The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Does history matter?

aerial view Glasson Dock
Aerial view of Glasson Dock
On the north west coast of England, just south of Lancaster, there's a place called Glasson Dock. It's also known as the port of Lancaster, and it grew up there because the local River Lune wasn't easy to navigate for bigger ships. (Just a quick look at the riverside in Lancaster itself shows that smaller ships had no trouble at all reaching the city - but that's a post for another day.)

Glasson Dock is still a working port. There's a harbourmaster's office, the RNLI have a boat moored there, and it still handles more than 150,000 tonnes of cargo according to the Visit Lancashire website. A swift visit to wikipedia will tell you it's mainly animal foodstuffs and fertiliser.

A remnant of its past is the Port of Lancaster Smokehouse, a thriving modern business that operates out of old dockside buildings on the West Quay but also has on show some of its original kipper smoking huts, with brass-bound portholes in the doors so progress could be monitored without opening them.

What this post is actually about, however, is the Lantern O'er Lune cafe, which stands near the lock leading to the Lancaster Canal. It was taken over by new management at the start of this year and has undergone a complete refurbishment. (No, this isn't a restaurant review, although you can't fault the food or the service. It's still a good place to go.) The thing is, the place used to have numerous photos of 'Old Glasson' and information about the village's history, but all that has now gone. Does that matter?  Well it does to me.

We aren't frequent visitors to the area, but we do call in every time we land up in this neck of the woods (For the smokehouse, to be fair.) and we always have at least a coffee and cake, if not lunch, at the Lantern.

Historic view of Glasson DocksI enjoyed learning a little more each time I visited. There were photos of some of the former residents as well as some that allowed you to see how much has changed (or not) over the last 100 plus years. I have even photographed some of them and have copies. (see both shots on this page) But I don't have a record of the accompanying information.

The village has a website, and clearly there were old photos on it at some point, but all the links are currently broken. Does this mean that the record has gone?  I hope not. I hope the information still exists somewhere, but I suspect that, even if it does, it's not all in one place or easy to find.

People should care about their local history. Once things are gone it's hard to recall them, and within 50 or so years those who remember will start to become fewer. A century, and all memory will be gone.

The UK has a peculiarly cavalier attitude to its heritage. Sure, we give the likes of Stonehenge and York Minster protection, but we allow the ordinary buildings, where real life happens, to be converted into plastic replicas, or to slip away totally.

There is currently a demolition order pending on the Futurist Theatre in Scarborough - a place that represents a significant part of the town's history as a resort. (That's also a post for another time.) Many locals are horrified by the idea, but it seems the council believes demolition is the way ahead. Now, I'm not suggesting we should all live in the past, but at least don't throw it away as if it doesn't matter.

Saturday, 30 May 2015


AveburyAvebury stone circle is big. Not big like Hitch Hiker's Guide space, big, but big, nevertheless. Depending on your source it's described as either Europe's or the World's largest stone circle. It's certainly big enough to enclose a village.

It's also a fascinating site. It's a henge, that is a ditch and bank structure, and the large circle includes two smaller ones. The whole is part of a much more extensive prehistoric landscape that incorporates the magnificent Silbury Hill and West Kennet long barrow, with a couple of avenues thrown in for good measure.

Avebury circle dates from somewhere between 3,000 and 2,000 BCE and encloses an area of 28.5 acres (11.5 hectares). While its actual stones are not as impressive as the trilithons at Stonehenge, its sheer size makes it stunning.

There is very little additional evidence associated with the circle, just lots of stones, many of which were flat at the start of the 20th century and restored to their upright positions by marmalade heir Alexander Keiller who bought a huge chunk of village land so he could excavate it. John Aubrey (the man with the 'holes') and William Stukeley both surveyed it at some point in the 17th century and their records show it in a better state than Keiller found it. (Sites where original stones are  missing are marked with concrete posts.)

AveburyThe lack of accompanying finds means the exact date of use for Avebury is hard to fix. It has been suggested that some construction could date from as early as late Mesolithic, but Neolithic is more likely. What finds do exist are mainly from that time, and the later Neolithic is when most of the big stone circles across Britain were built.  Avebury's construction almost certainly took place over many years and in many stages. Archaeologists disagree over the details.

