First off, I’m sorry – I’m about to do something that my friends would tell you, I do often in private, but this time I’m doing it publicly. I’m going to misquote a song lyric. The whole reason why I’m doing it is because it amuses me deeply and because I know that the inspiration for this article is well known for meddling with songs to amuse people (or exasperate them…) so here goes. (For the original wonderful piece of music check here for my preferred version)
Close to St George’s Hill
A long haired man they called M Ward
Came to trace the people’s will
He tried to defy the landlords
He chose not to deny the laws
He was most displeased
And intend to reclaim what was lost!”
Before I go on Dear Reader, I best quickly make two points – Politically I am left wing and one of my greatest passions is folk music.
So where did this post come from? What is the kernel which it formed around? As with most things I’ve ever written it came from a fairly common conversation with a friend/colleague. I believe we had been discussing the follow up to another project that I had got my friends involved with and the narrative drifted and zig zagged as it tends to, until we came to discuss a moment in the life of the marvellous Matthew Ward of History Needs You.
Having been doing a talk about a mile away and on route to another engagement, Matthew decided to visit a site of great importance to himself personally and of equal importance to the Meta Narrative of English History, Left Wing Political History and to Global history – St George’s Hill, Weybridge. I’m going to dart off in to the history of the site, to give some needed context to the story. Bare with me reader, passions may be about to be inflamed.
A fairly clear explanation of what occurred is provided by The Surrey Digger’s Trail – “The Diggers first broke the ground on St George’s Hill on 1st April 1649 as they set out to make the earth a ‘common treasury for all’. The Hill is the place usually associated with their project and ideas, and it is from here that their influence, and the practice of Digging, spread to many parts of England.” The route of this movement however requires some deeper exploration. “The Diggers”, a Gerald Winstanley and his followers would quickly be known, were a group of working class individuals (technically labouring classes) who chose, in defiance of “The Masters”, to begin to plant and grow crops on common ground, the intention being to become self sufficient and to retain control of the produce they toiled over. After 5 months however, a court case would force the Diggers from St George’s Hill – the idea and the dream they had however wouldn’t be so easily crushed. They had come with one aim – “to make the land a common treasury for all” (I encourage you all to read more in to The Diggers and the Wigan born Cow Herd (Gerald Winstanley) who would lead them.)
It comes now to the modern day and to the story we previously mentioned that inspired this post. Matthew Ward, between appointments, felt the understandable urge to stand on the site where The Diggers had made their stand back in 1649. Now alas, we get to the crux of the issue – St George’s Hill is now occupied by…. a golf course. Not to be deterred and expecting it to be quite a common occurrence for the owners, to be presented with curious individuals or groups wishing to see the site, feel the earth beneath them and bask in the knowledge of what went before. Alas, Matthew was to be confronted with an entirely different greeting. The greeting came from a robustly built gentleman, in a dark suit.
“Hello Sir how can we help?”
“I’d like to pop in and have a look at the site The Diggers claimed, on St George’s Hill.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Well no, I’m on my way between appointments and as I was close I thought I’d pop by.”
“Unless you are a member or you have appointment you can’t come in.”
“Because those are the rules.”
Matthew relayed that he asked if he could make an appointment and was told he needed to call or email, when he asked if he could have the details he was told to check the website. Returning to his car, Matthew began to check the website as instructed, only to be hailed by the Gentleman in a Dark Suit with a tapping on the car window.
“I’m just checking the website.”
“You can’t do that here. You need to leave!”
“You haven’t got an appointment”
“Can you please leave sir….”
“I’m just setting my satnav up if you don’t mind entirely!”
I am reliably informed that the Gentleman made a noise that sounded like “Hrumph” – Matthew, for anyone lucky enough to know him, has a remarkable sense of humour. It would prove to be spot on during this encounter as he began to write a tweet to express his displeasure, he noticed the time; 4:45 pm. Matthew decided to wait for four minutes…. posting his tweet of displeasure at 16:58…
So what does this have to do with the wider issue of Heritage? This is one guy, denied access to one bit of land. What is the impact? Well the impact is enormous and this is the perfect example.
