking reminds me of the biography of nearby Avebury (within the same World Heritage Site). From the 1930s to the 1950s the wealthy amateur archaeologist and marmalade magnate, Alexander Keiller, oversaw the scraping away of much of the old village of Avebury, the wholesale remodeling of the landscape, and repositioning of the stones, in order to create an uncluttered ‘Neolithic’ landscape, fit for the nation – and fit to become, ultimately, a World Heritage Site. Medieval buildings were demolished and many stones were re-erected to create a fittingly ‘national’ monumental landscape.

Avebury and Stonehenge are thoroughly modern landscapes, reflecting the hopes, desires and dreams of the present day, and it would be a hypocritical confection to pretend otherwise. According to Hicks: “Today, it is Stonehenge’s modernity that is under threat from a narrow vision of the past” – and so we need to make space for the story of the A303, rather than airbrush it out of the picture. In his Conversation piece, however, Dan Hicks goes a little further than this, implying an important divergence from the situation at Avebury.

Alexander Keiller’s never-fully-realised plans at Avebury, certainly saw the remodeled monument as a carefully curated national landscape, but it was very much a ‘public space’ – albeit with lots of interpretation boards and signage to moderate and control pubic behavior. In many ways, the equivalent development at Stonehenge, akin to Keiller’s vision, was that of Cecil Chubb who, in the early 20th century bought it and presented it to the nation. The site was ‘cleaned up’, with several stones re-erected, to become a favourite picnic spot for motorists on the nearby A303. This was the Stonehenge that I first visited in the 1970s; thermos flask and cups of tea laid out on one of the stones. Cecil Chubb’s gifting of Stonehenge came with the demands that no other building ever be erected on/close to the site, and that the stones should be maintained as far as possible in their present condition – it all chimes with an ambition for the site to be understood as an unchanging monument set within the neatly cut grass sward of the specifically ‘English’ countryside. However, Chubb also stipulated that ‘the public shall have free access’, although Chubb did allow for a ‘reasonable sum, not exceeding one shilling’ to be charged, presumably to cover the costs of cutting all that grass.

The £15.50 entrance fee for visiting Stonehenge, together with the practice of sealing the actual stones off from the public, represents what Dan Hicks argues to be an increasing restriction of access at Stonehenge. This is no longer a ‘public space’. I get this point – that the momentary view of the stone through a car window, as you speed past on the A303, while not necessarily the aesthetic view that might be shown on a tasteful postcard is, nevertheless, a thoroughly democratic view. I haven’t actually ‘visited’ Stonehenge for 30 or more years, but I have ‘kept an eye on it’, during regular car journeys; I have maintained a direct relationship with the site without ever needing to pay an entrance fee.

On the one hand, these recent developments make you reflect on all the other public spaces that are being ‘privatised’; pedestrianized shopping centres that are now patrolled by private security firms, or World Heritage Sites such as St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, set amid a parkland that (according to an ivy-covered plaque) was ‘presented to the citizens of Canterbury’ as recently as 1977, but now only accessible through payment of £5:80. On the other hand, however, is a story of how singular (and often overtly ‘national’) ‘heritage management practices’, have themselves sidelined or obliterated alternative heritage narratives. The singularly most striking example that I can think of for this, is the Meadows at Runnymede, next to the River Thames just west of London.

As the site of the signing of the Magna Carta, Runnymede has a central place in any heritage narrative of democratic freedom. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as the ‘Birthplace of Democracy’, Runnymede has become a ‘monumental landscape’; a setting within which several monuments and memorial features can be visited; several monuments to the actual signing of the Magna Carta, as well as monuments to John F Kennedy, and the Air Forces Memorial, dedicated to dead RAF service personnel. It is – still – a ‘public space’, to be visited freely. But in laying out the national monumental landscape in the 1930s, the National Trust actively extinguished a whole range of local commoners’ rights. At Stonehenge, it is the every-day and slightly banal or mundane heritage of catching a glimpse of the stones from a passing car, which is removed from the public orbit. At Runnymede, there is a deep sense of irony, that it is the public rights of the Commons, which were over-ridden by the need to set out a suitably monumental national landscape! The public can still visit (and, unlike at Stonehenge, there is no £15:50 fee), but the terms on which the visit takes place is now that of the nation. The mundane and ever-day relationship between people and the landscape – the ‘right’ to be present – has been extinguished, as a relationship is re-forged and mediated through an official discourse related to a distinctly national story.

