30 Years of Telling Stories about Dartmoor: a 380 Year Life History of Landscape Heritage Myth and Reality

Just a few weeks after I first came to Exeter University as an undergraduate student in October 1988, I remember being taken by Vic Ambler, the Warden of the St Lukes Hall of Residence, for an evening walk to Dartmoor. We got dropped off near Challacombe, and walked via Grimspound, the Headland Warren and Bennett’s Cross to the Warren House Inn. Just before we reached the pub, we walked past the Devil’s Playing Cards; four mysteriously shaped fields laid out on the hillside, in the shape of the four suits of a deck of playing cards. I remember Vic telling a story about how these got their name: that during a Great Storm, the Devil crashed through the roof of the Church at nearby Widecombe-in-the-Moor and carried off a man called Jan Reynolds who was playing cards at the back of the Church. As he flew across the moor, Jan dropped the four aces that he had up his sleeve and they fell to earth as four enclosures. I squinted at the hillside – OK; I could pick out the Diamond quite clearly… perhaps the Heart; but one needed to have a bit more imagination to make out the Club and the Spade. It was a good story – though I would have thought that the Devil would have been happy with someone playing cards at the back of a Church Service?

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Widecombe Church (Author’s Photo)

The walk, across Hameldown, between Widecombe and Warren House is one of my favourites, and the legend about the Devil is a nice story to impress visitors. It might even place me as a ‘local’, or at least as someone who ‘knows’ the Dartmoor landscape. Over the following years, I became more and more familiar with Dartmoor and its legends; lots about the Devil, many about ‘hauntings’, and a good few about environmental hazards – deep bogs or terrible storms. Indeed, there’s a story about a ‘Great Storm’ of 1638, written up on a series of tablets in the Nave of Widecombe Church, in which several people were killed – victims of God’s Judgement. I vaguely realised that the Devilish Legend about the Playing Cards was referring to the same storm event as the tragedy of 1638 in Widecombe, but never really followed up on how and why the two stories were connected.

In the Autumn of 2013, I was to run a 3rd year day field trip to Dartmoor to talk about landscape history and archaeology. The Headland Warren, Bennett’s Cross and the Devil’s Playing Cards was an obvious destination to take a group of third years in the Autumn Term of 2013, and all my Landscape Knowledge or Lore comes into its own when running such a student field trip. The legend of the Devil will be memorable for the students – just as it was for myself in 1988 – and if that helps to instil the ‘factual’ elements of landscape history, then all the better. On Friday 18th October 2013, I led a group of 35 students up to Dartmoor, as part of the Undergraduate Level 3 ‘Geographies of Heritage and Memory’ module within the Geography Department at Exeter.

 

I wrote a blog about this field trip here – and was struck by the juxtaposition of the two stories about the ‘Great Storm’. Of course, the students also asked some tricky questions – surely, they ask me, the Devil should have been happy that people were playing cards in Church(!); and how come the figure of ‘God’ turned directly into the figure of the Devil. These loose ends needed tidying up….

I re-visited the Church at Widecombe and took some photos of the tablets on the wall of the Nave. This story was very clear – that it was God that brought on the Great Storm and God’s Judgement that carried off several parishioners.

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The poem about the storm; Widecombe Church (Author’s photo)

I also began talking to my colleague in the English Department, Joanne Parker, who had previously written about Dartmoor stories and legends. We had been working together within the ‘Past-Place’ research team, at Exeter, and so the idea of producing a ‘life history’ of storytelling associated with an event such as the Great Storm took hold.

