Radical Road Trip

Radical Antiquarians on Tour
The Antiquarians’ Road Trip
Plus ca change

Look! There’s Mr Jingle and Mr Pickwick in Stamford,
A town astride the Great North Road,
All tortuous turnpikes and honey stone,
Coaching inns and listed buildings:

And beyond Stamford, heading east?
There’s John Clare revenants walking the roadside,
And channels and rivulets and watercourses,
With high embankments above the roads,
And a cloud filled sky that meets the fields
In a cumulonimbus towering clasp
Across a dark shadowed numinous dreamscape;

But there, leaping out of the flat lands’ fastness,
The vaporous tower of Ely cathedral,
And all around, the oozing of the fens:
Tick Fen; Langwood Fen, Great Fen, ChatterisFen,
Ouse Fen, Mildenhall Fen, Burnt Fen …
And all around, the waters of rivers and dykes,

And a boatyard down below the cathedral,
Constant trains rattling across the freight line rails,
As twilight softness gathers around the streets,
And swifts soar high above the Maltings,
And high above the roof of Oliver Cromwell’s house,
Just as their seventeenth century ancestors did,
When Cromwell strode forth with his righteous bible,
Imagining a New Model Army
That would vanquish Charles Stuart’s Royalists,
While swifts screeched and eavesdropped high above,
And a parliament of rooks observed and noted.

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Fake Views

Trigonometry Points or Trickonometry Points?
The clue is in the name of course:
Ordnance Survey: Ordnance: artillery;
Survey: examine and record an area of land;

The clue is in the time as well as space:
The 18th and 19th centuries:
The formation of the United Kingdom,
When English and Hanoverian imperialism
Mapped the new Union Jack with redcoat ruler,
And with muskets and new names and mathematics,
With charts and furlongs and charters,
Enclosing common and custom
With a new and ruthless toponymy.

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What have Historians enchanted by Roman Britain ever bequeathed to us?

What have historians enchanted by the study of Romano-British

history ever bequeathed to us?
And why have they been enchanted?
I suppose it could be the Stockholm Syndrome,
The affection felt by the captive for the captor sort of thing,
Or perhaps we should call it the St Albans Syndrome,

Or the Verulamium Syndrome …
But there’s so much more, I know,

(Or is there?)

Deference, perhaps, or ‘Borrowed status’,
As the sociologists put it,

The cult of the classics in grammar schools,
The dominance of the English public school;
The cult of the nineteenth century amateur,
Antiquarian and archaeologist,
Often a country curate;

The simultaneous growth of the British Empire,
Parallels drawn with Pax Romana,
And the civilizing mission
Of ‘The White Man’s Burden’;
The tantalizing nature of the evidence
Of the Romano-British centuries:
Tangible yet numinous;

Chance finds as the country was industrialised,
New roads, new footings, foundations and factories,
Those rural curates on new railway lines,
The Ozymandian nature of it all:
‘Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.’
The M.R. James winter ghost story trope,
The feeling that those twilight Celtic gods
Lie just beyond the veil of imagination.
The way that the history fitted in
With a British jigsaw of stereotypes:
England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland,

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Being John Thelwall

I first opened the pages of EP Thompson’s
Making of the English Working Class
On my 21st birthday in 1972:
It seemed to sit quite easily along
With the glass bottomed pewter tankard –
A traditional 21st father-son present back then:
Key of the door and welcome at the local too;
The glass bottom so I could see the King’s shilling,
And escape enlistment in some past imperial war –

The tankard now holds used paint brushes in the shed,
But the book sits on my shelf like a Bible:
But it wasn’t just the text that changed my life,
It was the picture on the cover of the labourer,
Foregrounded in late summer contentment,
Basket of blackberries, billy cock hat,
Puffing Billy, Locomotion, or some such,
Steaming and smoking along behind …

Like any sacred text, it is a product of its time,
But today, in 2019, I return to its pages,
Church bells ringing as I sit in the garden,
Hot on the trail of John Thelwall,
Like some government spy, checking the index,
To find, initially, this strange amalgam
Of Foucaultian-Augustan-Post Modernist-self-reflexive text:
Thelwall’s record of his Privy Council interrogation,
In the presence of no lesser personages
Than Prime Minister William Pitt,
The Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor …

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Thomas Helliker: the Trowbridge Martyr


I have previously only known the name Semington from information boards on the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal: a junction with the Kennet and Avon Canal. This is how ‘Heritage’ works: it fixes your view on space and time; it gives the past meaning. But ‘Counter-Heritage’ remembers those who are ignored, forgotten or misrepresented. It gives a different and radical meaning to the past.

Act the First

‘The orthography is irrelevant, madam.
Helliker, Hilliker, Hiliker, Elliker,
The spelling matters not a jot, madam,
Illiteracy does not mask identity,
We know who the shearman’s apprentice was
At Mr Nash’s Littleton Mill,
Semington, 22nd July 1802;
He was there in the riot, tumult and arson;
Mr. Heath says he saw Helliker brandish a pistol
And intimidate the loyal night watchman;
Mr. Heath had previous heard Helliker
Offer thanks and gratitude for the wrecking
Of honest men’s machinery and livelihoods;
And did not Mr. Heath identify Helliker
After the miscreant’s arrest in Trowbridge,
Last August the third?’

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Broadstairs and Charles Dickens: Heritage and Counter-Heritage

‘Charles Dickens never lived here’
Is a standout plaque on a cottage wall,
Down towards the harbour in Broadstairs –
Must take some courage to ironise
The Broadstairs branding of itself …

He first came here in 1837,
The year of Victoria’s accession,
And a year of gathering Chartist momentum,
To lodge in the High Street at number twelve,
To complete the last few monthly numbers
Of Pickwick Papers, and make so much money
That he bought the imposing cliff top house,
Fort House, built some thirty odd years before,
Where he penned his pages of labyrinthine plots,
And Pickwickian old time wistful nostalgia,
And critical observations of modern times:
Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist,
Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop,
Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit,
Dombey and Son, David Copperfield;

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The National Trust, Counter-Heritage and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Heritage and Counter-Heritage: Are They So Very Different?

Two recent visits to ‘historic’ houses and a recent walk have made me question the usual binary opposition of heritage and counter-heritage, and got me thinking that perhaps they lie rather more on a continuum.
A visit to Dennis Severs’ house,
A counter-heritage disenchantment walk,
and a visit to the National Trust cottage of Samuel Taylor Coleridge at Nether Stowey have set me a-thinking.

It struck me at Nether Stowey, that the National Trust quite-right wish for visitor-enchantment, involved counter-heritage practices too … and if the National Trust does that …

The Coleridges’ Cottage: Samuel and Sara

It sits in Lime Street, Nether Stowey,
Just off the old Minehead turnpike road,
Opposite a pub called the Ancient Mariner:
(The inn sign has no picture, just the words:
THE ANCIENT MARINER in upper case,
With a tiny inset top left: Lyrical Ballads)
The cottage of Samuel Taylor Coleridge –
The home and workplace of Sara Coleridge,
Now a National Trust Museum –
Involves an imaginative re-creation
Of how the cottage might have looked in 1797,
In that year of poetic wonderment;

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