stone-runnymede2Back at Stonehenge, I am reminded of something I wrote back in 2006 (a chapter entitled ‘Landscape as Heritage’, in RJP Kain’s England’s Landscape the South West, published by English Heritage), when pondering the question of which landscape best represents the ‘essential landscape’ of the South West, I came up with the A30 trunk road (which is, essentially, the continuation of the A303, which passes Stonehenge, further up-country). “If we try to be honest about the aspects of the present-day landscape that the people of the future will remember us for, then the A30 would be a very good example. Today, the road provides an axis and backbone to the region, and is a symbol of the region …. [memories of sitting in traffic jams, and glimpsing the countryside as you go] is a far more meaningful memory to preserve than the typical picture-postcard images … the road network (love it or hate it) is surely among the most enduring symbols of early 21st century life”. I remember that, at the time, some of the bigwigs at English Heritage were quite angry that I had suggested this trunk road as the key item of heritage in the South West, but Roger Kain, the editor, stuck by me. Just as Dan Hicks has said that the A303 is a crucial part of Stonehenge’s setting, then the A303/A30 provides a crucial way in to understanding ongoing heritage processes, and will be a central part of what will become the future past.

Breaking Down Boundaries with Heritage in Belfast: a Titanic fix?

I visited Belfast last weekend for the first time in about 10 years – a beautiful couple of lovely sunny days. Having first visited the city in 1990, my visit last week gave a good opportunity to reflect on all the changes that have happened. A period of 27 years is quite a time to witness change in any city, but what with the formal ending of ‘The Troubles’, the Good Friday Agreement, and the Northern Ireland Assembly (albeit presently suspended), Belfast has witnessed more significant change than most. No more soldiers on street patrol, no more military (or paramilitary) checkpoints, no more combat helicopters. I walked towards the Falls Road, strangely disorientated by the lack of the Divis Flats, with its army fort keeping watch from the top stories. There are, of course, plenty of signs of the past conflict – and plenty of evidence of a continuing division between communities within the city, but what role does heritage play in this story – and what role might it play?

In many ways, a dominant narrative strand of the conflict was always about competing heritages; of two distinct communities, each with a powerful set of heritage stories that solidified an identity politics that seemed to be cast in stone. Much of these heritages remain as strong as ever, and continue to be expressed and broadcast through that most characteristic feature of the urban landscape of Belfast; the mural.

This is a heritage that requires constant attention; painted and repainted, renewed and touched up countless times over the years, many of these murals seem to have endured in aspic since my first visit 27 years ago. Constant presences, preserved through an almost ritualized process of renewal, shiningly brand new-and-immemorial. Most of the motifs haven’t changed a great deal over the years: in Republican areas, an appeal to an internationalist ‘freedom fighter’ connection, alongside a memorialization of hunger strike martyrs, the heroes of the 1916 Easter Uprising, civilian victims, and soldiers in the struggle, often conveyed with Gaelic script and nodding to Celtic and Irish legend.

In Loyalist areas, a sense of defiant ‘no surrender’ siege mentality of ‘ourselves alone’, alongside a memorialization of First World War bravery against the odds, through which futile death somehow found meaning through a century of memory work, and all conveyed in strikingly repetitive red, white and blue.

Love them, or loathe them, these murals seem to be a vital feature of the city, both in the sense of being a constant presence in the life of communities, and also as a central feature in the city’s ‘tourist offer’. Visitors to Belfast expect to see these murals; they go on tours, take photos and selfies. The ‘city divided’ seems to be a crucial aspect of what Belfast is, and so one could argue that the nurturing of heritage is a ‘problem’, holding back processes of reconciliation. Preserving the heritage of Belfast, seems to require the preservation of at least the outward emblems of conflict. Belfast is a city that seems to be united in its adherence to a heritage of division. One of the biggest changes that I noticed on my trip to Belfast last week, however, was the development of a new heritage story; Belfast as the home city of the Titanic.

In some ways, it might seem a little odd, to base a heritage story around a big ship that people only know as the unsinkable ship that sank: Iceberg, Dead Ahead! The Titanic story, however, is a story that has immediate and global recognition, so why not!?

