Tuesday 22 May 2012

THE PAST AS PLACE by Jane Borodale

Weald and Downland Open Air Museum
What is it exactly that makes a place? It’s something I think about a lot. Trying to describe the experience of being in a place is a very layered, shifting kind of thing. I love the way that linear time makes no sense when applied to the physicality of a location, it’s all muddled up, bits of the past can be utterly current under our feet.

And landscape itself is filled with clues of how it might have been when people used it differently. I always think of place as one of the main protagonists in any story, speaking volumes without dialogue, not as a backdrop but as an active player. And trying to read a landscape or environment is one step closer towards knowing the people who live or have lived previously in it.

Poplar Cottage from Washington, Sussex
I was recently lucky enough to spend a year as writer-in-residence at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex, where over 50 vernacular buildings have been rescued from destruction and painstakingly reassembled on a beautiful 40-acre site in the Sussex chalk Downland. These are buildings that were used by peasants, labourers and tradesmen – people intrinsic to their working landscapes. It’s a place close to my heart as I grew up in the Downs nearby and spent formative hours at the museum as a child, sneaking in through the fence. In those days there were only a few houses, mostly unfurnished, but to a child it was a delicious portal to the past.

Now it’s a fully assembled village, in itself an entirely new place: 15th-century Wealden hall-houses, smoke-bay cottage, 17th-century farmhouse, medieval barns, working watermill, granaries, early 19th-century tollhouse, working Tudor kitchen. Many of the houses are authentically furnished to a specific period.

Bayleaf, Wealden hall-house from Chiddingstone
The museum community includes skilled carpenters and conservators, curator, an on-site historian (who was very generous with her expertise), woodsman, gardener, miller, blacksmith, stockman, working animals of traditional breeds. It’s the combination of rigorous scholarship and physical experiment there that I found so inspiring. There is so much for the imagination to feed on – but not in a vaguely ‘heritage’ or theme-parkish way; this museum is an ongoing investigation into building technology across six centuries and the ordinary lives of ordinary people of the south-eastern region. It’s a large-scale celebration of the commonplace embedded in its landscape.

During my residency I wrote about four of these houses at the museum, but in the context of their original sites. I wanted to try to make each house-portrait into a narrative arc that gave a sense of time swooshing along, a kind of flipbook of moments. (The end result was The Visitor, which at the moment you can download as a free eBook at Lovereading.co.uk to read on a computer or Kindle etc.)

Medieval house from North Cray
During research I spent a lot of time absorbing the character of these buildings, as well as facts and social history, through the seasons. (In winter huddling gratefully near the fires kept burning in many of the hearths – how extremely smoky, ashy, cold and draughty the past was!) I also found reading historical maps and applying or mentally layering them over existing sites really fascinating. 19th-century tithe maps, particularly if looked at alongside census records across the century, reveal tantalising glimpses of lives and occupations and family relations to the land. Who owned a particular set of fields, who lived at the blacksmithy, how old the shoemaker’s son was in a given year and whether he had a wife… Having these place-specific kind of shards or snippets from the past and standing in the same place today, makes a kind of double-place – an overlapping or convergence of times that we’re free to animate with our imaginations whether we’re visitors, readers or writers.

The more I write fiction the more I realise how my idea of the past is bound up with place, and that what I write is an attempt to pin down aspects of time that are captured tangibly in the actual matter of place (building or landscape) as traces, marks, buried pieces, snagged things, steepings, footprints. Maybe ‘pin down’ is too dry and specific; I suppose I mean that writing stories is a way to create the illusion of somewhere that appears whole enough to climb inside, if only for the duration of reading. (When it really works of course it becomes an entirely new place in its own right, lodged in the head and carried around indefinitely.) The past is a place we can only visit in our minds – and how very many ways it can be constructed. Historical fiction positively demands that we try to dwell in it, to ‘be’ inside its moment, trying it out in time and space. And places like this museum are a rich source of information about how things actually worked in terms of scale and physical effort within a given environment.

Winkhurst Tudor kitchen
I miss those residency mornings shivering in the marvellously-stocked timber-framed library, buried in copies of WH Hudson learning about shepherds; afternoons propped in corners of soot-blackened halls with a biro and notebook. I miss finding out the practical details: how extremely heavy the churn handle becomes as the cream turns to butter, what the strain and creak of millwheels driving stones to grind the flour sounds like, the particular smell of pig meat being freshly butchered. And I miss the site-visits out across the southern counties to where the buildings came from, armed with maps and thermos, ducking under barbed wire, looking for clues, often finding that curious whisked-away feeling of something physically gone from a place but somehow still current in so many ways. It goes without saying how loss or absence itself can have a powerful presence on the flavour of a place – and as writers of historical fiction we’re all occupied in describing absences, aren’t we?

Bayleaf farmstead from Chiddingstone, Kent
I’ll end this rather elliptical set of thoughts with the happy news that the Weald and Downland Museum are holding their first ever Historical Fiction Day on 5 Aug 2012, to consider and explore aspects of writing that draws on the past through place and character.

Speakers include bestselling authors Alison Weir and Maria McCann. Click here to buy tickets for the day or to find out more.

And their Historical Short Story Competition (1st prize 1000 pounds, judges include Kate Mosse and Emma Darwin) has a deadline of 22 June – just one month away today!

It would be really nice to meet some of you at the HF day, or read your stories…


Sue Purkiss said...

That must have been a lovely year! Thanks very much for this, Jane - I find that place is very important in my writing too. And thanks for another place to visit!

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh my goodnesss, how lovely! I went there once and it was a magical place. I remember being astounded by the sheer noise of cartwheels on cobbles...

Leslie Wilson said...

Loved this blog. The 'folk museum' I know best is the one at Cultra, near Belfast, where I remember having soda bread straight off a griddle from a peat fire - the smell of the peat - though loaded with nasties, and the back of those fireplaces is absolutely thick with tars - was wonderful. There are also lovely little museums in the Tyrol, where you can go into the houses and see the huge ovens where villages communally baked the bread for the next 3 months - when it got stale, it was made into dumplings, which is why dumplings are such a part of Tyrolean cuisine. But your point about 'climbing into' history so resonates with my ideas about writing historical fiction - and such an important point about the way in which our history can be 'read' in the landscape. Indeed, for most of our ancestors, that's their memorial, isn't it? As Sue said, they didn't have gravestones, but they left behind fields, hedges, ditches, and those deep old pack-roads that they trudged year after year so that the road itself sank into the earth.
Must go there next time I'm in Sussex!

Mark Burgess said...

Thank you, Jane, a fascinating post. I went to the museum way back in the early 1970s, when Bayleaf Farmhouse was the main attraction. Definitely time for another visit!

Jane Borodale said...

Thanks for your comments, Sue, Katherine, Leslie and Mark. Am never quite sure whether it's the past that I'm most interested in, or the way that the past rubs up against/jumbles with the present. And the Tyrolean museums sound intriguing, especially with dumplings...

Linda B-A said...

I so enjoyed this post - and the images. What a lovely experience to have been writer-in-residence there.