Together, we started to patch together the accounts of the Great Storm, of October 1638, from the first pamphlet publications only a couple of weeks after, through renditions in poetic and prose form during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and to their re-deployment in tourist legend in the 19th and 20th centuries. The first accounts of the event appeared in London in November 1638, and in this version, the storm is very much associated with God’s Judgement – though we also found the vestiges of some quasi-scientific reflection and interest. The Devil gets a mention in the 18th century, but only starts to dominate the accounts in the 19th century – which is the point at which the stone enclosures (the Devil’s Playing Cards) near the Warren House Inn enter the scene. At the end of 2019, we have now published a full scholarly account of this work in the Medieval and Early Modern Studies journal, Parergon, (Volume 26, number 2) https://parergon.org/current.html

  • Abstract: This article explores the nexus between the folk heritage of an unusual archaeological site, an early modern account of ‘ball lightning’, and the literary construction of an affective atmosphere. It examines how a violent storm in October 1638 provided a symbolic reservoir for narrative accounts of both the performance of God’s power and the Devil’s trickery, thereby providing lessons for civil conduct alongside explanations of some unusual archaeological features. Tracing a biographical life history of how the storm has been remembered at different periods since the event, we chart how various narratives of landscape can unfold over several centuries.

Just as my imagination was captivated in 1988 – and just as I have recounted it to many visitors in the last 30 years – the legend of the Devil has good currency through which to support ‘insider’ credentials. In some ways, its slightly comical and clearly mythical nature provides a gloss of specifically ‘local’ landscape knowledge. It is a story of ‘place making practice’, both over the last 380 years over which the legends have been circulated, and also the 30 years over which I have been telling the stories myself – as a ‘professional landscape historian’. And over the last 6 years, the blog on a WordPress site has now become a published journal article!

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Dartmoor resident (Author’s photo)

 

 

Local and Global Heritage of Protests – Tiananmen Square 30th Anniversary

30 years ago today tanks rolled in to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and violently ended a pro-democracy protest. The 4thJune 30thanniversary is being talked about in the press, and being commemorated by many people; some publically and many, no doubt, through private reflection. Marked by various events and media stories in many parts of the world, in China, the anniversary is being marked-by-implication, through being a non-event, of heightened security in many city centres – a curtain of official silence alongside, perhaps, a dignified reflective silence among those who remember.

30 years ago, I was an undergraduate student in Exeter University. I was very much involved in campus politics – at the time, this meant the “Grants-not-Loans” campaign to protect the student grant and rights to benefits (the idea of paying tuition fees seemed ludicrous), together with a broader on-going commitment to stand up to Thatcherism and the rise of what I would find out later to be called Neo-liberalism. We had recently staged a sit-in, taking over the Vice Chancellor’s office; we had been on protest marches in Exeter, London and Manchester. In June 1989, the student-led protests in Beijing seemed to be part of our movement, protecting student rights, and seeking a progressive and more inclusive future – indeed, similar in nature to the protests from behind the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which were still some months away.

Towards the end of May and start of June in Exeter, I remember students gathering on the lawn outside the Devonshire House Student’s Union building. I am sure that we all knew that signing a petition in support of our brothers and sisters in Beijing was hardly going to change anything in itself, but somehow there was a genuine feeling of connection; that lighting a tea-light candle in a jam jar actually meant something – even if just a material and public display of solidarity with those protesters in China. Their struggle and our struggle were one.

But then, on the 4thJune 1989, everything seemed to change.

We came to understand that their struggle was of a different nature, and was something that could lead to death or imprisonment. At first sight, all that sitting around strumming on guitars, signing petitions and lighting candles seems incredibly stupid and banal. But, while those vigils on the lawn outside Devonshire House in Exeter were certainly naïve, they also made the connection with those in Tiananmen Square somehow momentarily more real. When the shock came, it seemed to be more painful, with a profound sense of bereavement. Naïve, we might have been but our tears were honest and heartfelt.

The construction of a monument to mark those feelings seemed to be a natural response. I don’t know whose idea it was – it doesn’t actually matter – but I think we all felt a sense of genuine investment and connection to that monument, which ‘sprang up overnight’. I remember that the University authorities were not keen on it at all and wanted it removed, but everyone knew that it would be unmoveable. At least for a few years….

