The day that I found out I had been selected for the Skills for the Future ‘Transforming Archives’ traineeship was a strange one. Partly because it was only the day before that I’d attended interview for the role – this was the quickest I’d ever heard back! Admittedly, another aspect of the strangeness was due to my still being ‘spaced out’ with tiredness, following several nights of too little sleep; the build-up to the big day had been so incredibly intense. Combine all this with the mixed rush of excitement at hearing that I’d been successful, and the utter shock at having been chosen for one of only 12 traineeship positions nationwide which over 700 people had applied for – and you’ll have some idea just what was going on for me that day. It was strange. Once the shock had settled and I’d finally got some sleep, the reality of how incredibly fortunate I was set in. The world of archives, history and heritage has always drawn me, but due to my career background consisting largely of military and police service – I wasn’t exactly the type actively recruited into the sector. Unless Archivists are now being trained in close-quarters combat drills, (I mused), in an attempt to curtail the growing and ever-present threat of angry genealogists, waving their pencils frantically and uprising en-masse to bring down the current system (of cataloguing documents). Unlikely. This is why I felt sheer delight at seeing the advert for the traineeship online:
‘Through the Transforming Archives programme we are hoping to diversify the archives workforce, address skills gaps in the archives workforce and provide new routes into working in the sector.’ The National Archives were actively looking for new skills, fresh energy and people from unique, untypical backgrounds. My hopes of beginning a fresh new career in the archives and heritage sector had been rekindled… My posting was to be at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, and my first day there was inspirational. Everyone was so warm, welcoming and personable – I immediately felt right at home. (Helped, no doubt, by all the delicious and colourful cake on offer in the break room!). I was given a tour of the building and facilities by Claire, the Principal Archivist, and introduced to a whole range of smiling staff members. I got a tangible sense of the wide scope of work that went on at WSHC: Under one roof we had Archivists, Archaeologists, Conservators, the County Arts Lead and Conservation and Museums Manager, an Education Officer, the Wiltshire Buildings Recorder, county Registrars, World Heritage Site officers, Community History Advisors… many of whom were overseen by Terry, the Heritage Services Manager. Such an incredible wealth of resources and information available in one place! Once more, I felt that tingling sense of deep gratitude welling up inside me; how fortunate I was to have been chosen for this role.
Over the following week I undertook various inductions, training and ‘orientation’ a WSHC, before being whisked off to Manchester for the enigmatically named ‘DCDC16 Conference’. My meticulous and painstaking research later uncovered that this stood for ‘Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities’. (Clearly I had what it took to be an excellent Archivist!).
To be honest, I’d been so busy I hadn’t had time to think or get excited about going to the conference. It was only after the restful 3 hour train ride and short walk to my hotel, which overlooked Old Trafford football stadium, that the excitement really began to kick-in. So much learning, networking and FUN to be had over the coming few days! A quick shower and cup of tea, and I donned my suit in preparation for the pre-conference reception.
When I rocked up to The Lowry at Manchester’s Salford Quays, it felt like I’d stepped onto a Hollywood plaza. The bright glowing lights of the ITV building, the BBC, the ‘Coronation Street’ set and the futuresque architecture of the Imperial War Museum North, all set upon the harbour’s edge; an array of colourful signage being reflected into the rippling, dark water below. Absolutely magical. The spell continued as I headed up to the reception room at the top of The Lowry, to catch a beautiful display of precision-timed fireworks popping and frazzling in the sky directly outside. How wonderful, I thought - I’ve never been welcomed to a conference in such style! (It later transpired that the fireworks had nothing to do with DCDC16, we were just fortunate be overlooking the water directly opposite Media City, in all its opulent extravagance).
We had a recent visitor from the National Association of Road Transport Museums who was interested in our Historic Photograph Collection and wanted particularly to see the two images below of a group outing at Hilperton pictured on a ‘private bus’.
I was intrigued to learn that this bus not only had an interesting past but also an interesting present! It is reg. LH8186 and chassis no. B2737; now known as the ‘Battle Bus’. It has been part of an HLF funded project to restore one of the last surviving B-type buses back to working condition and to its first world wartime appearance.
