Almost a month ago, on a sunny Saturday morning, I set off from my home to go to the Cheltenham Festival. I was due to take part in a panel event with fellow History Girl Mary Hoffman and with a recent guest on this site, Pauline Francis. Fervently keen not to be late, I set off at a time that was, in fact, ridiculously early. And my bus to the centre of Bristol arrived promptly.
The result was that what could have been a brisk march from the riverside to Temple Meads station became a pleasant stroll, and I looked about me more than I do when I’m rushed.
I crossed the bridge by the ancient church of St Mary Redcliffe, and a little further on I came upon a sight I had not noticed before...
And the plaques declared the house to be the birthplace of Thomas Chatterton.
I experienced this news like a blow to the chest.
Adding to the oddness of the house, it was abutted by a single wall from a vanished building:
It doesn’t amount to a great deal. I am not even sure who owns it (Bristol Council?). Thanks to an excellent local blog website, by ‘Stockwood Pete’, I discovered that the house was quite recently squatted by English Lit students (how appropriate!) and that in their care it was well tended and looked a great deal more cheery, as you can see in this photo from that period:
It even had, as you can see, a healthy-looking vegetable plot outside. But the students have since been evicted, the windows boarded up, and the veg left to go to seed.
I also looked on the internet for maps. One of the most striking aspects of Chatteron’s house is the fact that it stands entirely alone, dwarfed by modern buildings and isolated by fast-moving traffic. Its very out-of-place-ness is a powerful, almost ghostly reminder of the past in this concrete-dominated patch. I wanted to see what the surrounding landscape had looked like in Chatterton’s day and I came upon a fantastic website on which (if you zoom in) you can view any chosen place in Bristol on a whole sequence of maps, going back to 1750.
The 19th century maps show an entire school building joined on to Chatterton’s house; the two buildings are huddled amongst many others (rows of tiny houses plus, in 1855, a ‘Soup House’) which have now entirely vanished. In the map entitled ‘1900s epoch 2’, the Chatterton buildings are still labeled ‘Sunday School’. But today, the position of the single surviving school wall is odd. It seems to be the school’s façade, behind which the building would have stretched back, away from the road – but there is no room for the rest of the building, given the position of the house.
One website I found said this wall had been moved to its present site when the rest of the school building was demolished in 1940. Given that in 1940-41 the city was experiencing the Bristol Blitz I am surprised that anyone thought it worthwhile moving a wall, but I am not in a position to offer an alternative explanation. (It would be wonderful if someone reading this could shed some light on the matter!)
What of the building’s interior? In an article on a local news website I learned that the inside of the building does not boast visible original features:
“Inside, the rooms are covered with a very tired red carpet and the walls are decorated with magnolia woodchip wallpaper. The sink unit in the kitchen, which looks as if it dates from the 1960s, is served by an old-fashioned Ascot water heater. Upstairs, one of the bedrooms has an en-suite shower unit which also looks as though it is at least 50 years old.”
Not much chance of turning it into a museum, then…
So much for my internet research. What of my emotional reaction to the house… that blow to the chest? Why, I wondered, should I react so strongly? I’m no Chatterton expert – far from it. Racking my brains, I can come up with only two small personal connections. First: as a child, I was frequently taken to Birmingham’s fantastic Art Gallery (did you know that Birmingham has the largest public collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world?), and so I am familiar with Henry Wallis’s famous painting, ‘The Death of Chatterton’.
And second: in my late teens I read – and loved – Peter Ackroyd’s novel Chatterton, though I can’t (oh, my sieve of a brain!) remember much of it now.
So, why should I care about this sad, dilapidated little building?
As I caught my train to Cheltenham that morning what remained in my mind was the fact that the house seems so startlingly marooned in both space and time. It is a monument to the passing ages in a different way from a lovingly tended, spry ancient building, surrounded by less incongruous neighbours. Different, but no less powerful.
I have a very strong belief in the power of place to set our historical/timeslip imaginations blazing (and many other History Girls have written marvellous posts about this too). The power of the physical relic – especially the relic that is not pristine, but bears the marks of the long-dead people who used it – is formidable.
It certainly impressed me as a child. I grew up not far from Kenilworth Castle – a magnificent Norman, Medieval & Tudor palace that became a ruin during the Civil War.
(Photo copyright Paul Johnson licensed under the Creative Commons licence)
Some of the doorways in the servants’ quarters at Kenilworth are so narrow that it is really only practical to tread in one place – the resultant extreme wear to the stone steps has always fascinated me. Now I find that it fascinates my young daughters when we visit.
This one (left) is from servants’ rooms situated beneath the apartments built for John of Gaunt (1340-1399).
Looking at these steps I can almost see feet passing to and fro.
As a reader, I have always been thrilled by books which recreate this same mysterious sense of our proximity to other times or to other realities (which David Deutsch, the quantum physicist quoted at the head of this post, might well argue is the same thing (if I have understood him correctly!)… Take note, critics of ‘counterfactual’ histfic, and take courage, Linda Buckley-Archer, author of excellent posts on this site about the same subject – there is a solid scientific justification for writing ‘counterfactual’ history, since any alternative outcome you can imagine – as long as it obeys the laws of physics – is likely to be a real event somewhere in the multiverse! See Deutsch’s book The Fabric of Reality for more mind-stretching details!)
So many of Diana Wynne Jones’s books achieve this sense of proximity triumphantly, as do other favourites of mine such as A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife and Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden. I have just read Mary Norton’s Bedknob & Broomstick to my daughters with its very moving (to me, though less so to them!) ending in which Miss Price chooses to travel through time in order to live permanently in a past century; the child protagonists are left picking their way over the ruins of the house she has gone back to live in…
And I shiver with delight every time I read the passage in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which the author conjures his own presence:
The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.
My love of history is absolutely inseparable from this emotional fascination with the way in which the past can seem so present, and the vital importance place often plays in that sense of closeness.
Of course, it can have personal as well as more broadly historical significance. As for many other people, my childhood home exerts a strong pull for me. I pass it now & it is much changed, but it exists in my memory & imagination as it was when I spent my childhood there. The robustness of the memory of place is my connection to my ghostly, disappeared self – myself as a child – as well as to my grandmother who lived with us… Though she has since died, I can still hear her tread on the flight of stairs down to our kitchen (stairs which, I have learnt from estate agents’ photos, have been ripped out and replaced).
We all know what it is to make a physical journey that is also, in our heads, a journey back in time. So said historian and writer Nicolette Jones in an article in the New Statesman about time and memory and about how, for the historical researcher, many places can become timeslips (read it here). When I reached Cheltenham that same Saturday morning, I met Nicolette – who was to chair our event – and tried to explain the impression Chatterton’s house had made on me just an hour or two before. Thank goodness for the understanding of a fellow history enthusiast - anyone else might have thought me crazy!
As for the house’s future… In this time of austerity and financial pain, how can one argue for the support of this shabby building, when so many other causes cry out for public money? Its location precludes it even from being spruced up to become a lettable property with historical connections… My dream is that it could one day become a resource for the city’s young writers, as the Ministry of Stories is in London! But that is, I’m sure, pretty far-fetched…
I can offer no solutions. I just feel emotional about it. In a personal sense, Chatterton’s house seems to be emblematic, somehow, of why history means so much to me. And the emotional weight, the punch to the chest, the feeling it gives me is why I write historical fiction.
You can view my own website here.
VIII, my novel for teenagers about Henry VIII, is published by Templar.