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.
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.
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.
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.
Over 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).
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.
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).
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.
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.