The London General Omnibus Company B-type bus was introduced in 1910 when buses were mostly still horse-drawn but by 1913 there were 2,500 B-type buses. They had proved themselves to be mechanically reliable and became the first successfully mass-produced motor-bus.
After the outbreak of war in 1914 the buses were commandeered by the War Department along with many of their drivers and mechanics. The buses were protected with wooden boards and painted khaki for camouflage. They were each able to transport 24 soldiers along with their equipment to and from the Front Line and were also used variously as ambulances, lorries and even mobile pigeon lofts! Around 1,200 London General Omnibus vehicles were used in this way, mostly in France and Belgium.
On 31st July this year, as part of the Festival of British Archaeology, Tom Sunley (Historic Environment Records Data Manager) and I led a tour of a section of the Wansdyke in Wiltshire. Our focus of the walk was looking at the most impressive part of the Wansdyke which runs from Morgan’s Hill to the western edge of Savernake Forest (known as the eastern Wansdyke), across the stunning landscape of the Marlborough Downs, see map below.
We had a great turn out of people and were blessed with a pleasant summer's day. We started the walk from Knapp Hill car park, SU 11570 63822, just over a mile north of Alton Barnes and walked up to Tan Hill which affords the best views of this section of the East Wansdyke.
From Tan Hill we headed east back along the Wansdyke path to Red Shore then headed south down the byway back to the car park. In total this circular walk is approximately 5 miles long.
The Wansdyke is a long linear defensive earthwork consisting of a substantial bank and ditch. At its most impressive on Bishop’s Cannings Down it is over 45 m wide, with a bank of over 5 m, producing a scarp slope of 12.5 m. Whilst there is still some debate over the exact western terminal, it is generally considered to be the hillfort of Maes Knoll in north Somerset and at its eastern end Savernake Forest near Marlborough.
"My own life has been rather like a kaleidoscope", writes Matilda Talbot in her autobiography. For somebody who experienced the two world wars at first hand, travelled in three continents, and went on to unexpectedly inherit Lacock Abbey, her life was truly kaleidoscopic; a constantly changing sequence of patterns punctuated by bursts of colour.
It was perhaps due to her natural flair for languages, combined with her kind and down-to-earth manner, that many of these colourful experiences came about. She readily accepted invitations to visit old friends and new acquaintances in far-off places, sometimes travelling with her family, but never fearful of travelling independently. When she did travel on her own, she was never alone, striking up friendships with passengers and crew, on-board boats as she tried out her language skills.
Language learning was to become an important element when preparing for a trip abroad and she often came up with enterprising ideas in order make progress. Before spending Christmas in 1908 with Lord and Lady Methuen in their new home in South Africa, she went to the “Dutch Church in Austin Friars” to find a teacher: "I found a verger and asked him if he knew any lady of the congregation might be willing to give me some lessons in Dutch”. From there, her studies continued on deck, which must have made for a curious sight, for she and a new lady acquaintance sat down to read from a "big Dutch Bible" that she had brought with her from Lacock: "We sat together on the deck and I tried to talk, and she read to me. The captain was highly amused, when he found us reading the Psalms, verse about, in Dutch, but she really was a good help".
Earlier on she had turned her attention to Scandinavia after delivering some illustrated papers at the Scandinavian Sailors' Home, near the West India Dock, where she met a young Norwegian girl, Fredrike Betzmann. A friendship developed between the two young women and they met regularly in London, later holidaying together, first in Scotland and then in Norway. While Fredrike perfected her in English, Matilda and her sister Mary made good progress in Norwegian. "For nearly a month we stayed with Fredrike's family and were soon able to talk Norwegian quite fluently. […] Some of our pleasantest expeditions were in rowing boats up the little inlets of the fjord, going ashore and picnicking where we liked. Looking back, it seems to me that every afternoon was fine".
Besides Dutch and Norwegian, she understood French from an early age which she continued at a day school in London: "We always talked French to our French nursemaid, Emilie, and also to my mother, who spoke French as readily as English". During World War I she put these skills into practice when working for L'Œuvre de la goutte de café which ran a canteen for convalescent soldiers near Paris, and then later at Bussang in the Vosges where troops went to the trenches or returned from them.
