Stepping Into History
Groups who enjoy trips with a heritage theme frequently add depth to their visits by adding a talk or a tour from an expert guide. Val Baynton talks to GTOs of two historical groups to find out more about their experiences.
Throughout Britain there are many club and societies in both urban and rural communities whose members share a passion for the past – for archaeology, decorative arts and crafts, architecture, religion, social history, science and much more. These historical societies and museum groups whilst having a particular focus on understanding the specific evolution and achievements of a locality, also like to discover the heritage of places further afield. To learn more about these types of trip we find out from two organisers – John Lovelock of the Hedgerley Historical Society and Ruth Lankester from the Friends of Kingston Museum – about their experiences of stepping into history. National organisations such as English Heritage run an event programme giving access for small groups of its members to places, experts and experiences that are not available to the general public, and we take a brief look at the types of trips they offer in combination with the Churches Conservation Trust.
Exploring Village Life
John Lovelock is secretary of the Hedgerley Historical Society and organises a full programme of events including talks and day trips for members. He’s coordinated the programme for 10 years and the core of activity for the Buckinghamshire based society is the monthly talk in the Memorial Hall. This covers subjects from those with a local connection such as nearby villages like Harefield, craftsmen including Ambrose Heal – founder of Heals in London – to a more worldly perspective such as a ‘History of Peru’ or even the ‘Secret Life of Space’. Interspersed with the talks are special events and visits affording members the chance to explore at first hand houses, gardens, villages and towns – some of which they may already have learnt about in the talk programme.
In recent years the group has enjoyed many guided walks around the county’s towns and villages including Gerrards Cross, Cookham, Stoke Poges and Chesham. ‘I will normally book a guided tour by a local historian as this enables us to discover so much more about the place,’ John says. In Gerrards Cross, for example, they were treated to a tour from historian Julian Hunt whilst the Cookham tour was themed ‘In the footsteps of Stanley Spencer’ and was led by Spencer enthusiast, Stephen Palmer. ‘This tour was fascinating,’ John adds, ‘we visited many of the places connected to this famous artist who lived in the town for most of his life, and who was inspired by his fellow residents and the landscape of Cookham for many of his paintings.’ As normal for such events, members travelled by car, sharing lifts with others in the group.
‘A number of our trips are at weekends or in the evening because many of us work, but this often has the benefit of enabling us to experience the attraction out of hours and we are able to see a lot more,’ John explains. This was the case for the society’s evening visit to Hughenden Manor – the High Wycombe home of 19th century Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, and where secret mapping operations were carried out during World War Two and for the group’s regular visits to Bekonscot Model Village & Railway – the world’s oldest and original model village. Another model village the group enjoys visiting is at Pendon Museum, Long Wittenham near Abingdon – as it’s indoors it’s suitable to visit whatever the weather! The models reflect scenes from the English countryside as it was in the 20s and 30s.
Recruiting New Members
John has been instrumental in increasing membership of the society from 50 in 2007 to some 215 members today. ‘I’ve got a good relationship with local free magazines such as Hiya Bucks, who give me a page every month to promote events and talks.’ He’s found that inviting good quality speakers to give the monthly talks is key to retaining and recruiting members – who then sign up for trips. John explains more, ‘I keep an eye out for recently published historical books so I can invite the author along, but I am also quite cheeky in contacting people directly and find this can pay dividends. We’ve had two talks from Paul Atterbury, known for his appearances on the BBC Antiques Roadshow – and his presentations on Railway History and Cruise Liners were very well received. I also managed to contact Phillipa Langley, who masterminded the project to find Richard III’s body in Leicester’s city centre car park, and found she was available at short notice whilst she was on a visit to London. She was pleased to come along and her talk was attended by over 100 people – which led to several new members for the group.’ John enjoys his organising role and the research involved in creating an interesting programme each year. He adds, ‘I am keen to put something back into the community and the pleasure members receive from a talk or an outing and their infectious enthusiasm makes it all worthwhile.’
Members of the society have asked for more outings so John has been researching new ideas for the 2017 to 2018 programme and has included visits to Milton’s Cottage in Little Chalfont, an afternoon tea cruise on the Thames with French Brothers and a visit to Cardiff on GWR. John adds, ‘I attended the GO Travel Show at the London Stadium, which gave me several new ideas and I also apply for tickets for selected readers events offered by the magazine such as the London Boat Show.’
Hedgerley Historical Society
Hedgerley Historical Society was founded in 1976 coinciding with an archaeological dig in the Buckinghamshire village – which encouraged local residents to become more interested in the village’s recent as well as more distant past. The first chairman was Harry Kirby and the initial talk programme resulted in a History of Hedgerley being published in 1980. John Lovelock moved to the village in the early 1990s, and joining the society in 1992 was soon on the committee. He led a project during the Millennium to create a Parish Map – a visual record of the village’s buildings.