A lot of resources have been ploughed in to the Titanic project in Belfast; the city has a ‘Titanic Quarter’, the centerpiece of which is a huge and excellent museum. This museum seeks to tell a story of how ‘the city of Belfast came together to build the world’s largest passenger liner’ at the city’s Harland & Wolff Shipyard. That tagline of togetherness is repeated often, and supported through some really engaging and innovative methods of museum display. I particularly liked the section on riveting; the process through which gangs of men constructed the enormous iron hull. The displays don’t exactly shy away from the city’s identity politics of Republicans and Loyalists, though I didn’t see that much critical examination of Harland & Wolff’s employment practices, which meant that Titanic workforce was almost entirely from the Unionist-Loyalist and Protestant side of the city (see: http://www.irishcentral.com/news/did-anti-catholic-sentiment-of-titanic-workforce-help-doom-the-unsinkable-ship-147293105-237441311)

One thing that I found particularly interesting, however, was the way that considerable efforts have been made to connect the Titanic heritage to the tradition of mural painting. It strikes me that this is an example of how the enduring heritage of mural making within the city can be tapped into, perhaps re-purposed – even ‘hi-jacked’ – away from the celebration of Republican-Loyalist difference, and towards a heritage story of togetherness and peaceful co-habitation.

I get the point of this. Indeed, I would strongly support the sentiment – it is a great example of how ‘heritage’ can be used to change things; this is a heritage that can engage. From some of the labels and notes around the new murals, these activities seem to be the result of a very conscious practice of ‘re-imaging’ – a re-working of heritage practice for the sake of casting a more positive sense of ‘prospective memory’.

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I can’t help thinking that some of the images look, well, a bit cheesy; like an aspirational mission statement designed by a particularly keen and trendy head teacher in a school that has recently been in ‘special measures’. … but, of course, Belfast has been in ‘special measures’ for a long time, so I think the re-imaging – or heritage re-imagining – activity is a really good thing. I don’t know the detail of how the individual murals came about, who painted them, or how local people view them (but see here for some detail: http://jamiebaird.squarespace.com/northterminal/2015/2/26/evolution-of-murals-in-east-belfast). Whatever the circumstances of their production, however, it strikes me that the key issue is whether there is the means that will make them endure, through the constant maintenance that will be needed to keep them there for forty years and more.

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Celebrating Boundaries and the Heritage of Distinction (Part 3): a bit of hygge would be ‘nice’….

Alongside the more predictable (and depressing) words and phrases of the year in 2016, such as ‘Brexit’, ‘post-truth’ and ‘alt-right’, was the much more positive-sounding Danish-Norwegian word hygge.

With very little hint of irony, this supposedly untranslatable Danish word was explained, described, examined and otherwise deployed again and again as the year wore on. The subject of many articles in Sunday newspaper lifestyle supplements and consumer magazines, and often illustrated through pictures of candles, wooly jumpers and beautifully presented open sandwiches, hygge tended to be translated as ‘something like a sense of coziness’. The authors and others doing the describing had always to underline the inexact nature of their translation since one of the key attributes of hygge is that it is ‘untranslatable’. Another of the key attributes of hygge is that it should be understood as a state that just ‘is’ – there is no sure-fire means of achieving it, and any blueprint for reaching a state of hygge would be an oxymoronic exercise. That certainly didn’t stop anyone trying, however, and as Christmas neared whole displays of self-help hygge instruction and lifestyle books appeared in bookstores across the land!

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So far, so … normal and predictable, then?! There doesn’t appear to be much of ‘geographies of heritage’ interest here. Or is there….?

I am always suspicious when a word that is indicating a situation, an attitude or state psychological wellbeing is so easily related to a sense of nationhood, or supposedly natural character. Wikipedia suggests that hygge has a ‘unique definition’, but what does that mean? Surely any and every word can have a ‘unique definition’? Indeed, if I were being a bit naughty, I might put forward the English word nice as an untranslatable word with a unique definition, to be deployed both when something is liked or disliked, often used simply to fill a gap in a sentence, and probably only to be understood in the context of who is saying it and in which situation. But perhaps I shouldn’t over-think these things? After-all hygge is such a warm and glowing word, and is usually deployed in a manner that is as positive as it is sincere. It sometimes seems that 2016 brought precious little joy to the world, so we should cherish hygge as a word-of-the-year to be celebrated, in its suggestion of coziness and companionship that sometimes seemed to be in short supply.

 

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This happy acceptance of the word was fine for a while, but what I cannot quite rid myself of, however, is the implicit suggestion that the untranslatability of hygge might be used to create boundaries. And sure enough, when I was in Denmark in the Autumn an article appeared in the Danish newspaper Politiken, which included some interviews with supporters of the Danish People’s Party: hygge was Danish – and understanding it, and even doing it ‘correctly’ was in the preserve of the Danes. Immigrants to Denmark cannot have hygge because they are not Danish.

