A day out at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall
My longstanding interest in the Vikings whether historical or in miniature meant the Vikings exhibition at the NMMC in Falmouth was a must see! Because of the distance it meant little time to see the rest of the museum although we found time for the cafe funnily enough. Walking through the museum I did like the Viking inspired decoration of the learning area.
The Vikings in Cornwall
Most people think of the raids on the North East coast, York and Alfred burning the cakes when Vikings are mentioned. However, they really got around and that included Devon and Cornwall. The Great Army burnt down Exmouth in Devon where I live and some residents think they should do so again! In Cornwall there is evidence of settlement and trading which the exhibition included. The combination of interpretation, reconstruction and objects really brought this out clearly I thought.
Vikings – raiders or traders?
This argument has a long history and I’ve encountered it since university days in the late 1970s. Coincidently this same argument applies to the Homeric world of the Iliad and Odyssey which I studied in the context of ancient banditry but that’s one for another blog.
I liked the way the exhibition clearly brought out both sides of Viking life. The combination of the large clear interpretation panels and related objects was excellent. Being able to handle objects was good too. My mother was amazed at the weight of a mail shirt and said being able to touch it really helped imagine it in use.
Including weapons and slave fetters illustrated the dark side of Viking life. Backed up with DNA research showing how many Icelanders are descended from Irish women taken as slaves. The Irish connection was well documented in the exhibition too.
Trading ship Walrus
My favourite part of the exhibition was the recreated Viking trader the Walrus. Visitors are allowed on this boat which was both fun and informative. Moving about on the deckspace really made both of us appreciate the skill and courage needed for sailing shallow draft ships on the high seas.
Speaking with a well informed volunteer about how the ship was made at the NMMC and finding out more about some of the recreated objects was really interesting. I didn’t know that the Vikings used hazel as barrel hoops which makes perfect sense in terms of time and resources. After all splitting hazel is quicker and cheaper than making iron hoops.
How the Vikings made things was a really strong theme in the exhibition. From nails for ships to rigging from intestines there was enough information to appreciate how preindustrial societies relied on skills, crafts, time and effort. I also learnt that saws were not used but a broad headed axe provided a means of splitting wood into planks.
No, not some form of dark undead from the Sagas but women and children. Another strength of the exhibition was including women and children in the interpretation and the objects on display. A lovely object was a child’s toy boat and imaging it being played with really brought the past closer. Having a reconstructed trader’s booth with a female mannequin was a nice bit of trading interpretation. The clothes worn were plainer than often shown which seems sensible as the cost of fine clothes with tablet stitch decoration would make plainer working clothes more practical.
As you leave the exhibition
I enjoyed the display of modern items inspired by the Vikings. Everything from films to comics, toys to the Rover badge. A good assortment of souvenirs were in the shop although I didn’t buy anything. Most of the items were very reasonably priced as well which is always good to see.
Three men and a Viking boat
By odd coincidence a week after visiting the exhibition I was at Legionary, the Exeter Games Show, talking to a friend and a trader about Viking ships.
Two ancient monuments; two interpretative approaches
Stonehenge has featured in my life since childhood when you stopped by the road and had a walk around the stones. Over the years the stones have become more remote – many friends had vehicles wrecked in 1985 prior to the fences going up. So a visit to the latest visitor centre was a must do. Followed by a more traditional visit to Woodhenge.
Stonehenge visitor centre
The new visitor centre took me by surprise. I thought it was a winter cattle shed from a distance so it definitely fits into the landscape in my view!
After parking and heading to pick up tickets I had to agree with my friend’s view that it was like a London attraction. New and shiny, queues, lots of people milling about on organised tours and strict visiting times for seeing the monument.
I was looking forward to seeing the recreated Neolithic huts but sadly they were not finished. My friend had cut the willow used in the hut roofs and that made a good ice breaker. We had a chat with three of the team working on the huts, including some comments only cynical heritage professionals could make which I won’t repeat here!
The huts are different types drawing on the rich archaeology roundabout Stonehenge. One thing learnt was that the floor should be rammed last of all and left for a couple of weeks to set. Otherwise final building work will tear it up.
We started with the exhibition and I immediately warmed to it. You enter a oval room with opposed entrances and a film playing on each wall. The film tells the story of Stonehenge simply and engagingly, and most importantly briefly. Despite the brevity many people only paused, glanced and moved on. Whether seating would increase dwell time I’m not sure. This very short time spent by visitors turned into a feature of the day.
I really enjoyed the main exhibition and felt it had a good mix of modern and traditional approaches. Another longer film with short detailed sequences covered the modern. There was plenty to see in the way of finds in the cases alongside reconstructed items. I found the captions nice and clear and liked the way other museums were signposted.