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Tiananmen Square memorial, on the lawn outside the Devonshire House Union Building, Exeter University

By definition, the student collective memory at any University is always fairly short-term and in constant flux. Most students are only at a University for the duration of their degree, and so by the mid 1990s, very few people at Exeter University could remember the circumstances of how the Tiananmen Square statue came to be where it was – nor why its location, on the lawn in front of the Union Building, was so significant. Furthermore, while the material nature of monuments is often seen as a very tangible and unchanging medium of commemoration, the Tiananmen Square memorial at Exeter University had a knack for changing! First, being made of textile, the flag deteriorated and fell off. It was replaced a few times, but with half-hearted protection, the figure very much transformed from being ‘Marianne’ in nature and representative of a cry for freedom and comradeship across the world, to being more baton-wielding ‘special forces’ in nature. Indeed, the loss of the flag seemed to run alongside the decrease in the angle of tilt in the figure’s arm, producing an ever more frightening pose.

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Memorial Statue, late 1990s – still on the Devonshire House lawn, but in a more menacing pose

Then the memorial statue disappeared completely. The lawn was earmarked for development, but the University authorities would find a ‘suitable location’ for the memorial statue – nevermind that it was the actual location that was the key element in the memorial, much more so than the now-transformed warrior-like statue.

Perhaps with an eye towards diplomacy, with the University actively seeking Chinese partnerships and wanting to attract more and more Chinese students to take courses in Exeter, the University’s ‘suitable location’ turned out to be a field on the edge of the main campus. The statue is still visible from the road, but there are no paths to the statue and very few regular passers by. The memorial now stands as a largely forgotten curio. It is on the Exeter University Sculpture Trail, though without reference to the connection between student protests in the UK and China, which meant so much back in 1989. And the lawn area that once stood just at the bottom of the entrance steps to the Union Building is now an outdoor seating area of a Costa Coffee shop. The memorial statue itself seems to be an empty vessel, though I guess it is still representative of the very real and profound connection that some people in Exeter felt with people across the world 30 years ago.

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The memorial statue, now relocated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labelling ‘World Culture’ in a Museum

I was recently back in Exeter and decided to visit the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), to catch up with how their recently renovated ‘World Cultures’ galleries were looking. There were a few new items that I hadn’t seen before, and a few items I thought I remembered were now missing, but on the whole, I was surprised by the lack of change from the old galleries. In particular, I think this came out in the labelling … so, instead of examining the collection itself, or even the explicit stories surrounding the collection of objects, I focussed on what the display labels revealed about the derivation of the objects. What do the labels reveal about the technology of display and how do these technologies of display can act to sustain a certain discourse?

 

Obtained 1884; Made Before 1880; Acquired 1912; Collected between 1885 and 1889; Acquired early 1970s; Voyage of HMS Discovery 1791-5; Acquired after 1879; Collected 1826-7; Acquired before 1893; Voyage of HMS Blossom 1826-7; Before 1863; Bought 1916; Acquired 1880; Taken from a shrine 1889; Collected 1864;

On the face of it, this is a curated assemblage of treasure, ‘acquired’ (or, perhaps, ‘plundered’) from almost everywhere and anywhere around the world. The collection is described in phrases that seem to hide as much as they reveal. In the old gallery, one item was described as being ‘captured’, which suggests an act of theft and probably a certain level of violence. In the new gallery, one item is described as having been ‘taken from a shrine in 1889’ – tantalising, perhaps, in what it intimates without saying – but what is the difference between ‘obtained’, ‘collected’ and ‘acquired’?

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One gap in the collection is filled with a label, that ‘Out of Respect’ a feather bonnet, which was identified as sacred by a visiting delegation of indigenous Blackfoot people, was removed and is now kept in the store. But what else does this store contain? And why is this material culture that is sacred to people living thousands of miles away kept in a storeroom in Exeter anyway? Indeed, how did all these things end up in the RAMM Collection?

There were also a few understated non-references to colonialist and imperialist histories, including a copper manilla that the label described as being ‘exported to Nigeria for use as a means of exchange’, without mention either that the ‘exchanges’ in which manillas are usually associated with were for human cargo, or that Exeter itself was an important producer of such manillas.

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Peter Aronsson (2011) write about how discourses of nationhood are promulgated through museums displays within imperial and conglomerate states such as France, Spain, and Great Britain. The British Museum, for instance, does not seek to tell the ‘story of Britain’ as either an eternal entity or a certainty of emergent destiny. Rather than reflecting any pretence of humility, however, Aronsson (2011: 47) sees this as a demonstration of ‘how a universalist approach is identified with a successful national power and reinforced by the sheer magnitude of its collections’.

