Written by Kristen Maslach ’19
Here in the U.S, history, even our own, is treated as something boring that has little place being taught. We push it aside to make way for the new and improved. In the UK, this is not an option even if the people wanted to. Britain has been inhabited by various peoples all the way back to before history was written down. In almost every case the only way to remove a town from its history would be to bulldoze the whole town.
In the case of London, even this wouldn’t work. At the London History Museum we learned that the Thames delta had been inhabited since the Ice Age; fire pits, religious icons and stone spearheads testify to this. And from these humble beginnings, the museum took us on a walking tour of the city in each era of its life, from its official founding during the Roman conquest to a modern international city. Walking through it and seeing the artifacts of all the cultural changes that had happened on this spot was a combination of Storybookland and a history textbook, telling the tales of what really happened here all those years ago. The amazing thing is that any of the small town we passed through in between our stops could have shown us the same story, but with their own homespun legends thrown in. Professor Gaffney shared one with us at Wilderhope about a lord who once lived there riding out to the nearest town to announce the coming of the king’s forces during the rebellion of King Charles the First. It was so dark that the horse stumbled and both fell down one of the valley ravines in the chalk to their deaths. It is said that sometimes the horse comes back to ride through the ravine looking for its master. Whether that is true or not, it is certainly a colorful way to add to the overall history of the realm that is already so apparent in the hills around you.
The history is simply in the buildings themselves in almost all cases. Almost all of the businesses in any town we went to were housed in buildings that were constructed in centuries long past; some, especially in Stratford-upon-Avon, dated all the way back to Shakespeare’s world and earlier. Let me tell you, it’s somewhat disconcerting to shop in a grocery store or pass by a dentist’s office whose building would be under the protection of the Historical Society in this country simply due to its age. With the limited amount of land on the island, they don’t have the space to really modernize everything, but they also have more respect for the buildings than we do, putting them more or less to the use they were intended for instead of leaving them to rot. Most pubs you see were founded more than 200 years ago and have had no reason to stop service. They don’t knock their history down; they build around it, adding layers of infrastructure to what already exists. What you get from doing that over and over is something akin to the London Guildhall, built over the remains of the Roman amphitheater and rebuilt from the Fire and the Blitz. Though it continues to be a center of local government, in your mind you can still hear the rattle of carriage wheels, the shouts of “Here ye, here ye!” and the clashing of metal as the gladiator-slaves battle to the death.
And now our little adventures are a part of those layers. On the last night of the trip we were running to the Globe along the Thames, passing several historic church ruins and a flagship in full mast on the way. We were yelling and shouting (and panting) down the brick walking paths and Professor Gaffney kept yelling historical information about all the churches we were passing. Sam yelled out, “We don’t have time for the history lesson, Paul” and we all laughed. Or gasped. In all that we saw over three weeks, this proves we only tap-danced on the roof of Britain’s history. History is never truly dead; it lives on in the place where it was, hiding under the pavement. All you have to do is dig.