Dartmoor: the blending of ‘myth’ and ‘reality’ when the Devil pays a visit

On Friday 18th October 2013, Rose Ferraby, Tim Wilkinson and myself led a group of 35 students up to Dartmoor. We are all on the Undergraduate Level 3 ‘Geographies of Heritage and Memory’ module within the Geography Department at Exeter.This is a module for which I am the ‘convenor’, but since I have never done such a job without finding out about so many new things – or being challenged to engage with existing ‘knowledge’ in different ways, then I always treat the task as one where I am ‘on the module’ as much as any other student.

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The weather forecast was atrocious, with bands of heavy rain sweeping across the south west, getting heavier in the afternoon. As it turned out, things started off grey and cloudy, but cleared up after lunch with the sunshine helping to take the edge off the keen SSE winds. We headed off from Bennett’s Cross, leaving the coach behind to go over Birch Tor, and on to Hookney Tor.

We came across a very docile group of ‘Highland’ Cattle, acting as key ‘countryside curators’, managing the land to maintain a desired look and feel of this National landscape. After a stop at Grimspound and Headland Warren, we walked back towards the coach through the old industrial areas of Golden Dagger, Vitifer and Birch Tor mines – and could make out (vaguely) some of the shapes of the Devil’s Playing Cards – and it struck me that the it was almost exactly 375 years to the day since (legend has it) these ‘Devilish enclosures’ got their name….

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Sunday 21st October 1638 was stormy day, with heavy rain and strong winds. While some locals were gathered at the Tavistock Inn at Poundsgate, the Devil came in for a swift half – they knew it was the Devil, since he had cloven hooves, and he paid for his pint using ‘solid gold coins’ that turned to dry leaves as soon as he left! Other locals sheltered from the storm in the church in Widecombe-in-the-Moor – these included Jan Richards, a well-known local gambler who was playing cards at the back of the church. All of a sudden, the Devil struck – he smashed through the roof of the church and plucked Jan Richards from his pew. Poor old Jan was carried over the hills, never to be seen again – except that he dropped his playing cards: 4 aces that he’d hidden up his sleeve. These 4 aces landed on the hillside between Challacombe and the Warren House Inn, and can still be seen to this day – as 4 small enclosures that are (very roughly) in the shape of the 4 suits of a pack of cards.

This is a nice story – various versions of which can be found, repeated in several ‘folk tale’ books and websites about Dartmoor. Of course, it isn’t ‘true’ – the 4 enclosures might be physical present, but they cannot be the remnants of a pack of cards. And of course the story of the Devil, smashing his way in to Widecombe Church is just a fairy tale – right?

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Sunday 21st October 1638 was stormy day, with heavy rain and strong winds. Many locals sheltered from the storm in the church in Widecombe-in-the-Moor. All of a sudden, the church roof comes crashing down, as a pinnacle from one of the towers topples and smashes through the ancient roof of the nave. The falling debris kills 4 people, including the head warrener from the rabbit farms close to Warren House Inn. This is all recorded in the church records, and is one of the earliest archival records of what is thought to be ball lightening – as a very real ‘thunder bolt’ strikes one of the pinnacles of Widecombe church, sending it crashing through the roof onto the parishioners below.

Here we see a nice example of how ‘real memory’ and ‘folk memory’ can come together through an invocation of landscape; oral histories used to account for the physical artefacts of landscape enclosures – 4 small distinct enclosures acting as a totem through which an important event of folk memory can be prompted, instilled and legitimated: folk memories of extraordinary events, working alongside an everyday requirement to make sense of the landscape, as a commonplace and non-elite space. At very least there seems to be ‘some truth’ in the folk tales of the Devil wreaking havoc at Widecombe church. By giving more credence to the “extra-ordinary” possibilities and experiences of how ordinary people engage with the world around them, however, maybe it is possible to see the story of the Devil’s Playing Cards as providing an authentic means through which to understand how heritage works? Indeed, when placed within the context of the religious upheavals of the mid-seventeenth century, the ‘real’ possibility of devilish intervention in peoples’ lives, and of the possibility of direct experience of ‘evil’, then it could be argued that the story of the Devil paying a visit to Widecombe represents the ‘whole truth’ of the matter.