 

You need to be ‘Danish’ in order to understand what hygge really meant. The word is not just ‘untranslatable’, but is also unavailable to anyone but true Danes. Indeed, it can be deployed in a fashion that leaves it hanging out in front of you – as something wonderful, but forever out of reach. All of a sudden, the self-help guides seem to have a much more sinister overtone – manuals that carefully and lovingly describe how the reader can never be ‘Danish’.

As we approached Christmas, a very good article by Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian, added some further depth to the issue:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/nov/22/hygge-conspiracy-denmark-cosiness-trend

It is through these means that hygge can become a device for marking distinction; of insider and outsider – of citizen and non-citizen. And since hygge is essentialised as ‘untranslatable’, then it can act as a social code that is forever out of reach for certain people. It would be overtly racist (and probably illegal) to cast non-Danes as explicitly ‘inferior beings’, but the deployment of hygge can perhaps sometimes herald a more subtle form of exclusion.

 

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Of course, the word hygge does not automatically contain any active sense of exclusion. Indeed, I would say that any attempt to use the word in that manner would be uhyggelig – ‘un-cozy’! But for this openness to be apparent requires an acceptance that what hygge means remains equally ‘untranslatable’ for everyone, and unhooked from any national stereotype, rather than as something that requires arbitration. If that were the case, then hygge would certainly be nice.

 

hygge-book3

 

 

Who cares about ‘Britain’s Oldest Hotel’? The Royal Clarence Fire, Exeter

A few weeks ago, Exeter was at the centre of a national heritage news story, when a fire broke out early in the morning of Friday 28th October in premises close to the Royal Clarence Hotel, on the Cathedral Green in Exeter.

exeter-fire-night

Night picture: the ‘Royal Clarence Hotel’ is the building on the right of this alarming picture; still in floodlights, and seemingly ‘safe’.

Although the main Hotel was a couple of doors along from where the fire started, unknown and unmapped air gaps and voids within the ensemble of medieval buildings allowed the fire to spread, so that by mid-morning, the seat of the blaze was focused on the Royal Clarence hotel itself. The fire raged and smouldered on for a couple more days, a large section of the city centre was closed off, and the national media took up the story.

exeter-fire-smoke

I don’t think I am exaggerating too much by saying that the event utterly dominated conversation in the city, both among friends and colleagues, and also with strangers, exchanging words in bars and cafes, or in chance encounters in the street. It was as though a strange sense of camaraderie developed, borne on a mutual understanding over a sense of loss – almost of bereavement. Many people felt a need to talk to each other, on buses, and in shops; not passing the day in banal comments about the weather, but as an urgent desire to express an idea that the Royal Clarence fire was something important, and that this event was terribly sad for something called ‘Exeter’.

Much of the news media coverage of the event, however, focused on the Royal Clarence Hotel’s status as “Britain’s Oldest Hotel”, and the “place where Franz Liszt once played a recital – as evidence by the blue plaque on the wall.

 

exeter-fire-liszt

While I watched the news coverage, and glanced at social media during that first weekend, all of the people interviewed or who expressed an opinion, were certainly very sad about the fire, but most of them had no idea it was the country’s oldest hotel; the place where Franz Liszt once played.

exeter-fire-smoke-at-rcOver the following few days, newspapers started putting inverted commas around their claim of the Royal Clarence being the “oldest” hotel, as a whole string of other hotels around the country sprung up to claim the title The Oldest Hotel in England (though maybe not the place where Franz Liszt once played).

exeter-fire-inverted-commas

Over the next few days, it became more and more obvious that the actual age of the fabric of the building – and its claim to being the Country’s Oldest Hotel – wasn’t necessarily high up on the list of attributes that made the Royal Clarence Hotel a treasured item of Exeter Heritage. Most people talked a lot about the sense of community and immediately switched to talking about the spirit of the Fire Brigade; the Royal Clarence being ‘the heart of the city’. For the most part, it seemed that peoples’ sense of loss at the destruction of the “oldest hotel” was something that they had to be informed about by the BBC and other news media; it was external to their experience, even as it became part of the narrative. Ironically, therefore, as the mainstream media lost heart in the claim about it being the ‘oldest hotel’, the oldest tagline seemed to become more important to ordinary people in Exeter – so that by one week after the event, from a position where very few people knew that ‘the oldest hotel’ was present in Exeter’s city centre, media management led to a situation that everyone now knew that the ‘oldest hotel’ was now absent from Exeter’s city centre.

exeter-fire-live-absence

Watch live, as the Royal Clarence becomes absent

 You could agree with David Lowenthal here, that there is nothing like losing something to make you realise how valuable that thing was, but that sounds a bit trite to me. I also think that this can gloss over how heritage is engaged with in the present; the work that it does, and the work that it might do.

