My parents never owned a car. When I was little my gran did, so once, when she visited, I talked her into taking me to see a local battle field. We got suitably lost in green Midland lanes. I had a Lady Bird book with garish pictures of archers in leather jerkins straining their long bows against a very blue sky, and pictures of mounted knights, lances levelled, plumes fluttering, all the usual romanticised medieval nonsense that attracted young boys.
We arrived at the field. It was empty except for a tractor. No thundering cavalry, no sky darkening shower of arrows.
Just a field and a parked tractor.
I’ve done a lot of travelling since then to see historical sites and objects. I’ve often wondered if the experience you have is due to the place itself or to what you take with you. Would you know if it were the wrong field? The wrong couch? Would you know if the Book of Kells was the real object or the facsimile if they didn’t tell you?
This trip home we managed to get to Battle Abbey. It’s one of my favourite places on the planet, partly because the curators have left the battle field as a field. You walk around it. There are stations, each with a board, a picture, and some information that gives a version of the battle which is as good as any version. There’s no twit dressed as William the bastard to annoy you. You can stand where the Norman’s must have jostled and mustered before setting off up the slope towards the waiting English. Unless you’re spectacularly unimaginative you can see the dark line of the English army stretched along the ridge waiting for them. The imagination is given space.
The question remains though: does my reaction to this place depend on the fact that I have read the accounts of the battle. I’ve read the historians’ discussions of the accounts. I’ve written about Battle and about the battle. My maternal grandfather’s family comes from here and some of his family worked as gardeners in the abbey. My great uncle Ivor claimed to be the last person to be born inside the abbey walls.
Or it is that the place resonates with what happened here. The history of a country changed. Would you know if they’d put the abbey on the wrong ridge?
As a counterpoint, we went to the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker street. This is at the other end of “how to deal with the past”..It’s the shonky end: the “you have to go all the way through the souvenir shop to buy your ticket and then walk back out past all the tat just to get to the museum’ end.
There was no historical character called Sherlock Holmes, and 221 Baker street may have been a lodging house in the 19th century but neither Holmes nor Conan Doyle lived there. SO what you get is something like a film set, or a reconstruction of a 19th century lodging house. But this is not the fireplace where Holmes sat working his way though a two pipe problem, and this is not the sitting room of Dr Watson, just a room filled with things that are named in the stories.
I like some of the Holmes stories. I also think Jeremy Brett did for the film version what Suchet did for Poirot. I can watch him even when the story is silly or so familiar I know what the next character is going to say.
But 221 Baker street is dead and cold: a set of rooms in a draughty house unredeemed by the waxworks in the top storey or the man dressed as no Sherlock Holmes you've ever imagined or seen saying"Hello, my name is Sherlock Holmes. This is my bedroom. Please feel free to take a photograph if you have a camera." The fictional Holmes would have despised the redundancy of that last clause.
Perhaps there is a difference.