A natural talent for languages was helped greatly by her indomitable spirit. While staying in Scotland in February 1925, she writes a letter in Italian despite of her deficiencies in the language: "Today Miss A asked me to help her write a letter in Italian: She recently received a letter from an Italian but still hasn't replied. I tried but it was awful. It's hard: Now everything I think is in Russian" . Undeterred and determined to help her friend, she goes on to explain that with the help of an Italian book and some difficulties, she was able to finish the letter in half an hour and give it to a "quite contented Miss A", who could copy it out in her own hand.
Out of all the languages she learned it was certainly Russian which required her to draw the most on that indomitable spirit. "[Learning Russian] was like paying court to a beautiful woman and capricious woman: she is maddeningly unreasonable and one is furious with her but all the same one cannot cease making love to her".
Although she never visited Russia or the Soviet Union, she learned the language to a high level. She describes the Estonian town of Pechory on the Russian border which she visited twice during the 1930s: "One day we went by train to the extreme south-east of Estonia, to a place called Pechora. There was a monastery there with a wonderful church. […] Everyone in Pechora spoke Russian and very few people spoke Estonian, but the notices were printed in both languages. […] We had a look round the monastery and went into the church for part of the service, but I could not understand a word for the Orthodox Service is always said in old Slavonic".
Also, while in Estonia she experienced a real steam bath where she is beaten with birch twigs to stimulate the skin. On leaving the bathhouse she notes "We had lots of little birch leaves clinging to us which had to be rinsed off. The Russians have a saying about the kind of person one cannot shake off: 'She clings to me like bath foilage'".
I’ve just finished reading the fascinating book ‘My Own Life’ by Ruth Scurr about the life of the 17th century Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey. It has left me with such a great impression of both his life and the times he lived in, that I thought I’d share them with you.
Aubrey was born on St. Gregory’s Day, 12th March 1626, the eldest son of Richard, a gentleman, and Deborah. His cousin and patron was Sir John Aubrey, 2nd Baronet, who had homes in Buckinghamshire and the Vale of Glamorgan.
His love of Wiltshire was derived from growing up at Broad Chalke and Easton Piercy, and through his years spent at school at Leigh Delamare, but also from association with some of the county’s major landowners such as the Pembrokes of Wilton House, spending time at their estates. His father’s death caused financial difficulties. Over time Aubrey had to sell off his property, spending the majority of his time moving between friends, patrons and lodging houses.
Aubrey had many, many friends, some of whom appear to have taken advantage of his good nature and his genuine wish to help further their work. Aubrey loved science and learning, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1662, only two years after it had been founded, but he also loved nature and the world around him, especially the Wiltshire landscape, and folklore. He had a belief and interest in astrology, and had correspondence with Edmund Halley.
John was particularly interested in springs, and noted many in Wiltshire, testing their composition and presenting them to the Royal Society. He also had a surprising ability for the age; the ability to talk to anyone and show interest in their views, from Kings to lowly peasants.
Aubrey lived in turbulent times and worried about the lack of care given to historic material, seeing stonework looted, ruins uncared for, old manuscripts used in kitchens and to cover school books. His sense of caring for the past for the future was evident in his relationships with men such as Mr Ashmole who was instrumental in the founding of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He also paid for the etching of the Osney Abbey ruins by Hollar; concerned to document them before they were lost forever.
Following on from my last blog about the wealth of architectural detail found in the relatively humble village of Kingston Deverill, attention is turned to Marvin’s; a substantial mid-late 17th century rubblestone and flint house much altered and extended to the north. It is situated next to Humphrey’s Orchard, mentioned in my previous blog. Marvin’s Farm was known in 1887 as Newport’s Farm suggesting that this and Hedge Cottage, a building also mentioned in a previous blog and confusingly also known as Newports Farm, were linked in some way.
At the front of the house are two 3-light ovolo-moulded mullioned windows with hood moulds. The term ovolo comes from the Latin word for egg, and means a rounded convex shape. The way that the stone frame of a window is treated is very helpful in finding out how old it is. The very earliest stone frames in farmhouses and cottages were just simply chamfered inside and out to help allow light to penetrate the interior. From the late 16th century onwards the ovolo moulding appeared and was the universal shape for window frames, door frames and all sorts of moulded details until the beginning of the 18th century.