DEN Project

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Living History

Miles Travelled = 539
Museums Visited = 10
Mood = Impressed

“Living history” is a phrase usually used to describe attempts to bring the past to life through re-enactment.  The re-enactment of battles.  The re-enactment of past industries and lifestyles. The sort of thing you might find at Warwick Castle, the Black Country Museum or the Ironbridge Gorge Museum.

But there is a deeper kind of living history, which I have recently had the pleasure of witnessing in two very different heritage sites.

The first of these is Stricklandgate House in Kendal, far away from the East Midlands. It is a grand property in the middle of the town. Built in 1776 by Joseph Maude, local coal merchant turned banker, it was used by the “Kendal Literary & Science Society” from 1854. William Wordsworth was a prominent member of the society and it seems a frequent visitor. Since that time it has been used as a museum, a library, local council offices and finally the home of the Stricklandgate Trust. Whilst it remains a public space with an extensive historical exhibition, Stricklandgate House now also serves as the home of a host of voluntary organizations. Everything from a family drop-in centre to the local Dyslexia Association.

Stricklandgate House, Kendal

What impressed me most about the building is the way its historical character has been preserved and displayed, whilst also serving the community in new and valuable ways. This, it seems to me, is living history in the truest sense.

You may ask why I bothered to travel so far outside the East Midlands to visit a heritage site which is not part of MuBu. The reason is that this bit of history is one to which I feel a personal connection so, when Stricklandgate House was being reopened after refurbishment, I took the change to visit. The original owner of the house, Joseph Maude, was my great, great, great, great grandfather.

Stricklandgate House, Kendal

The second example of living history is much closer to home. From its opening in 1814 to the present day, Foxton Locks has remained in use, doing exactly what it was originally designed for – enabling narrowboats to navigate between the low ground to the north and the higher ground of the Leicester Summit to the south.

It could have been closed. That almost happened after the industrial uses of the canals had ended and before canal tourism had started to grow towards its present level. Some of the canals were going to be filled in, others reduced to un-navigable drainage channels.

But there is a basic human impulse – almost universal, it seems – that attaches people to the history they consider their own. That impulse had me take the long drive to Kendal to visit the house of my great, great, great, great grandfather. The same impulse motivated groups of people up and down the country to speak out against the closure of the canals.

And so the Grand Union Canal and Foxton Locks were saved.

Gradually the canals found a new life in tourism. The hundreds of thousands who visit Foxton Locks every year are a testament to the success of that new industry. The tourists who visit in such massive numbers do not come to see a re-enactment of history. They come to see the locks being used for the very purpose for which they were originally designed, shifting boats up and down the hill. It is not just a tourist destination, but a vital link in a working transport system.

That is living history.


Repairing the locks at Foxton

Miles Travelled = 539
Museums Visited = 9
Mood = Frozen Toes

A few weeks ago, during the big freeze-up, I travelled to Foxton again. Not to visit the Canal Museum this time, but to catch a rare glimpse of the locks empty of water. Such are the numbers of visitors that repairs can only be done in the dead of winter. It is then that the water is pumped out and the maintenance crew can don waders and climb down into the mud.

The closure and repairs usually take place once in five years.  Unusually this was the second winter closure in a row – a carry-over of work not completed due to the bad weather 12 months before.

There was brickwork in need of re-pointing and lock sills and gates in need of repair. When asked about the freezing conditions, the workmen smiled and laughed. It’s warmer down there in the lock, they said. They love working on the canals. It’s living history and they are the ones keeping it alive.

They find mobile phones down there in the locks once the water is pumped out. Phones that must have slipped out of hands or pockets as people navigated their way through the locks. Keys too. A wallet occasionally. And once, a set of false teeth – though how false teeth came to be dropped in, no one was sure.  Was it a sneeze that robbed some poor tourist of his teeth? Or was it the culmination of an argument between partners, instead of throwing plates at each other, throwing teeth into the water? “That’ll show you!”

If Foxton Locks wasn’t a place of such historic importance, the repair work would be easier and quicker. They could use any materials and patched it up in any functional manner. But because of the importance of the site, all replacements need to be like-for-like. Lime mortar was used in the original construction so lime mortar is needed in the repairs. Unfortunately, lime mortar doesn’t set properly if the temperature is too cold.

In an ordinary winter they could have done it. But with temperatures dropping to minus twelve, some of the work was simply impossible. Bad luck to have two of the coldest winters on record just when the work was scheduled. Perhaps the locks will need to be closed again next year.

For those who live aboard narrowboats all year round, the freezing weather means an enforced stop. Seven weeks of immobility this year. The ice reached four inches thick. Enough to safely support the weight of a man.   

Stories are told about a family long ago who were frozen in on the canal, far from habitation. The few people living nearby refused to give them food and the family starved to death. Though starvation isn’t likely these days, people cruising through the winter are careful to get to a good spot before the canal surface freezes. Somewhere in reach of drinking water, shops, transport and a pub. A place such as Foxton Locks.