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Saturday, 19 November 2011


 British topographical postcards from the 1920s-1930s

“Among the smaller islands there is one of fair size that is now called the Isle of Man. There was a great controversy in antiquity concerning the question: to which of the two countries should the island properly belong? Eventually, however, the matter was settled. All agreed that since it allowed poisonous reptiles to live in it, it should belong to Britain.
Gerald of Wales (12th century monk)

If Francis Frith had died in Egypt he would still be remembered as one of the great 19th century photographers of ancient ruins, but what he considered his masterwork usually gets overlooked. Returning from Egypt in 1859 he opened a studio in Surrey with the intention of photographing every town and village in Britain. When he died in 1898 his mission was incomplete but the studio was one of the most important in Europe and at various times employed more than 20 photographers to carry out the work. Coincidentally, James Valentine and George Washington Wilson had similar ideas and when the real photo postcard emerged at the turn of the century the Frith and Valentine companies in particular had enormous archives to draw on. By that time Britain was the most thoroughly photographed nation in the world and there was scarcely a hillock or a turn in a country lane that hadn’t been documented. Aesthetically speaking, most of the topographical postcards are merely interesting, and only then to people with a particular fascination in the time or place. But they deserve a closer look. The photographers did not consider themselves folklorists or historians yet their work coincided with the first serious attempts to collect British folklore and what they photographed in the landscape often corresponded to the folklore – ruined castles, desolate moors, ancient places enveloped with an alternative history.

These days ghosts are big business for British tourism, which has inevitably cheapened their value. Because the photographers were working towards commercial sales they understood the value in atmosphere and often the topographical photos have that gloomy ambience associated with Britain’s other world. Anyone who has read M. R James, especially stories like A Warning to the Curious, will appreciate the photograph of Greenan Castle above. “Well, at the top of my little hill, a line of these firs strikes out and runs towards the sea, for there is a ridge that goes that way; and the ridge ends in a rather well-defined mound commanding the level fields of rough grass, and a little knot of fir trees crowns it. And here you may sit on a hot spring day, very well content to look at blue sea, white windmills, red cottages bright green grass, church tower, and distant martello tower on the south.” This is just the place where a hapless scholar would find himself up against ancient mysteries and his meddlesome ways would prove the death of him. Greenan Castle was built over an Anglo Saxon fort and is one of several ruins pinpointed as a possible location for Camelot.

The website for Yorkshire’s medieval Shambles boasts of  “great shops, cafes, restaurants and tourist attractions”, which is exactly what you don’t want if you are looking for its most famous resident, Margaret Clitherow. She was arrested for harbouring Catholic priests in 1586 and sentenced to die by suffocation. Whether this was more compassionate than other popular ways of dealing with heretics, burning at the stake or dismemberment, is a matter of opinion but it disguises an even darker aspect. Her husband, John, a Protestant and a butcher by trade, was also the city chamberlain, responsible for the jail where she was held as well as managing the expenses involved in executions. A convert to Protestantism but tolerant of her beliefs, he could have intervened had she called him as a witness. She refused to and on Good Friday that year a sharp stone placed was under her back then a heavy door placed on top of her and on top of that enough heavy boulders to crush her to death. Officially she is the first female Catholic martyr of the English Reformation, “Catholic” distinguishing her from the hundreds of Protestants executed under Mary I. 

Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire has at least two ghosts but between the 1480s and the 1560s it also had Mother Shipton living in a nearby cave, or it didn’t. Whether she actually existed is debatable. Her prophecies were not published until nearly a century after her death, in the middle of the English Civil War and at the height of England’s first real print culture. Thousands of tracts and pamphlets were published by dissidents for popular consumption and they were full of strange signs and omens. Sea monsters regularly washed up on the shores, bolts of lightning torched Puritan houses and the Devil turned up everywhere. The most famous prophecy Mother Shipton made about her own times concerned Cardinal Wolsey, a confidant of Henry VIII until the King wanted his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. Mother Shipton claimed Wolsey would see Yorkshire but never enter it, which was roughly accurate though it also first came to light in the 1640s, 110 years after Wolsey, last protector of the Catholic Church in England, died at Leicester  and who was in Puritan England an easy man to hate. Her prophecies make Nostradamus’ read like models of clarity. "Water shall come over Ouze Bridge; and a windmill shall be set upon a tower, and an Elm Tree shall lie at every mans' door." Well, it could be a prediction that one day water would be piped to York, if you wanted proof such an event had been foretold.

Devout Catholics may mutter darkly about the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII but for the rest of us it has meant that England and Wales are
dotted with ruins that have become a natural part of the landscape. In the 18th century it was fashionable for wealthy landowners to have a bit of faux classical architecture on the grounds. By the mid 19th the thing to show off was an actual ruin, all the better if it had once been part of an Anglo-Saxon or Norman church. Two things helped. One was that some minor nobles had fallen on hard times and were selling off their land fairly cheaply and the other was that Britain was at the beginning of a national revival of identity that would draw on everything from King Arthur to Boadicea, Richard the Lionheart, Agincourt, Celtic myths and the Elizabethan age. All of that is present in Buckfast Abbey. In the 14th century the monks ran one of England’s biggest businesses exporting wool to Europe. This might look like a typical Medieval church but construction on it started in 1906 and ended in 1937. Before that it was a ruin, destroyed during the dissolution. In the late 19th century the owner of the land decided to sell it to a religious organization. A group of Benedectines picked it up for £4000.

 It’s hard to think of another nation that has celebrated the violence and depravity of its past with such enthusiasm, but England doesn’t hold a candle to Scotland in that department. North of the border the landscape is more hostile, the weather more extreme and the supernatural beings that lurk on the moors uglier and more vicious. Revenge can be stretched out over generations. On the morning of February 13, 1692, members of the Campbell clan who had been staying with the MacDonalds in Glencoe rose from their beds and began murdering their hosts. 38 were killed in the house and some forty others died from exposure in the mountains or were killed later. Needless to say, dead MacDonalds haunt Glencoe pass but so too do the ghosts of wandering Vikings, not to mention the various zoological misfits like changelings and shape-shifters that make day to day living up here even more difficult.

The battle of Culloden Moor was a minor event in the long scheme of things; it lasted less than an hour though it was followed by weeks of hunting down and killing rebels. The landscape is scattered with memorials. Some thirty Scottish Jacobites were said to have been burnt to death by the Duke of Cumberland’s soldiers at Culloden cottage, the Duke ate breakfast then directed the battle on the Cumberland stone and clan leader Alexander MacGillivray was killed at the Well of the Dead. In 1881 Duncan Forbes, owner of the estate, erected the cairn and several other memorials and restored other landmarks, all with a strong sympathy towards the highlanders. His ancestor at the time of the battle, also Duncan Forbes, had been avowedly anti-Jacobite.

Of all the haunted castles in Britain, Edinburgh is claimed to have the most ghosts, including a veritable orchestra of pipers, drummers and disembodied voices. This is scarcely surprising given the number of people who met violent ends inside its walls. Mary Queen of Scot’s husband Lord Darnley, various members of the Douglas clan including one woman accused of witchcraft and two chiefs, a fistful of nobles who were knifed, garroted or stabbed by a family member and innumerable and un-named soldiers and civilians caught up in various attacks upon it. Whatever the photographer was thinking when this photograph was taken, you know that dark deeds took place in the building on the hill. Down below in the slums around Grassmarket, William Burke and William Hare murdered 17 people and sold their bodies to an anatomist in the 1820s. That doesn’t sound surprising, nor somehow that these days there is a strip club in the Grassmarket called the Burke and Hare.


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