Thursday, 22 September 2011

Archaeology and Thomas Cook

The first regular tourist destination of Thomas Cook travel agency was Ashby-de-la-Zouch and its ruin of a castle. Whereas the company of this famous son of Leicester was born out of one railway trip to a temperance rally, the fame of the ruins is based on the success of one book, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. The publication of this book in 1819 secured the place of the Ashby castle on the tourist trail that is unthreatened still today. English Heritage owns the castle ruins and organizes jostling events such as depicted in the book regularly – although these are much more good-humoured.

The tourists flocked to Ashby even before Thomas Cook started his business but tourism preserved these ruin to the future generations and the success of the tours guaranteed it. Without a continued interest in the castle and the town itself – which even today is not without plenty of charm – the bricks and stones from the ruins would have disappeared to local building works as materials. The ruins meant then and even today business and like all over the world tourism guarantees the relevance of both archaeology and heritage. Perhaps the so-called heritage industry could have been supported to some extent as an educational activity but without people queuing up to see the pyramids or Pompeii and being happy to pay for the privilege, there would be much less preservation.

The ruins of the Ashby castle and their draw among the paying visitors guaranteed a go-ahead of all sorts of programmes and initiatives. The Ivanhoe Baths used the salt spring water from near-by Moira that could not succeed on its own as a spa destination next to a colliery. In 1822 the baths opened and were a relative success until the end of that century but did not rival Bath or Lemington Spa. The ruins of the Baths were demolished in the 1960s and present the different destinies of past and modern ruins, both in their way related to or benefitting from Ivanhoe, fictional events and Thomas Cook.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Changing companies, rich heritage

The railways in England have a fascinating history that includes the oscillation between fragmented commercial railway lines and centralized nationalized business and back. I can remember the British Rail and the delightful easiness of buying tickets and receiving information. No different rules on refunds or the definition of peak hour. Nevertheless, in the beginning the railways were private enterprises and different companies carried passengers through East Midlands and other regions. The current East Midland Trains continues the history of Midland Railway in the area, which ran passengers from 1844.

The Beeching Report and its aftermath killed many lines in the East Midlands and elsewhere. The last mainline to be built, Great Central Railway, disappeared and was partly dismantled but continues as a double track heritage railway company running steam trains from Leicester North to Loughborough. East Midlands has other heritage rail routes as well. Colliery trains run from Snibston to Coalville and the former sidings site in order to celebrate the vanished coal mining transportation around Coalville. The vanished lines and engineering features are presented along the heritage trail in the north-western Leicestershire that commemorates the early Leicester and Swannington railway that became part of Midland Railway. An additional steam trains on Battlefield Line Railway are run by the Shackerston Railway Society in southern Leicestershire passing the Bosworth battlefield. It is the last remaining part of the former Ashby and Nuneaton Joint Railway from the late 19th century.

The marvel of Leicestershire railway heritage can be named jointly ‘Central Midland railway’. This term is a conglomerate of different main companies, which created the coal transport system to Leicester in the earlier part of 19th century and the period stations of the last mainline in England in memory of their once stylish service to London. It is difficult to say, which of the companies and railways was or is the greatest railway achievement. Are the early engineering achievements more important than the modern-day heritage experiences at the period stations and how does one evaluate a trip to a famous battle site by a steam train?

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The essentials of a princely garden

When you enter a traditional garden of a country house from a certain period such as Belvoir Castle, you encounter the fountains and the statues. You have the beautiful rose gardens and the picturesque woodland walks while the largest and the most ambitious contain fake temples and shrines as part of a cultured landscaped garden plan. The Belvoir castle may not have a garden that is the most extensive but it is very representative of its type. It may not have a lake or a shrine but it contains a grotto with the smallest of Swiss alpine gardens, a real ancient marble column from Bologna, a solar dial and a pond with gold fish and water lilies. The small of roses is overpowering if you arrive at the right time of the year. You may even be lucky and see the only remaining peacock.

However, the garden of an estate needs hunting grounds to twin with it. The existence of game is made apparent by wandering pheasants along the roads near the castle and by the roadside. In January they will not be crossing the road as peacefully.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Live history

When I started studying archaeology, I and my fellow students we took it seriously. So seriously that the idea of a re-enactment was a frivolous one and something that as a professional you should not do. This feeling was partly enforced by a lack of societies re-enacting in Finland in the late 1980s and early 1990s and by certain uneasiness among the older generation who had experienced the real war on one hand and the mainly leftist younger archaeologists on the other who wanted to participate in peace marches and fairtrade instead of being involved in recreating battles.

My first personal encounter with a re-enactor did not make me feel any more positive about this activity. A so-called character in an archaeology students’ conference in Sweden delivered such gold nuggets as “it is a pity that one can have a real [Viking] battle [with real swords] only once” when loosely discussing experimental archaeology. The fact that the Vikings had swiftly passed Finland and sailed directly to Staraja Ladoga in the east made this kind of re-enactments more unlikely back home. This all changed with Dragons and Dungeons and role-play.

Suddenly, during the late 1990s a new generation of archaeology students took over. They were interested in postprocessual archaeology and had more personal/relaxed approach to archaeology. I got to know a female student who was an important figure in the contemporary medieval province of Finland in her spare time and had an alias of an upper-class maiden who participated in the annual feasts and other happenings.

This long prelude brings me to a real landscape of Bosworth, the scene of the famous battle during the Wars of the Roses. This is one of the numerous landscapes in England where famous battles are restaged and relived, though not too realistically with bodily harm. When there are no major re-enactments, there is a smaller campsite with soldiers, knights or archery during the weekends. The re-enactors can forget their everyday lives and act to be somebody else for a day or weekend. They can enliven distant times to their contemporaries and try to show how past battles were played out. These re-enactments are important in making history alive and the kind of events today’s heritage centre visitors expect. More seriously, they allow testing the dynamic interplay between a landscape and the flow of people and the stages of a battle.