Time was when The Anorak would make a detour to visit the circle from anywhere within a 50 mile radius, and it was good. Spend a little time communing with the stones, taking part in that archaeological niche activity - molehill kicking - and then browsing an esoteric shop or two before dropping in to the Red Lion for lunch and then heading on my journey an hour or two later.

But it won't be happening again. During a recent return from the West Country we made the accustomed wander off the direct route to take a look around the village. Anorak's Other Half had never seen the place and so it was time to put that right.

Thanks to the National Trust (I assume in negotiation with the villagers) there is now no parking for non-residents except an official car park a few hundred yards outside the circle. (NT and English Heritage own and manage the place jointly.) And there it will cost you £7 to park - regardless of how long you plan to stay.  That's all well and good if you want to be there all day, but we didn't. We left in a huff and parked at the pub, where we enjoyed a very good lunch before making an extremely brief trip around only a quarter of the circle. There was no time to do anything else.

One of the concrete posts marking an
original stone site
Incidentally, we weren't the only people to drive away in disgust. NT/EH you need to review your policy here!

OK, I get that historic sites need to be maintained and the damage caused by lots of feet walking over the grass is considerable. I understand that. But why just the one price to park?  What about £2 an hour up to a maximum of £10? That would give the £7 price bracket 3 to 4 hours; probably plenty for the majority of visitors.

On the day in question you lost £28 revenue that I know of. And those people would have paid at least £2 each under my system. So that's £8 minimum you COULD have had - maybe even £16. But you got nothing.

On the other hand, dear reader, if you've never been to Avebury it's worth your while and worth £7 for the parking. I'm lucky. I have been several times, and even stayed overnight in the Red Lion once. ("The only pub in the world inside a stone circle!" their ads will tell you.) So I'm unlikely to want to stay all day ever again. And now I'm not likely to make a short visit again either.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Threshold fear

Somewhere welcoming: Scarborough Art Gallery
Photo by Scarborough Museums Trust
Since launching this blog I have done extensive reading about museums and their management. This isn't primarily a museum-based blog, but by its very nature it will feature them frequently, so I felt I ought to do some research.

As part of my reading I have come across some interesting new concepts - and one of the ones I have been most intrigued by is the idea of 'threshold fear.'

I am not a museum worker. I am a museum visitor. I have visited all kinds of heritage site, stately home, art gallery and historic centre over the years.  I have to say I have rarely felt unwelcome in any of them, but apparently some people do. Some people find it impossible to walk through the doorway into a museum to enjoy what it has on offer. This is increasingly challenging for people whose job is to entice in new folk.

There are numerous reasons that might prevent people visiting their local galleries: lack of public transport links; high entrance fees; increased security; inconvenient opening times. Many museums around the world have done much to put right the things they can change. Many open late at least one evening a week, others have free entry on selected days.

But what do you do with someone whose perception of galleries and museums is that it's 'not for me' - it's just too scary to walk in?

It is very difficult to persuade someone who has not become a regular museum visitor as a child that there might be anything of interest to their adult self inside. If they have had little or no experience they have no parameters to imagine what might be on offer - let alone what might be worth their effort. And a poor past experience acts as a barrier.

Museums in the past were often dark and dismal places with over-crowded display cases cluttered with labels in complex language. Without putting in a great deal of work it was likely that a visitor would leave without learning anything, or engaging with a single artefact.

One of the biggest difficulties is apparently design of the museum building itself. Large buildings can feel foreboding, security barriers can appear unwelcoming, and even placement of the front desk can be a deterrent.

Until recently I would have found all this hard to accept. I started my museum visiting as a very young child and was fascinated by finds from my local area. (School lessons about the archaeology of my immediate vicinity helped there!) My earliest experience began a lifelong habit. However, in the last couple of years I have found myself in a number of modern galleries that have felt less than enticing.

I will not say which they were - or even which cities they were in - because that would be unfair. But in one I was met by several closed doors around a central lobby. There was no indication of where the doors led or whether I was allowed to enter. As a regular gallery-goer I was brave enough to push each one open slowly to see what was beyond. But less enlightened folk would have felt there was nothing to see.

