Sherds CA 404

Christopher Catling, Contributing Editor for CA, delves into the eccentricities of the heritage world.

Heritage values

It is not often that people take to the street to protect their heritage. The last time that happened, as far as Sherds can recall, was in August 2002, when ‘Save Our Ship’ campaigners mounted a 24-hour vigil to stop workmen getting access to the site of the Newport ship until the City Council agreed to let archaeologists rescue the remains (see CA 184).

Another round-the-clock guard was mounted last month at the site of the demolished Crooked House pub in Himley, Staffordshire – this time to frustrate workers who were planning to clear the site of demolition debris. Protestors took literally the call by Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, for the pub to be rebuilt ‘brick by brick’.

What can we learn from this unhappy episode? Perhaps the most vital lesson for heritage professionals concerns the criteria for designating buildings for protection against demolition. The Crooked House was not listed, and probably could not have been on the basis of architectural or historical interest. It is true that the original building, called Oak Farm, dated from 1765, but that farmhouse had undergone numerous interventions to make it safe and habitable once it began to subside, and the roof and first floor had already been rebuilt following fire damage in 1986.

Some 20 years ago, enlightened inspectors at English Heritage proposed extending the listing criteria to include evidential, associative, and community value. For a short period in 2004, it looked as if new legislation would enshrine these values in law, but the 2005 election intervened and the post-election Government showed no interest in heritage, so architectural and historical significance alone remain as the only statutory basis for designation.

Last month the site of the demolished Crooked House pub in Staffordshire was guarded around the clock in order to frustrate workers who were planning to clear the site of demolition debris.
While the site could not be listed, due to repairs and alterations made over many years to its 18th-century structure, it held a special place in the heart of the community thanks to its unique lean at an angle of 15°, a phenomenon that the pub owners were only too happy to enhance.

As was demonstrated by local anger at the loss of the pub, the Crooked House would undoubtedly have scored highly on community value. Mining subsidence had caused one side of the building to lean at an angle of 15°, a phenomenon that the pub owners enhanced with crooked door and window frames, as well as clocks, signs, and lighting fixed at crazy angles, carefully designed to disorientate visitors – famously, one could ‘roll a penny or a marble uphill’ on the bar because of the oddities of the structure.

This pub was not ‘heritage’ in the purist sense. Rather it was an anecdote in brick, a local peculiarity, and an opportunity to make fun of anyone who might be feeling unsteady after a couple of drinks. And, in the more general sense that heritage consists of the things we care about and wish to pass on to future generations, its value cannot be denied. Purists have argued that a rebuilt version would be a film-set substitute, but no more so than the countless ‘medieval’ buildings that were razed to the ground during the Second World War, rebuilt from rescued timbers constructed around a steel frame, and now lend charm to so many continental European towns.

Is arson the cause?

The police have said that they are treating the fire that destroyed the Crooked House as arson, and this is consistent with the evidence that fire-setting is often used as a weapon against both natural and cultural heritage. Historic England’s research in 2019 showed that there had been 1,000 incidents at listed or historic buildings requiring Fire & Rescue Service attendance in England since 2000, and that, while the largest number (412) were categorised as ‘cause unknown’, the next highest number (205) were started deliberately. In its Arson Reduction Strategy 2023-2026, the National Fire Chiefs Council puts the number higher: ‘deliberate fires account for around 45 per cent of all fires attended by fire and rescue services throughout the UK, with variations between fire and rescue services ranging from 21 per cent to 87 per cent’, it says.

And while climate change has been blamed for devastating ‘wildfires’, Greek authorities say that arson was the cause of 90 per cent of the 600 fires that broke out this year. Often the culprits have been refused permission for a development in a wildlife conservation area, and setting fire to the vegetation is their way of trying to get the decision reversed. Vigilance seems to be the main weapon: the faster the response, the greater the chances of limiting the damage.

Bad popes and bad men

Sherds was once taken to task by a devout Catholic for making remarks critical of Pope Pius IX (1792-1878; pope from 1846 to 1878), who sent in troops to put down an uprising in Perugia at the start of the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859, resulting in a massacre. ‘You must remember, Christopher, that there are no bad popes, only bad men who were popes’, my friend asserted. In other words, we must respect and uphold the institution, even if we have reasons to be concerned about the person occupying the post.

Those words came back to me as I read the unfolding story of the British Museum’s latest travails. Whatever has happened there – and we lack facts – does not invalidate an institution that has served the nation very well since it opened its doors in 1759.

Sensation-seeking writers of opinion columns would have you believe that all museums and their employees are incompetent and that some are corrupt – added to which they are complicit in the injustice of slavery, empire, and the appropriation of the culture of other nations. The reality is that museums are simply starved of the resources to do the job. It has long been an open secret among heritage professionals that underpaid staff at the BM face a treadmill of work that allows no time for basic housekeeping or research. Instead, they have to keep pace with the public’s appetite for special exhibitions – much loved by museum directors because they attract publicity, enhance their CVs, and pay the costs of keeping the lights on.

Treasury officials claim that heritage makes no contribution to the economy. That is contradicted by the number of governments, from Wales to China, clamouring for the return of ‘their’ artefacts. They know full well that museums attract tourists whose spending benefits many sectors of the economy. George Osborne, Chair of the BM’s board of trustees, needs to use his influence with former colleagues to argue for adequate funding.

Before anyone says that the nation cannot afford it, we need to remember that heritage funding across the four nations of the UK is negligible. In England, the Department of Culture’s spending on galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (the GLAM sector) was £74 million in 2021-2022. That is about 1.1 per cent of the £6.66 billion spent on agriculture, forestry, and fishing, and guess which one earns more? UK tourism GDP was £214 billion last year compared with £14.3 billion for the latter.

Anglo-Saxon or early medieval?

Sherds has in the past argued that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is a misleading term for the early medieval period because it feeds the idea of invasion and conquest from known places of origin by a homogenous ethnic group of people with a common culture and language. It is often used incorrectly to describe British culture as a whole in the 5th to 8th centuries, and it leads to the belief that aspects of the archaeology of the period are uniquely Anglo-Saxon when, in fact, they are part of a wider pan-European culture.

Brickbats have been hurled at Sherds for saying so, but now you don’t have to take my word for it. Academics at the renowned Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic (ASNaC) at the University of Cambridge were quoted in The Daily Telegraph recently as saying that ASNaC teaching aims to show students that terms like ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Viking’ are constructs and do not describe biologically distinct ethnic groups. The idea that they do so is part of the ‘myth of nationalism’, which ASNaC teaching aims to ‘demystify’, along with the idea that there ever was a ‘British’, ‘English’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Welsh’ or ‘Irish’ people with a coherent and ancient ethnic identity.

The term ‘Celtic’ also continues to be used as a shorthand for the Iron Age, long after John Collis, Simon James, and others have demonstrated that this too is a modern construct, so it is unlikely that archaeologists and historians will stop using the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ any time soon. It really belongs to the 1066 and All That version of history, however, along with the idea that Romano-Brits ate dormice while reclining on couches in their togas and sandals.

Images: Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA 2.0