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Charting the lives of 350,000 Grade II listed buildings

English Heritage has announced a ‘crowd sourcing’ idea, through which they hope to survey the nearly 350,000 Grade II listed buildings in England. Volunteers will be trained, so that they will be able to record the state of repair as (in their words) “a first step to continued engagement in saving local heritage”:
http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/news/eh-mobilise-volunteer-heritage-army/

While many might criticise the criteria and expert-led guidelines through which buildings become ‘listed’, I feel that this would miss the point. Although the whole listing process tends to imply a certain sense of sanctity in the notions of ‘heritage-as-built-object’, and often sets in train a stated ambition towards an ideal of absolute ‘preservation’, the numbers of sites involved, together with the nature of the survey suggests a great opportunity for rethinking our relationship with listed buildings.

Instead of expertly-denominated buildings that are somehow ‘filed away’ and ‘stored’ (in the imagination), the process of survey through the activities of thousands of volunteers would seem to provide an impetus of liveliness, which might invoke a more active relationship within and between people and places. Rather than being channelled through the ‘authorised’ motifs of saving stuff “for its own sake”, or “for the nation”, or “for the future”, these activities suggest the potential for heritage to be seen as a more open resource. Rather than acting as a ‘baseline’ that should be adhered to forever, the scale of the survey might allow a sense of on-going engagement and transformation to be recorded.

By English Heritage’s own reckoning, around 4.2% (perhaps up to 15,000) of these listed properties maybe ‘at risk’. This is a sizeable number, and implies that the task of survey might be one of recording a phase of ‘final decay’. It seems appropriate to heed Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that we develop an ability to find a ‘new beauty in what is vanishing’.

Big Brother House opened by the National Trust – but what are the consequences?

Several newspapers and television reports have recently ran articles about how the Big Brother House (which, since 2002, has been a plot within the Elstree Studio complex in Hertfordshire), is going to be opened by the National Trust.
Item in the Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2434388/Big-Brother-house-opened-The-National-Trust-public-British-cultural-icon.html
Item in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/sep/26/national-trust-big-brother-house
Item on the National Trust website: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1355802647316/

While the former MP and Strictly Come Dancing contestant, Anne Widdecombe, has (somewhat ironically) been ‘saddened’ by this ‘tawdry’ and ‘celebrity-obsessed’ venture, the 500 tickets were sold out within 12 minutes of becoming available. What does this say about the National Trust? What does this indicate about how we should understand ‘heritage’? And what are the consequences for how we should approach heritage issues?
In terms of understanding the National Trust, this move is interesting in the way that it reflects the Trust’s recent and on-going rethinking of its core mission statement – to care for and open up places of historic interest for the benefit of ‘the nation’. Some commentators have criticised what they see as a ‘populist move’ on the part of the Trust, but in doing so, fail to recognise the contradiction of their critique: if the National Trust have the benefit of ‘the nation’ at the heart of their foundational mission, then it is difficult to criticise them for being ‘populist’. Rather, the move reflects a broadening of who counts, in terms of valuing and displaying what is deemed to be ‘heritage’. Such a move away from elite cultures, and a broadening of what the Trust is about certainly seems to be at the centre of the various National Trust comments, as reported in the media: “Our role is to talk about spaces that are special to people”; we need to “find innovative new ways the trust can engage with urban audiences, particularly with younger audiences”.

