If you were driving between Shifnal and Breewood on Wednesday or Thursday, there was a fair chance that you’d have spotted the slightly incongruous sight of me on a Brompton folding bike, zooming along the lush, green side roads of the Midlands countryside, like a very, very lost commuter. (I should say, by the way, that the Brompton acquitted itself with the greatest of ease, is there anything that bike can’t do?)
You might ask why I was putting myself at the mercy of a frenzy of harvesting tractors, midges and assorted roadkill, well Boscobel is the answer of course. But why get off my arse and visit, when I have lovely documents at home that describe it? Because, visiting a location that you are studying will always bring fresh insight no matter how altered it is. Touch, taste and smell are important. The undulation of the land, the view from a particular window, the relationship of a building to those around it, quite simply, the feel of a place, all provide details that you didn’t know were missing from pictures constructed of pen and ink.
Taking a bike seems a logical choice when revisiting the past, of course the roads and routes are all wrong, but the effort encourages an appreciation of the geography that zipping about in a car doesn’t allow you. It’s also the closest I’m going to get to riding a horse. Walking would have been even better I suppose, but then so would putting on a noggin shirt and stockings, but my dedication goes only so far. I arrived at Boscobel house sweaty and tired which in itself was fitting, though it was a fraction of the exhaustion of the King and his companions when they arrived on that September night. They had fought a battle in the past six hours, I had fought through the British rail service with luggage, actually it’s comparable.
If history was as easy as turning up to a location and just breathing in the knowledge then we’d all have our own prime time history show. Unfortunately, and to paraphrase Gregory House, ‘Buildings Lie’. The older and more historically interesting a place is, the more it seems to lie, or at least, the more its past is obscured by layers of inhabitation, decay and the dreaded re-interpretation. As artists and writers lie too, the task of revisiting the past is not made easy.
This is where English Heritage and the building historians and curators they employ come in. I hear criticisms of English Heritage; too twee, too patronising, irrelevant etc etc. I think that’s generally unfair, they are catering for a very broad audience. From the frazzled parent looking for half an hours distraction for the kids, to the history nerds like me, they are bound to patronise or go over the heads, here and there. For the serious history buff, if you’ve done some basic research and you have some degree of imagination, then you should be able to see beyond the static picture that stands before you.
It just so turns out that I got lucky with Boscobel House. The house is well preserved and presented beautifully. All the staff and volunteers were helpful, knowledgable and keen to discuss the house and local area with a slightly overenthusiastic lunatic with a folding bike. I wanted to give the tour guide, David Baldwin, a particular mention. When I turned up twenty minutes before closing time on Wednesday he gave me a mini tour as he closed the place down, gave a great tour the next day and most impressively I saw him clearing the litter from the road leading up to the house. I get the distinct impression that these people care about these places, as should we.
Boscobel House turned out to be so much harder to interpret than I expected. I had got a lot wrong in my mental image of the place, and there is a great deal of detail that I picked up on during the visit, thanks in part to the English Heritage staff. It took me two visits to begin to get my head round it, including a lot of wandering around looking at pictures, looking at the building, looking at pictures again, and repeat. The Boscobel Oak is a lot closer to the house than I realised, the orientation of Whiteladies Priory is different to how I imagined (and how it is portrayed in contemporary drawings), all this adds to a richer understanding of the events that took place there.
Of course the added bonus in this is that I got to spend a few days cycling around gorgeous countryside on two sunny August days, although doubt it makes up for spending most of the last six months on my rump hunched over books.
In the next posts I’ll attempt a quick precis of the key events in the story of Charles IIs adventures at Boscobel.