I think we get too caught up with facts and figures over the apparent age of things; neatly pinned down and packaged. Indeed, while authoritative narratives seem always to want to package things up, and locate them with exact dates, at a national scale (BRITAIN’S oldest; built in 17-whatever), this doesn’t seem to reflect how heritage is really related to by people, even if most people soon end up using the language (of national reference and dated superlatives).

exeter-fire-after2 exeter-fire-people

People were genuinely sad about the Royal Clarence Fire – feeling that they had lost an important item of heritage; they didn’t need to be told something clever and contrived about how there’s ‘nothing like losing something to make you realise how valuable that thing was’, while they mostly did need to be told that it was the Country’s “Oldest” Hotel; the place where Franz Liszt once played.

exeter-fire-aftrer3

Maybe the Royal Clarence Hotel will be rebuilt ‘exactly’ as it was before – only better – a banal simulacrum that reflects the marvels of modern technology to confirm the supposed permanence of a structure by rebuilding it. The new Royal Clarence can still claim to be the “oldest’ (with inverted commas); a technological fix, acting as a means of conserving and regulating a stable sense of pastness. But I don’t think that would really capture how people relate to the Royal Clarence; people would still dream.

Personally, I’d be very happy if the Royal Clarence was rebuilt, not as a means to re-capture the essence of it being the “oldest hotel”, but as a context in which people can carry on dreaming.

Celebrating Boundaries and the Heritage of Distinction (part 2)

So – following on from my last post – how is the heritage of boundaries underscored and celebrated, particularly in ways that, at first sight, seem to be totally innocuous? How can a joyful and even positive-sounding sense of distinct cultural heritage get bound up and entangled within the politics of exclusion?

Sometimes these things can emerge as a by-product of an un-thought-through celebration of all things local. This is not a new idea, but I still find it startling how easy it is for unexamined ‘cherished local heritage’ to gloss over some really nasty implications. I have published on how a seemingly jolly piece of local heritage community performance activity can, even inadvertently, become a magnet and focus of racism (see Harvey 2015 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13527258.2014.955812). On a national scale, one can often find traces of boundary-marking sentiment in most national museums, as (often singular) narratives of national struggle and achievement are displayed. My blog post from May 2016, outlined the competition between Denmark and Norway to claim ‘Viking Heritage’ as an inalienable part of the story that cements Danish and Norwegian nationhood, residing in defined boundaries. But I think that it is often the more banal, every-day, and popularly generated (as opposed to State-led and institutional) initiatives that often get ignored, but which can often be more influential.

A couple of weeks ago, the Boundary Commission in the UK published a report that recommended a radical overhaul of Parliamentary Constituencies across the UK. In order to reduce the number of MPs and meet strict guidelines about the demographics of each constituency in the South West of Britain, the Commission has proposed a new constituency that stretches across the county boundary of Devon and Cornwall. Unsurprisingly, this has yielded a lot of criticism, especially from people in Cornwall who feel that the distinctive cultural heritage of the county would be underlined by such official disregard of the (supposedly) ancient boundary of a Cornish nation.

“The people of Cornwall have fought long and hard to preserve their sense of identity”, a resident of Launceston has been quoted as saying – implying that the ‘The People of Cornwall’ neatly correspond to a singular identity, which is stable and unchanging, separate and most definitely bounded. I am not totally convinced that the boundary of a Parliamentary constituency is a make or break ingredient of there being an expressed sense of ‘Cornishness’. After all, the St Loyes suburb of Exeter was recently re-located out of the Parliamentary constituency of Exeter and placed in East Devon, but I expect most residents of St Loyes will still say they live in (and identify with) Exeter. But maybe this is a thin end of a wedge – and one that seems to run roughshod over recently acknowledged status of ethnic distinction that Cornwall now has within European legislation.