Heritage belongs to everyone, well on certain levels. My heritage, my personal heritage is mine, my family heritage is equally mine but shared amongst my relatives, who we choose to that with is our prerogative as family, as individuals. How we interact with our heritage is equally very personal. There is no denying this. However, when the site is of national importance, when that site or building is much larger than the sum of a single individuals memory then the rules change – St George’s Hill is not governed by the same rules as the shoe-box under my bed, with the family photos in. Sites such as St George’s hill are shared, they are “common ground.” But then again, in this day and age, that common ground may also be private property.
The problem described above, of shared heritage becoming private property, is not going to be one that is easily solved – building’s don’t simply repair themselves, landscapes don’t simply retain their natural elements, heritage cannot preserve itself and equally preservation, required for the longevity of our physical heritage, costs money. I won’t write here that all museums, stately homes, visitor centres etc should be free at the point of access. I can’t. Why? Because I’m a realist. I work in a heritage site, a building to be precise, and it needs care, it needs attention and it needs to be heated. It requires lights, otherwise it’s a bit dark, it requires gas because otherwise, it’s a tad cold. It requires water because otherwise it wouldn’t be deeply unsanitary. At the end of the day, money makes the world go round and heritage cannot be spared from that mechanism.
The National Trust, English Heritage, Historic England and many other organisations rely on charitable donations, legacies, membership fees and the sale of paraphernalia in their gift shops, to keep afloat, to pay for repairs and to make sites accessible and to cover the cost of interpretation. That is unavoidable but equally their mission statements are all aimed at sharing and revealing the rich narrative of our shared heritage (I won’t go on about what I dislike about some of these organisations, that will be another blog post) However, despite the inevitable cries of “How much?!” when it comes to access, you can still gain access. You can still walk in the footsteps of the “Great and Good” or indeed the ordinary individuals not born on satin sheets. This is not the case with all sites as has been shown in the above anecdote.
I am not going to sit here and write a manifesto stating that the only way forward is to claim all private property and restore it to the hands of the populace – sometimes these sites are people’s homes, their private heritage. They choose to allow access, sometimes through schemes such as “Heritage Open Days” and this should be celebrated, thanks should be given and respect as well, in equal measure. Equally, those who become custodians of Heritage, those who buy the land and settle on it should equally take a moment to consider their actions and responses to request to access heritage. If you, by chance, end up owning a site of huge national importance, do you have the right to refuse access? Of course you do! It’s private property, on a legal standpoint you’re absolutely entitled to preserve the privacy of private property. Morally however? It’s a different story.
You are buying in to the narrative of this country, this world. The people who have been born on that site, loved on that site. breathed that air and walked that ground. You are the custodian of a site that perhaps means something incredibly important to someone, they have a strong emotional or spiritual connection to that space, that place. How would you feel if someone denied you access to something you cared about? Something that made You; You? Imagine that is the shoe-box with the photographs in, of school, of friends and lost loved ones, of silly moments and sad ones, happy memories and bemusing ones. Imagine now, that someone has that box in their hands and they are refusing to allow you access? The pain that could bring.
Sites such as St George’s Hill, now an exclusive Golf Club, are always going to be contentious but there is compromise. Respect for the intentions of those seeking their heritage should co-mingle with the respect shown to the owners. If someone wants to access a service, exclusive to members, then they should pay. If someone simply wants to wander, without causing harm or damage, then equally this should be allowed. Churches and Cathedrals may charge for a guided tour, but then they wave such a fee for those who wish to visit simply to worship. There is a middle ground, finding it and forming a relationship of respect and access for specific purpose is surely the way forward.
Let us take a moment to breath and make this land, a common treasury for all.