Monday, 6 January 2014

Suffolk antiquities and the London Shard

Prior to a short break in Suffolk just before Christmas I did what I always do before going on holiday in the UK: check the HMC's Guide to Papers of British Antiquaries and Historians to get some sense of how well the history of the county has been studied. My feeling was that Suffolk would have attracted the attention of a considerable number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars, and I was proved right. There turned out to be a long list of names in the index, many with a sonorous ring to them and all doubtless familiar to modern local historians of the county. No point in listing them all, but the following stood out because of the depth and range of their papers:
  • Sir John Cullum (1733-85)
  • David Elisha Davy (1769-1851)
  • William Stevenson Fitch (1792-1859)
  • James Ford (1779-1850)
  • Sir Thomas Gage (1781-1820)
  • Craven Ord (1755-1832)
  • John Gage Rokewode (1786-1842)
  • John Wodderspoon (1806-42)
The descriptions of their collections indicates the nature of their interests: endless volumes of 'church', 'parish' and 'manorial' notes; abstracts and extracts from Domesday, charters and other early documents (some perhaps now lost); pedigrees and biographical notices; monumental inscriptions; and topographical notes and sketches. Nothing surprising about any of this - it was what motivated scholars at the time, especially the desire to describe and capture the topographical essence of a place at a certain point in time and before it changed.

And the thought that occurred to me as we were trudging along the beach at Shingle Street in late afternoon weakening light (very M. R. Jamesian that!) concerned the topographical: what did those antiquarians make of the Martello Towers that now squat so defiantly in the landscape along this coast? To my twenty-first century eye they are tremendous structures, utilitarian antiquities to be admired as much as any medieval cathedral. But having lived through the period of the their construction, Davy, Fitch, Gage et al. may have had a very different view (and we'll leave to one side those antiquaries who died much earlier; I think we can guess their views) - in fact it's easy to imagine them turning away in disgust at the desecration of the Suffolk landscape however grave the threat of invasion. What we regard as topographically valuable in terms of the built environment all depends on when we happen to be alive; everyone today thinks that buildings over 75 years old should be conserved at all costs, even if at the time of their construction they were deplored. It's strange to think oneself into the future and speculate on what, for instance, Londoners might think of the Shard; perhaps 200 years from now their spirits will soar at the sight of it, and it will be the subject of preservation orders and what not. Speaking as someone who thinks that there's nothing wrong with it that half a ton of dynamite wouldn't solve I rather doubt it, but you never know - there's no accounting for taste when it comes to these things.

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