Cathedral Close Salisbury

"A generation which ignores history has no past and no future."

Robert Heinlien

The role of history in modern life is all too often misunderstood or ignored as irrelevant. And yet the study and understanding of the subject is crucial to the future of society. Many, many lessons have been learned in the past but if we do not know them how can we learn from them?

A recent study by the History Society showed that many schools in the United Kingdom are reducing the study of history in their timetables to make way for more examinations and other subjects. Thirty one percent were merging history with geography and the lessons were used for developing 'thinking skills' rather than a knowledge of the subjects themselves.

I am lucky in that I had an excellent history teacher at school (thank you, Mrs Lashley) and both she and my parents made the past come alive for me. For me, history is exciting and dynamic.

I am also lucky in living where I do: in southern England. Here I can stand anywhere and think 'Who has stood here before?' To me, the time dimension is fascinating. This spot can be measured in terms of its location but I like to measure it in terms of time. That place on the ground has been in the same place for hundreds even thousands of years but there has been movement over that spot by an amazing variety of people.

Who has been here, where I stand?

Winchester Cathedral is a great example. Winchester was the capital city of the Anglo-Saxons and the bones of several of their kings are above the choir of the church. The present imposing cathedral was built between 1079 and 1093 next to the site of the earlier Saxon version. So I can stand in the 900-year-old doorway, touch the stones and think what kings and other significant personalities have been there before me.

Other visitors to the cathedral included Jane Austen (who is buried there), John Keats and, during the Civil War of the seventeenth century, the Parliamentary army which proceeded to destroy the west window. There is a good chance that most significant characters through the ages would have visited the cathedral at some stage, especially the kings and queens. Charles II was a particularly regular visitor. Other notable events there include the burial of William II (known as Rufus) after a notorious hunting accident in the New Forest, the coronation of Richard I in 1194 and the marriages of Henry IV in 1401 and Mary I who married Philip of Spain in the cathedral in 1554.

Winchester Cathedral by Peter Curbishley at Flickr

I recall a conversation I had at work on one occasion. My colleagues were saying how little had happened in the past in the area. I was able to point out to them that in fact I was aware of two stories regarding the immediate location where we were sat. The first was that of a young monk from Devon, Wynfrith, who was educated at a monastery nearby before leaving to become a missionary in 718. He travelled around Europe and is remembered in a great many places today. His name was St Boniface.

Also I was able to relate to them a story from the Civil War when two Parliamentary soldiers patrolling the area stopped and searched the cart and crate of a local labourer. The rustic man, armed with no more than a "prong and a good heart" is reputed to have beaten the soldiers senseless.

Perhaps the best people who represent history where you stand are archaeologists as they really do take a location and dig down to find evidence of exactly what has happened there in the past. It must be a delight to find something that was probably held by its owner centuries before. It would provide a link to that person.

But history does not exist purely in locations, it can be found in things, in artefacts. One particular interest on mine is books. Someone told me recently they only buy old second hand books, as he likes to feel the presence of the previous owners. He even buys a book and then lets it fall open so he can see what was their favourite page.

Returning to Winchester Cathedral, the church has an ancient library with some wonderful ancient books, one of which is the incredible Winchester Bible. This was written by hand (of course) between 1160 and 1175 and is inevitably kept behind glass. You can however lean close to the display case to read it and find yourself only inches from it. You really feel a power between you and the person who wrote it all those years ago.

I am gradually working on my own history of a local and ancient estate. Not only do I walk to the site and stand there, imagining all those who have passed that way before, but it also requires visits to various libraries. One such visit was to the Hampshire Records Office in Winchester. There I was allowed to examine various documents going back through history. On one occasion, for example, I had requested one file, the contents of which I knew would be of use but I was unsure exactly what they were. On receiving the cardboard file, I flipped open the flap at the front and pulled out the paper inside. I unfolded it and was amazed to see original deeds dated December 1787.

One of the most fascinating parts of my research has been learning about the personalities who lived on the site through the ages. One such person was George Anthony Wake who owned a large house on the estate during the mid nineteenth century. As it happens, George was also an amateur historian and left some of his notes and these are in the records office. At times I feel I am working with him in uncovering some of the mysteries of the site. He was also a bit of a poet and there are a couple of his creations in the collection. He would write in the summerhouse on the hill and there is a sketch of it in the file. The summerhouse is now gone but I know its location so I can go and sit on the hillside and see what George would have seen nearly 160 years ago.

A friend of mine, Kevin Browning, once wrote a passage, which, to me, defines the importance of history.

"Without the anchoring abilities of history we are doomed to drift into the future. If you do not know where you are coming from how do you truly know where you are going?"

An understanding of history links you to the many people who came before and the lessons they learned. I don't care where you are in the world, a great way to connect with history is to stand in one place and consider who was there before you. Or if you cannot do that, hold an antique, perhaps a book, and consider who had held it before.

Who has been here, where I stand?

"The greatest advances in human civilization have come when we recovered what we had lost: when we learned the lessons of history."

Winston Churchill

Door In Wardour Castle