on history

In Wigton last Tuesday I learnt that it is about to celebrate its 750th anniversary as a market town. I am really looking forward to it but I have to confess I find Wigton in 1262 a place foreign in almost every conceivable way. In 1262 most of the people spoke a dialect heavily influenced by northern German.  The lord of Wigton would have worn chain-mail, spent much of his day prancing and practising with his sword and lance while speaking Norman French. Some saw it as part of Scotland. Others – who spoke almost pure Norse –  would have been more aware of the sea connections to the Isle of Man, the Orkneys, Ireland and Scandinavia. 1262, therefore, relates to us hardly more than the palaeolithic rhinoceros excavated in Bloomsbury relates to us.

The hundred thousand man hours and the miles of sweat and pain that dragged those great boulders across the fells, the endless, repeated rituals and sacrifices enacted on and around Long Meg and her sisters, feel more alien still. King Arthur’s roundtable feels only like a suburban lawn beside a roundabout at Eamont Bridge; and the deep, secret hollow of Mayburgh Hedge echoes with the roar of the M6.  Long Meg has become nothing more, perhaps, than a place to walk the terrier on a sunny spring afternoon.

Often, therefore, history can feel like little more than a gimmick, or marketing slogan.  As when, for example, we etch two thousand year old sheep-counting numerals (yann, tann, tethera…) on the glass door of a conference suite; or when a broadband group cheerfully skates over centuries of cross-border brutality by calling itself Rory’s Reivers. Thus we tame the terrifying and mysterious past: domesticate it like a lion in a provincial zoo.  But historical traditions still live, hidden often in the most unexpected places, such as our schools.

Our secondary schools hardly seem places of deep history. Each is now modern, state-funded, and stamped with contemporary curricula and teaching methods.  In Appleby, design students are learning about pricing, bar codes and inventory management; in Nelson Thomlinson there are excellent training laboratories for teachers; in Kirkby Stephen there are extraordinary musical performances; at Ullswater Community College there is a new and very vigorous student council.  Each has been transformed by generous investment over the last decade, and are making the most of new facilities and young teachers. Each looks far beyond Cumbria and has begun exchanges with schools in the developing world: Appleby with South Africa, Ullswater with Tanzania, QEGS with Uganda, William Howard also with Tanzania.

But each is built on very old foundations. In Appleby, the original chantry dates to the thirteenth century, and the current grammar school has a charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1574. Even the much younger school in Wigton was endowed by the Reverend Thomlinson in 1730. And just as a regiment in the army creates and preserves its own identity, or Parliament moulds MPs generation after generation, so too each school has developed its own historical momentum and culture. Even something as old as the Cumbrian church has no equivalent of the dense texture of teachers, and pupils, sports teams and choirs, which reinforce an identity through a five-day-a-week immersion, month after month, over hundreds of years. History is carried, deepened, developed and preserved by the personalities and inclinations of centuries of teachers and students.

Of course, I cannot tell which aspect of each school’s culture is ancient and which new. I am struck, for example, by the tidiness with which the children in Appleby stack their backpacks (or the fact that they can leave them all day outside lockers without any fear of theft, in a way very few southern schools could). And by the robust common-sense of the Head Teacher of Nelson Thomlinson, and her pragmatic, sceptical attitude toward bureaucratic paperwork, which was evident also in her predecessor.  But I am sure that there will be many other things which I missed – traditions which will be preserved in unexpected and subtle ways: in the culture of sport and study, the way in which children wear their uniforms, greet teachers, walk through the corridors, and in the balance between freedom and discipline.

These ingredients – subtle and hidden – are intensely important. Like any complex living organism, we appreciate their importance and their beauty most when they are gone. People in London now talk about our schools as some of the most outstanding in the country, just as they talk about our community broadband projects (such as the very impressive Northern Fells Broadband Group, which I met at Rosley yesterday); or our Big Society projects in Eden.  Such projects, however, owe their power not only to this generation but also to things given and shaped by previous generations: things that cannot always be replaced, replicated or even named. This is why we need to be so careful with a century-old institution like Newton Rigg. Not so much for the things we can see it doing today, or for the more obvious signs of its history such as its buildings, but because of all the identity, energy and resilience which comes from a living human tradition – and which lives more strongly in an educational institution than anywhere else.

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