In terms of our understanding of heritage, such a move suggests that while ‘the nation’ appears to remain a central container, or ‘lens’ through which heritage is produced, practised and consumed, it is at least a nation that is more plural, open, and emergent than many traditional heritage narratives tend to maintain. Indeed, as Ivo Dawney (National Trust spokesperson, quoted in The Guardian) argues “I would like to see us much more present in cities[. …] That won’t always mean acquiring things; it will mean doing things. […] We can’t just be for the benefit of a certain chunk of the nation, which tends to be older”. On the one hand, therefore, the perceived locus for the nation’s heritage is shifted away from both supposedly stable rurality and also from the perceived interests of older people. On the other hand, the evocation that what is really important for the Trust is not the “acquiring of”, but the “doing of” things, suggests an important philosophical move on the part of the National Trust, away from seeing heritage merely as physical ‘stuff’ (to be preserved in aspic), and to include intangible, open-ended and mobile senses of heritage: in other words, a processual view of heritage.
What are the consequences of this episode for how we should approach heritage issues? In my reading of the various newspaper items and media articles about the National Trust’s dealings with the Big Brother house, the element that has really stuck out is that the whole event is temporary: that the National Trust are going to open the Big Brother house for just a few days. While I find the whole thing very refreshing and positive in terms what the National Trust does; who it is for; and in terms of how they are actively re-thinking the definition of heritage – and the nation – my ‘take home message’ is that it should prompt all of us to rethink heritage away from being seen as something that is once-and-for-all-times. If the National Trust recognises the heritage surrounding Big Brother House as something that is temporary, so it can perhaps also do likewise for some of its stately homes and other articles of ‘elite culture’.
In a recent article in the International Journal of Heritage Studies, Rodney Harrison points to the need for an open debate about ‘decommissioning’ heritage. I am not calling for the immediate demolition of Stonehenge, St. Michael’s Mount, or Chartwell House(!), but rather call for a recognition that any analysis of heritage requires some consideration of ephemerality, the fluidity of meaning and to recognise the future-orientation of all elements of heritage.

Preston Bus Station gets its English Heritage listing – but what does this mean?

The Grade II listing of Preston Bus station has been subject of an on-going debate for a good while now, regularly appearing in newspapers as ‘one of the biggest, greyest and most divisive examples of 1960s brutalist architecture’ as Mark Brown of the Guardian (24/9/13) refers to it. In giving his assent, the Coalition Government Minister Ed Vaisey saw it as a ‘remarkably good example of integrated 1960s traffic planning’, while English Heritage praised its architectural innovation – ‘a stunning car park façade that was unashamedly trying to create a sense of the monumental’. Certainly the building’s monumentality has prompted an array of photographs circulated in many media outlets (see this, in the Daily Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9736522/Conservationists-fight-to-save-iconic-Preston-bus-station.html). Something that is in common, however, with almost all of the images – together with much of the description of the listing debate – is the lack of people. A quick ‘image search’ in Google will underline what I mean: the architecture tends to be the key aspect that is central to the denotation of Preston Bus Station as an ‘item of heritage’. Where have all the people gone?
While much of the coverage, and – seemingly – the official policy debate, has largely revolved around the architectural and physical attributes of the Bus Station, a survey of local people conducted by the Lancashire Evening Post in 2010 identified the Bust Station as Preston’s favourite building. Are we to assume that the population of Preston – or at least those that took part in the local newspaper’s poll – are big fans of the aesthetics of brutalist architecture? My guess is that whatever English Heritage, the Department of Culture, or Preston Council think on the aesthetics of the Bus Station, the actual ‘heritage’ of Preston Bus Station resides not in any architectural treatise nor planning guideline, but in the everyday activities, movements, and lives of ordinary people.
The critique of an essentialist definition of ‘heritage-as-a-physical-attribute’ is not new, but such a definition still seems to get in the way of debates: it appears to close off discussion and answers questions. Rather than being seen as a stable and unalterable attribute, perhaps a more active and open articulation of heritage can enable a more plural and democratic debate about how city centres are managed, and who they are managed for. Indeed, drawing on the work of Nigel Walter and Denis Cosgrove, maybe there is space for a more ‘creative’ notion of conservation – one that can be radical, and both perform the necessary task of sustaining a sense of ‘tradition’, but at the same time refuse to bow to the distorting power that such tradition often invokes [Walter, N. (2013), ‘From Values to narrative’, Intl Journal of Heritage Studies]. Love it or loathe it, the heritage of Preston Bus Station is a great deal more than an architectural edifice – and it is far from complete.