Discovering the Past
Ruth Lankester has been organising outings for the Friends of Kingston Museum for about 10 years. She took on the role as she has always enjoyed exploring new places on trips organised by the Friends and by other groups, and felt it was an opportunity to help other people enjoy outings too. The Friends trips usually have a historical theme and can be to a variety of destinations including museums, castles or towns. ‘We particularly like to visit museums or attractions that have recently been redeveloped and we also like to go to places that are difficult to reach by public transport,’ Ruth explains. The outings are intended to be sociable and so friends and family of members are always welcome and, sometimes, Ruth extends the trip to other local organisations to ensure the coach is full. Ruth uses Surrey based coach company GT International as they are reliable, friendly, and always helpful and she arranges for pick-ups in four different places in Kingston as the borough is quite spread out. The coaches are well equipped and have on-board toilets, which saves factoring in ‘rest stops’ that can be time-consuming on a busy day out.
Recent trips have included the Mary Rose at the Historic Dockyard, Portsmouth and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which have been extensively developed. ‘I find what works well for my group is to organise light refreshments on arrival along with an introductory talk from the curator or a specialist guide. This gives my members chance to relax after the journey and to understand the context of what they are going to see. Afterwards,’ she says, ‘members visit the attraction taking as long as they want to explore it, they can opt to eat in the venue’s restaurant or enjoy their own picnic lunch.’ If the visit is to a city such as Oxford, members are able to go into the town if they want to take the opportunity to explore more widely. Another successful outing was to the Amberley Museum and Heritage Centre, which explores the industrial past of the south east, charting the history of local industry and crafts. Set amongst former Chalk Pits in the South Downs National Park close to Arundel, Sussex its exhibits are diverse and include vintage buses and a Printing Workshop with historic print equipment.
Researching for Trips
Ruth likes to attend travel trade shows to find out more about the places she is planning to visit and to seek ideas for future trips. She recalls that at the first GO Travel Show London, held at the Copper Box at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, she was able to meet representatives from the City of Rochester Society. ‘This was really useful as we were already planning to visit the city in 2016 and through this contact I was able to plan the outing effectively. The Rochester Society Guides advised meeting at the Medway Visitor Information Centre and this was a really practical suggestion. The centre had information on hand, friendly staff and a café so members could relax for a while before the guides took us on a walking tour of the town, after which there was free time for lunch or to explore further. The information centre also houses the Huguenot Museum so it was an ideal rendezvous point.’ In the afternoon, the group went to Gad’s Hill Place, where the novelist Charles Dickens once lived, and had a very successful tour led by the enthusiastic staff from the independent school that’s now based there. ‘We also enjoyed a delicious cream tea,’ adds Ruth. Ruth finds meeting exhibitors face to face much more helpful than email communication, ‘you can find out so much more from this type of meeting, learning at first hand from the person’s experiences and gaining updates on recent developments. It also helps the exhibitor understand the needs and preferences of the group.’
Friends of Kingston Museum
The Friends group was formed in 1992 to support the work of the Kingston Museum and Heritage Service in promoting the Borough’s heritage to schools, residents and visitors. It is a Registered Charity and supports the work of the museum, which has no acquisitions budget. The museum’s collections include photography and equipment, such as the zoopraxiscope, bequeathed by pioneer Eadweard Muybridge who proved that a trotting horse has all four legs off the ground, and the Brill Collection of 74 topographical watercolour and pen and wash paintings, commissioned between 1955 and 1971 to record the changing landscape of the borough. In 1997, the Friends, led by John McCarthy relaunched the Brill Collection and aim to acquire at least three Brill paintings annually for the collection, The Friends organise a programme of talks as well as the outings.
Visiting England’s Historic Churches
One inspiring place for groups to visit to gain insights into the past, are the churches within the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) – a national charity protecting historic churches at risk. Currently the Trust’s collection of 347 churches includes irreplaceable examples of architecture, archaeology and art from 1,000 years of English history. The Trust has nearly 50 years of experience of protecting these buildings and groups who visit can book tours from expert guides, who are all leaders in their fields.
One organisation that regularly arranges tours for their members is English Heritage as part of their Members’ Events programme. The tours are designed to offer members access to places, experts or experiences, which are not available to the general public. The CCT tours are usually for 25 people and the behind the scenes tours include three churches in an area, with a pre-organised lunch stop with a CCT expert. To date, English Heritage Members’ tours have taken place in Wiltshire, Bristol, Herefordshire and Worcestershire and more locations and dates are planned.
Apart from the programme with English Heritage, CCT has a variety of themed ideas available for groups interested in aspects of the past – such as a two-day Monarchs, Merchants & Memorials tour taking in the medieval architecture of churches in Bristol and Gloucester with an overnight stay at Thornbury Castle or a one-day visit to Somerset to Remember the Somme. This tour marks the centenary of the battle and meanders through Somerset villages of Thurlbear, Stocklinch Ottersey and Langport looking at memorials to those who lost their lives in the war. To find out more contact www.visitchurches.org.uk.