Learning to learn history

Preparing the First Year history lesson for tomorrow, I wistfully perused the material for the lessons. I wish there had been such resources when I was at school.

Before they even begin to look at historical materials, the First Year students are taught about sources, about asking questions, about looking at evidence. They are enthusiastic in their responses.

The focus of the course is on skills as well as knowledge, on making history a lifelong activity. There is the cultivation of an awareness that history is to be found in their own area as well as in distant locations. It took me half of my life to learn what they are learning in the opening weeks of first year.

Working in an Ulster parish south of Downpatrick, a parish with traditions that dated from the days of Saint Patrick, there was an anniversary festival in 1995 which included a bus tour of the parish.

The bus tour was not for outsiders, but for the parishioners themselves. An archaeologist from Queen’s University was numbered among the people of the parish and was our guide for the tour. An Ulsterbus was hired and, at the most distant point, from where we started we must have been three miles from where we had begun.

What had seemed a piece of silliness when it was planned, became an experience people were to remember. Each pile of stones, each fold in the hill, each grassy mound suddenly assumed an identity of their own.

Standing at the gate of a field, in which a single wall standing alone was all that remained of a medieval building, the archaeologist described the digs that had taken place there and how what was found told the story of the everyday lives of the people who had lived there. There had been laughter when he had talked about the excavation of what had once been the cess pit of the medieval house and had commented that it was amazing what people dropped when they were going to the toilet.  A place that had been passed by many people everyday became more than just a stone wall in a meadow.

It is unlikely that a professional historian or archaeologist will emerge from among the First Year students, such talents are few and far between, but if the lessons should prompt their adult selves to pause and to see the past around, then the course will have been a success.



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Night walks

Leaving our school at night time meant avoiding the obvious route.  It would have brought you out onto the front drive and would have meant passing the office and numerous windows, through any of which you might have been spotted.

The internal route meant heading directly towards danger, walking the corridor towards the staff quarters, before cutting left to the junior house and out a door into a yard where even on moonlit nights there would be shadows and darkness.  Joining the lane beyond the main buildings meant only passing a couple of teachers’ bungalows before the road was shrouded by dense rhododendrons.

Winding through the trees, passing stone rings that marked the site of a bronze age village and a deep pond that once supplied fish to the big house, an anonymous five barred gate marked the end of the grounds.

Once over the gate, the road led onto open moorland.  Not once in all the times the journey was made did a vehicle pass. Had there been a car, there would have been no place to hide.

The walk would end always at a grave where a bridlepath crossed the road – the last resting place of a 19th century suicide. Sitting on the grass bank, we would watch the night sky.

Our excursions had none of the crime-filled darkness of those of Florian Kilderry, the central character of William Trevor’s Love and Summer. As a teenager, Kilderry confides to his Italian cousin that night walks had been part of his school life:

‘Meraviglioso!’ she cried when he confided that on darkening winter evenings he had stolen out of his one-time boarding-school to follow people on the streets, making of each shadowy presence what he wished it to be. Hunched within themselves, his quarries hurried from their crimes, the pickpocket with his wallets and his purses, the bank clerk with embezzlement’s gain kept safe beneath his clothes, the simple thief, the silent burglar. Sinister at dark hall doors, they took out latchkeys behind, curtains drawn, a light went on. The blackmailer wrote his letters, the shoplifter cooked his purloined sup­per. Saviour of desperate girls, a nurse wiped clean her instruments. A dealer packaged dreams, a killer washed his hands. ‘Magnifico!’ Isabella cried.

In deep isolation, there was not a soul we might have followed.  The vast moor around presented nothing more dangerous than tales of ghosts and the wintertime threat of dying of exposure.

The walks were generally without a point, sometimes there would be cans of Woodpecker cider, mostly it was a case of just going out to walk in silence. Every conversation there might have been had been rehearsed many times before.

Perhaps the motivation for walking an obscure Dartmoor road was similar to that of Kilderry, to break the rules, to defy convention, to assert independence.  Perhaps there was some deep existential seeking after an authenticity, more likely had we been asked, we would have had no idea why.  It had its own meaning, purpose even, beyond a sixteen year old imagination.

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Autumn leaves no doubt as to its arrival: shortening days, colder weather, falling leaves. Leaves carpet the footpath to the tram stop.  For me, there is a hierarchy among the trees from which they fall, just as there seems an order among all things. Whether it’s the value of rare metals, or the cost of houses, or the price of cars, there is a ranking, a pecking order, a hierarchy. Sometimes the order does not relate to intrinsic value. Thinking about paintings, there is not such a great difference between the cost of canvas and frames used for various works of art. The difference in value is something attributed, a van Gogh might have been painted on indifferent canvas and framed in a plain wooden frame, but it will be worth many multiples of a work by an amateur artist on similar canvas with a similar frame. Ranking is as much subjective as a reflection of actual worth.

Growing up in rural Somerset, the trees across Sedgemoor were predominantly withies, the willow trees that grew at the sides of the ditches that drained the low lying, peaty ground.