In another case I was unnerved by a total lack of signage to give any clue about what was being exhibited or where to find it. This was an art gallery, and much of what was on show could be loosely termed 'installation art'. Not my favourite, to be fair, but I was not encouraged to stay and learn about it. The building has been converted, its original use included several small offices. In one room I found two people and a step ladder. They were clearly doing something, but whatever it was did not include any engagement with me. There was no attempt to make me feel welcome, offer help, even smile. I'm still not sure they weren't part of the installation. I left. And unless I see something very impressive advertised there I am unlikely to return.

Note: Photo by Scarborough Museums Trust

Wednesday, 27 May 2015


This one's in Hull
I'm fascinated by ghostsigns - those leftover advertising remnants that you see painted onto buildings all over the country. (The world!)  In fact I'm so obsessed with them that I regularly take photos, and I've made a few contributions to the History of Advertising Trust's collection over the years.

You never know when you'll spot one, and sometimes, if your mind is set just right, you see them in places you know you've walked past many times before.

Painted advertising on walls has a long history. You could find examples of it in ancient Pompeii. One of the best-known  is a sign for a brothel, which was unearthed during excavations into the ruined city.

Most of the UK signs date from a time when businesses were long-established and tended not to move around. Economic conditions made it worthwhile making a semi-permanent statement about yourself and your goods - unlike today.

It seems like the heyday of the painted sign - in the UK at least - was the early 20th century. You'll probably spot one somewhere in any old, grainy, black and white photo from WWI onwards, It's possible they were around for much longer, it's just that photos are rarer.  The one below featured on a BBC news website and dates from April 1912. You can just spot the painted sign in the background. Click here for a better view.

Many were adverts for particular brands, but others were specific to one shop or business.  The Hull example at the top is in the doorway of an old office building. It's actually at the back of the Hull and East Riding Museum. You can see from that how many times some signs were re-painted as proprietors came and went. And if you want to see more detail you can reach the photo in my Flickr stream, where you'll be able to check it out in original size.

For lots more information and great photos check out Sam Roberts's website and I promise you'll be spotting them for yourself very soon. Then why not take a photo and submit it to HAT's collection?

Monday, 25 May 2015

Dyfi Furnace

Dyfi Furnace
For some reason one of the most popular photos on my Flickr stream is of Dyfi Furnace, I have no idea why. The photo is several years old, but I doubt if the place has changed very much since. It's right next to the road on the A487 near Machynlleth, and I found it by accident during a business trip to Aberystwyth back in 2005.

Dyfi is a restored mid-eighteenth-century charcoal-fired blast furnace, built 1755, that was originally used for smelting iron ore. It's now in the care of Cadw* - the Welsh version of English Heritage.

The furnace was powered using charcoal made in nearby woods, and the waterwheel drove a pair of bellows that provided the oxygen needed to raise the temperature high enough to smelt iron. After about 50 years the furnace fell into disuse, however, but the building had a second life as a sawmill. The present wheel is a replacement that was installed to drive the saw.

*I think Cadw is a wonderful name for a heritage organisation. It means 'keep', but it can also be used as 'save', 'guard' or 'protect'. Welsh is a complex, but beautiful, language. It's no surprise they're all poets!

Introducing The History Anorak

The History Anorak has had an online presence for more than a decade. Ignore what it says on the front of the website - it badly needs updating. That's one of the reasons for starting this blog. If a few posts of historic interest build up it will provide a basis for revamping the original. It sort of lost its way a few years ago. It needs a new skin and some content updates at the very least. Please be patient with it in its current form.

So meanwhile this will be a place to discuss history, archaeology, a bit of art (because art is sometimes history and modern art will be history in the future), anthropology, heritage, museums, and all things connected. While this blog is underway the old site should undergo its revival.

The History Anorak used to be a popular site with schools. It contains a lot of Victoriana and was apparently a rich source of lesson-support material for Key Stage 3 teachers. Not so recently. It gets few visitors these days. With any luck this blog will help to put that right.