Bringing a critical perspective to understanding these types of display, one can often tell a lot from reading between the lines of what the displays say and what they do not say; what they show and what they hide. With very little direct reference to ‘Britain’ within the RAMM World Cultures gallery, a 30 minute perusal of its label leaves one with a strong understanding that Britain has the power to ‘collect’, ‘obtain’ and otherwise ‘acquire’ material from anywhere in the world – and that everywhere in the world is categorised according to British value judgement. Through the construction, management and display of knowledge, the gallery reveals a great deal about Britain – British identity narratives, British values and British imperialism – with hardly any mention of Britain.

Another Chapter in the Continuing Life History of the General Buller Statue in Exeter, UK

I thought I had done with writing about General Buller following my initial reflections (here) in November 2014, and further thoughts (here) in July 2015, following the critical intervention (or ‘guerrilla memorialisation’) event that took place that Summer. In tracing the ongoing ‘biography’ of the General Buller monument, I argued that it can be seen both as a meaningful vehicle of contemporary politics, at which a critical and creative engagement with the past can occur, and also as a dynamic site, with an open-ended life history that has time depth. The General Buller Statue, therefore, is never ‘cast in stone’. The status ‘does work’, serving as a site of contemporary debate; it can engage, as well as be engaged with.

These observations accord with debates and critical comment about many statues around the world today, most recently through the high profile events and deliberations surrounding the fate of many statues and monuments to the Confederacy in the USA’s southern states, as well as debates in recent years about the fate of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa (or Oxford – see here). The question over whether we should manage such ‘difficult heritage’ by removing monuments, adding extra plaques, or leaving them be has certainly had a high public profile, matched by some interesting academic debate, such as Lisa Johnson’s paper on JP Coen’s statue in Holland. Indeed, the broader issue of how to deal with contentious pasts in the present formed a central theme of a recent Book Review forum in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers that dealt with David Lowenthal’s Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited. Whichever side of the fence one sits – whether arguing for the removal or preservation of a statue – most of these debates tend to focus on the subject matter of the statue or monument: should we or shouldn’t we ‘memorialise’ General Buller (or Cecil Rhodes, or General Robert E. Lee etc.)?

But late at night on 10th June 2017 in Exeter, a young man called Tom Calloway, aged 18, fell from the General Buller statue and died.

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Since Tom Calloway’s tragic death this Summer, there has been a more-or-less constant effort in maintaining his ‘presence’ through memorialisation activity at the site. How-ever ‘spontaneously’ this activity began, this seems to be more than the ‘spontaneous memorial’ practices that one often finds at the sites of recent tragedy. The statue is located directly outside Exeter College, and so many of Tom’s colleagues, friends, teachers and classmates regularly come past ‘his memorial’. And where does it leave General Buller?

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At the time of his accident, Tom Calloway was undertaking the ‘tradition’ of placing a traffic cone on General Buller’s head. This playful and creative engagement with formal memorial sites has a long tradition and many parallels, perhaps most famously at the Duke of Wellington’s horse statue in Glasgow. It was Glasgow City Council’s concern about the potential for accidents to happen (and threatened plans to prevent people from climbing the statue) that brought out the wider public’s fondness for seeing the traffic cone donned on the Duke of Wellington. Public heritage debate demanded the Duke of Wellington be adorned with his ‘customary traffic cone’, and so Glasgow City Council dropped their security plans and tacitly turned-a-blind-eye to nocturnal activities with traffic cones. In Exeter, General Buller has been adorned with traffic cones and other paraphernalia for as long as I can remember, whether in playful jest or as purposeful critique, but what will happen now?

In terms of representing something meaningful for the people who pass by every day, General Buller is now a site for remembering Tom Calloway. Debates over whether and how we should remember General Buller’s role in the Boer War; whether he was a ‘war criminal’ to be put on trial, or an embarrassing ancestor to be kept hidden from view, now seem of secondary importance. In its most affective guise, the statue no longer memorialises General Buller at all.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.