In the village, there was a greater variety, horse chestnut and beech trees grew on village greens; there was an ash tree at the edge of the school playing field; before being destroyed by disease, elm trees grew in a line behind the Dutch barn at the home farm; orchards were filled with various sorts of apple. What we lacked were majestic oaks of the sort to be found in places like Surrey, oaks that would shed their distinctive leaves. Oaks had an almost mythical place in people’s thinking.

In Somerton, the Royal Oak pub was a reminder that Charles II had hidden in an oak tree as he fled from the forces of Oliver Cromwell after defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was commemorated with the observance of Oak Apple Day on 29th May each year, a public holiday that was kept for two hundred years until its abolition in 1859.

Oaks had that royal association and they had a naval association. Hearts of Oak was the march of the Royal Navy. The great ships like Nelson’s HMS Victory were built from oak. Oak had a sense of sturdiness, solidity, even majesty. The elm and the ash, the horse chestnut and the willow, none of them had the dignity of the oak.

Passing years have brought encounters with oaks that were less than majestic, gnarled and knotted specimens that grew crookedly and would not have provided much timber for building anything, let alone great sailing ships. There are oaks clinging to river banks, oaks holding on to rough hillsides, oaks battered by storms, growing sideways in the wind. No king would have found refuge in such trees. There are fine oaks and there are oaks that are not so fine. Being disappointed at their absence from the village is as subjective as any other ranking activity, yet a single oak would have created an excitement in childhood years that trees such as this had served England so well.

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Missing the childhood magic

The poster on the toyshop window announced that Thomas and Friends were in stock. Another generation would grow up, as I did, with the railway characters created by the Rev. W. Awdry.

Growing up? It seems an odd concept, both for oneself and for one’s children.

Those whom you love are young children at one moment and the next moment they are adults in a world different from your own, adults who seem far removed from the people you thought that you once knew.

It was the Thomas and Friends poster that recalled my conversations with Ben.

Ben must be seventeen or eighteen now, but I still have a clear memory of sitting on steps one Sunday morning to talk about Thomas and friends. There were another ten minutes before we needed to move and there were few people around.

Trains have always been a comfortable topic of conversation, there is something reassuring about railways, a design, a purpose, a mind behind it all.  There are many people who will take holidays just to visit particular railways.

I have never felt I would go to such extremes, but I think I can understand the fascination, particularly with the steam railways, the artistry and the craftsmanship have few modern parallels.

Sitting on the stone steps, Ben and I talked about the steam trains we remembered, each of them with their own character, and I tried to remember their colours.

“What colour was James, Ben?”

“Red,” he said.

“And Henry?”


It was 1025 and we got up from our seat.

Ben, who was three at the time, took his Thomas the Tank Engine cards back to the pew where his mum and dad were sitting, and I went off to finish getting ready for the morning service.

Any of the hundred or so people who had come in the church door would have found it odd that the Rector was sitting on the chancel steps talking to a small boy.

It was a magical moment, for just a couple of minutes the world was suspended.

Ben taught me a lesson that has endured since that distant Sunday morning.

He had a completely unselfconscious devotion to the things that mattered to him, and all the time in the world in which to do those things which he thought to be important.

Perhaps more attention to those moments by adults would mean children would turn out differently.

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Tolkien characters in the mist

It is that time of year when clear blue mornings in the village contrast with the mist shrouded day beginning on the moorland below, when the clear, sharp colours in the sky contrast with the blanket of greyness at ground level.

If J.R.R. Tolkien had not found inspiration in the Norse and the Welsh sagas, standing on a Somerset hilltop looking into the sea of mist that covers the Levels at this time of year might have prompted thoughts of mythical creatures.

Tolkien writes of Huorns and Ents, trees that are sentient, trees that have the capacity for thought and speech and movement and action.

After the destruction brought to their lands by the wizard Saruman and his armies, there is a sense of ecological justice in the revenge the trees wrought upon their erstwhile destroyers. In The Lord of the Rings, the coup de grace at the Battle of Helm’s deep is administered by the huorns :

Where before the green dale had lain, its grassy slopes lapping the ever-mounting hills, there now a forest loomed. Great trees, bare and silent, stood, rank on rank, with tangled bough and hoary head; their twisted roots were buried in the long green grass. Darkness was under them. Between the Dike and the eaves of that nameless wood only two open furlongs lay. There now cowered the proud hosts of Saruman, in terror of the king and in terror of the trees. …

The Orcs reeled and screamed … Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again.

The Two Towers, Chapter 7, Helm’s Deep

There were moments more mysterious, strange trees moving through a countryside, eliminating all trace of the evil that had been among them:

… in the middle night men heard a great noise, as a wind in the valley, and the ground trembled…. But in the morning … the slain Orcs were gone, and the trees also. Far down into the valley … the grass was crushed and trampled brown … but a mile below the Dike a huge pit had been delved in the earth, and over it stones were piled into a hill. Men believed that the Orcs whom they had slain were buried there; but whether those who had fled into the wood were with them, none could say…. The Death Down it was afterwards called, and no grass would grow there. But the strange trees were never seen in Deeping-coomb again; they had returned at night…. Thus they were revenged upon the Orcs.

The Two Towers, Chapter 8, The Road to Isengard

Watching the black shapes that loom and disappear in Somerset autumn fog, it would not have been hard to believe in battling trees.

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