The idea of there being a distinct Cornish identity is certainly widely accepted, but where should a boundary to this identity lie – and should there be a boundary anyway? Looking at the historical evidence, there is a strong case for saying that the boundary between something called Cornwall, and something called England, should perhaps be much further to the east, with what-is-now Devon being included within a greater Dumnonia. On the other hand, if you take the place-name evidence seriously, then much of this north-eastern part of Cornwall, around Stratton and Kilkhampton, should perhaps really be in Devon! And in terms of the roll that Parliamentary constituencies are supposed to fulfill, then there is a strong case for saying that the small (Devon) towns of Holsworthy, Bideford and Hatherleigh together with their fairly isolated rural hinterlands have a good deal in common with the (Cornish) towns of Launceston and Bude.

But that is not the point: following the work of the Finnish geographer Anssi Paasi, we have to recognise and acknowledge the tremendous symbolic power of territorial shape. Supposed factual detail doesn’t matter – the idea that the border between Devon and Cornwall lies along the River Tamar has popular currency of near essential proportions. It is difficult to challenge this. Furthermore, there is a very real concern over the so-called ‘Devonwall’ syndrome – that the people of Cornwall are marginalised by always being attached to Devon as a secondary partner. Whether the issue is of Higher Education, of landscape or heritage management, or of policing, it seems that Cornwall doesn’t warrant any separate status, but must always be attached to a larger authority, which inevitably has its headquarters outside the county – often in Exeter in Devon. Sometimes – as with the maintenance (so far) of the Cornwall Fire Brigade – attempts to foster ‘Devonwall’ can be staved off, but there is a very real danger of a fairly marginalised region such as Cornwall becoming even more marginalised, and cast outside of decision-making processes as a result of always being linked to Devon.

This active process of marginalisation points strongly towards some important political-economic issues of inequality and governmentality. Cornwall’s popularity as a tourist destination and holiday-home location has led to it having a relatively high cost of living (especially housing), but with low wages and poor quality job opportunities alongside what are often poor services (whether it be broadband connectivity or social and educational services). People in Cornwall are relatively poorer, less healthy and more disadvantaged than further up country. ‘Devonwall’ exacerbates this cycle of inequality and marginalisation, and so partly explains the efficacy of supporting a call for Cornwall to be treated as different, and requiring some special measures in order to overcome the difficulties. But does the proclamation of a distinct Cornwall, founded upon an essentially separate, historically deep and bounded cultural heritage actually help the cause? I would argue that it often does not help; it gets in the way and – potentially worse – it seems to answer questions or even suggest a panacea, rather than actually address issues of inequality and disadvantage.

Issues of peripherality can be glossed over because a separate and bounded heritage provides the stable and essential answers. Indeed, potential commonality between the small towns of east Cornwall and the peripheral areas of NW Devon are ignored, while the very real economic differences and prospects between different towns in Cornwall – between (say) St Ives and Redruth; or Fowey and St Austell – are glossed over as they are all lumped together as being The People of Cornwall, distinct from the People over there.

parking-for-locals

“Cornwall is passionate about its own identity … the Cornish are very aware of their separateness. It’s in the blood”, proclaims another commentator of the Parliamentary boundary commission recommendation. Cornwall is cast as a sentient and singular entity; no room for hybridity, for fluidity, for difference. Indeed, no room even for a heritage of migration and diaspora. The proclamation that Cornish identity is ‘in the blood’, buys in to some troubling Victorian views on race theory and suggests a natural exclusion of people with the wrong blood. What is worse, is that it sidesteps all of the crucial issues of economic marginalisation and political dependency. Peripherality almost becomes a virtue, to be enjoyed by weekend holiday home owners – and the very real problems of health and social inequality can be safely ignored.

To return more directly to the theme of the celebration of boundaries through heritage, leading figures within the Cornish nationalist movement are rightly proud of Cornwall being officially recognised by the European Union as a distinct national minority. But I am frightened by a Europe that celebrates cultural diversity if cultural distinction is always couched in terms of being made up of a mosaic (or patchwork quilt) of unique (and essentially unchanging/unchangeable) units. On the one hand, we should seek to get beyond some of the cosy narratives of essentialised heritage distinction and challenge differences, where there seem to be unjustifiable distinctions in wealth, health and opportunity. On the other hand, where appropriate we should be celebrating difference, recognising that we live in a hybrid and dynamically changing world – certainly recognising that there are differences between groups of people, but that all these differences are made up of blends. We have a responsibility to protect the rights of people to be different, even – or especially – when they are on the inside of bounded territorial containers.