Tag Archives: England

Turn Back Time – The High Street

The historic marketplace, with the Market Cross

Shepton Mallett, the setting for The High Street (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just watched this fascinating programme on BBC iplayer. Beginning with the 1870′s, each episode takes a look at the culture of the British High Street through the ages. Set in Shepton Mallet, four shops have been transformed into historic themed shops. I’m a big fan of hese ‘history brought to life’ programmes, even if some people sniff about them not being realistic or being cheap.

Of course we all know pretty well that the old British High Street has taken something of a hammering since the advent of the supermarket and out of town shopping. This isn’t necessarily all bad, but it is impossible not to think that shopping in an old school High Street might have been a lot more pleasant than battling your way through the endless supermarket aisles. And not only in terms of shopping, but in terms of community, the High Street was important to life. Its a fascinating glimpse into ways of life that have all but disappeared – how female members of the family would never work in the front of house, how most shopkeepers would routinely deliver items at no extra charge (beating online shopping by a clear century), and how Victorian Butchers would display their wares on the outside of their shops – something that Environmental Health curtails nowadays.  

It was interesting to see how the various traders fared. The Grocers learnt to be flexible, to adapt to what they did or did not have in stock, and to deliver. The Baker struggled to begin with, but fared better after compromising quality for economy – clearly the Victorian consumer was not bothered overly if their bread was fluffy or white enough, but just wanted something to eat at a decent price. The Butcher struggled with modern sensibilities about what exactly goes into sausages, and in trying to sell every part of a pig. Even though we still eat most of the body of an animal nowadays, we have a naive ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude – people were really not used to seeing a carcass being Butchered in front of them. And the Ironmonger struggled to sell to customers, but spent most of his time servicing the other shopkeepers.

Lets take a quick look at Portsmouth High Street. The main thoroughfare in the town, it was an extremely fashionable place, and was described by conteporaries during the nineteenth century as ‘ranking among the finest streets in London’. You could purchase telescopes, barometers, books, miniatures, clothes, and also the usual fare such as food and drink. Everyone would have known each other, and the shopkeepers all moved in the same circles, and lived above their shops. Charpentier’s 1840 guide to the High Street even included a full length panorama of the street, showing each shop and house. On market day in particular you could have walked the length of the street and picked up everything that you needed, and also nearby you had a host of pubs, inns, hotels, coffee shops, banks, the Parish Church and of course the Town Hall and Market House in the middle of the street. Its not difficult to see how communities are more disjointed without this kind of hub.

I’m not sure if it was really necessary to have the annoying bloke from masterchef as the presenter, but thankfully he doesn’t rear his shiny head or open his mouth too often.

Future episodes will focus on the Edwardian, Wartime Britain, the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s; and its that change through time that I’ll be interested to see. The BBC is also running a ‘Hands on History’ campaign tied in with the programme, encouraging viewers to find out more about their High Street. That’s the beauty of a programme like this – it could apply to any High Street in any town in the country.

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The Forest by Edward Rutherfurd

I’m a big fan of Edward Rutherfurd‘s style of historical fiction (London, New York), and also of the New Forest. So I’m not really sure how its taken me so long to pick this book up.

In terms of historical and geographical spread, writing this book must have been a more trying task than one would imagine. The New Forest is simply full of so many towns, villages, hamlets, streams, rivers, hills, trees, and all manner of other features. The shipyard at Bucklers Hard, the dense forests, the port of Lymington, the heathland… and there are so many ancient customs peculiar to the New Forest that are simply mind-boggling – verderers, agisters and pannage to name but a few. But Rutherfurd manages it very well – and a credit to the New Forest Museum in his acknowledgements suggests how far the author has gone in his research.

Some chapters are stronger than others. The opening chapter focusing on William Rufus and Walter Tyrrell sets the scene convincingly, and the Jane Austen style chapter on the Georgian era New Forest is also well crafted. Other chapters do feel as if they are marking time, but it is always inevitable that some chapters will be more pivotal than others.

I have always enjoyed the technique of following a small number of families through generations, as it allows us to see how societies and classes change over time. And social history is something that Rutherfurd does very well too – we can sense the conventions of Norman Britain, the growth of a merchant Class in the fifteenth century, and the quaint world of Georgian England. Social History in fictions- needs to feel right, and this something that many authors neglect.

I enjoyed this book very much, and I am sure that anyone who has squelched through peaty bogs, tramped over heathland and battled through gorse and bracken will nod with warm agreement with what they find evoked here.

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