Being a hopeless bibliophile I loved the small room containing manuscripts of works about Stonehenge. Having seen so many of these works referred to over the years it was great seeing the manuscripts themselves. Having them in a simple room with a curved door was a good decision too I thought.
To Stonehenge by land train
I really disliked the time allocated trip by land train. It made me feel just another commercial unit to be managed through the visit process, and the diesel from the vehicles can’t do much for English Heritage’s carbon footprint!
On arrival the walk round the stones behind a barrier with “no entry” signs had a surreal quality. While preserving the monument you are too far away to engage the imagination as you don’t appreciate the size and physical mass of the stones. Again people were not pausing but seeming to treat it as an item waiting to to tick off on their culture list.
I really enjoyed trying to take photos of the jackdaws who were enjoying having the stones to themselves. They were also walking up to the barrier and inspecting visitors in the curious way jackdaws do! The corvid theme continued meeting a very tame crow at the land train stop. We walked back to the visitor centre and it was much more atmospheric than the land train, despite a very cold shower!
The visitor centre gift shop was next and even the tat was quite expensive. I got some chocs for colleagues and a tea towel for myself. The cafe prices convinced us to try a friendly pub in nearby Amesbury.
Back to the past at Woodhenge
Our first impression of Woodhenge was the calm after the storm. As many dog walkers as visitors with full access to the site. We also had a wander around Durrington Walls opposite.
The interpretation was old school, with the posts marked by concrete bollards and coloured tops relating to a metal plaque. What we liked was you could make your own experience as opposed to feeling processed through a visitor experience factory like at Stonehenge.This was partly reaction but we both when young had enjoyed exploring ancient monuments and using our reading about the past to bring them to life ourselves.
Joining it all up
One feature of the new face of this landscape I thought was really well done was the uniform interpretation boards. The same style is used and the same graphics making it very easy to place yourself in relation to other features. The style carries through to the map on the Stonehenge leaflet.
Overall while I thought the exhibition and recreated huts were well done I was less struck by the sausage factory approach to visiting Stonehenge itself. Perhaps I belong with the 18th Century romantics in the exhibition!
Talking digital heritage
Last Monday the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office celebrated their 60th anniversary with a Future of Heritage conference at Plymouth’s Guildhall. I was invited to talk about digital heritage and with the promise of a celebration cake needed no further inducement!
Went the day well?
A good variety of speakers and a not overly local focus made the day interesting for locals and visitors alike. We did have problems with the venue’s acoustics – probably the first time people couldn’t hear me!
A display of documents and images from the city records was added interest. I enjoyed the display of photos of Plymouth’s transport over the decades.
One thing that stood out was referring to records as the raw material of history. A good phrase capturing an important concept.
I spoke about the practically of heritage data and communications via digital platforms. I focussed my talk by quoting the title of Nick Poole’s fine blog post on digitisation and it’s merits.
At the end of the day as well as catching up with Plymouth based colleagues Louisa presented me with a card and a limited edition Toblerone. I’d never had a tangible thank you for speaking before so it was a lovely surprise!
The celebration cake was very good and we all liked the archives theme to it!
A fruity hill fort?
While planning my trip to Blackbury castle I was amused to see in a recent AA walks book it is referred to as Blackberry Castle. However, it is called Blackbury Castle by English Heritage so that must be the right name!
One of the nice things about Blackbury Castle is it is well signposted from the main road at Branscombe Cross. For a good day out in fair weather a walk around the surrounding area ending with a picnic at the hill fort is hard to beat. On a less clement day lunch at the Mason’s Arms in Branscombe is a good Plan B!
Oh fog it!
I picked the wrong day for this trip. When I left home it was reasonably clear at sea level and I hoped it would brighten up later. Optimism was no match for Autumn in East Devon as I found out on hitting thick fog after Sidmouth. I was impressed how many drivers of silver cars thought having no lights on was a good idea…
Could you see it though?
On arrival the fog had lessened and created atmosphere rather than obscuring the hill fort. As I walked around the hill fort pondering its odd flattened D shape the fog steadily lifted. Less atmosphere but more to see. There is a rather attractive monochrome interpretation panel by the car park with a potted history of the hill fort. It was briefly occupied in the Iron Age, well for two centuries anyway.
This site is famous for its “barbican” entrance. Despite excavation in the 1950s it is still not clear whether this was built to impress, made for practical reasons as a paddock for stock, or an attempt to extend the hill fort. Excavation showed there was a single impressive timber built entrance on the south side possibly with a gate house including a tower – the three other modern entrances are just that by the way.
Another quirk of this place is that the central area is domed in shape as can be seen from either side of the D.
And there’s more?
One of the pleasures of this site is there are plenty of footpaths around it. These range from lanes to footpaths to permissive paths. There’s a good circular walk to be had from Devon’s most rebellious town, Colyton, to Blackbury Castle. Probably best done on a dryer day though!