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Oral History

On the  8th and 14th of this month, at the invitation of Anne the assistant site manager, I went down to Aston Rowant NNR to help kick-start a project to celebrate the NNR’s 50th Anniversary. Inspired by previous NNR celebrations they planned to collect a few stories from local people, farmers and ex-site staff to illustrate the connections between people and the reserve.

It’s ironic, given that I have chosen to leave in August, that these two days now feature in my top ten days working, ever. To cut a long story short we recorded ex site managers on the reserve recalling sheep dipping, field observations and research plots. We took over the village hall and invited 12 elderly locals to tell us of their childhood collecting logs for the fire, extreme sledging  down the slopes and how initially access to the site was by permit only. We chatted to the vicar in the church about services held on the reserve and the local children’s Nature Club that visits the site regularly. We recorded poetry written about the site, went for a walk with the local naturalist who told us of glow worms and orchids. Several people mentioned the privilege of being able to visit, work  and enjoy such an amazing place especially Anne whose personal recollections about a seat dedicated to a volunteer who recently died was perhaps the most moving material we captured on video. We visited and sat drinking tea with three of the oldest farmers who told of the history of farming in the area, theories about chalk holes previously thought to be dew ponds and filled in the gaps in our timeline of wardens/site managers who have worked there.

The material we recorded is timeless, gets to the real heart of why people farm and why the natural environment is so precious to us, and in the strangest way made me want to live there and farm the land, the sorts of feelings I have never had before.

Our intention is to get ownership of the source material back into the local community (and of course our organisation), edit a short version of video highlights for the NNR celebration in July and at least plan the sort of inspirational and historical web based resource  this material could provide.

My greatest hope is that we can tell the stories we have collected to the children of the Nature Club, get them to tell (and record) their own stories of their visits to the reserve and get them to interpret it all for themselves as paintings, poetry and perhaps drama with the intention that we strengthen local community connections to the reserve and it perhaps inspires them to become the naturalists, farmers and our staff of the future.

Change Blindness

My intentions for this blog were initially quite simple – I wanted somewhere to pull all the connections together of things that were of interest to me and may be of some interest to others. As I searched for additions to my blogroll on the right I began reading all the latest research, ideas and comment and started to realise that there is so much that we still do not know and so much that we take for granted that is now thought to be wrong or at least misunderstood.

One such foray into the blogs led me to this paper on change blindness that starts with some amazing visual experiments, frightens you to death with a story about pilots on a simulator and leads to a conclusion that seeing might in fact be a form of knowledge like memory.

Tales from the tablets

Housesteads roman bath  I don’t think these roman baths were made for just one occupant.

Last year we decided to revisit the Housesteads and Vindolanda excavations that I had many times visited on school trips and never really appreciated. The ‘new’ display on the Vindolanda tablets quickly drew my interest when I realised that this was one of the earliest examples of a collection of anecdotes that gives us a much more real understanding of life in a roman garrison back in 100AD than the historians that have interpretted the past to meet their own preconceptions. 

This wonderful material, voted one of the most important archeological finds ever,  can now be browsed and viewed on its own website in what I believe is its entirity. 

My three favourite exerpts are: 

The Romans stationed up here used to call the locals ‘Brittunculi’ which is thought to be translated as ‘nasty little Brits’. 

Octavis, a soldier writes to his brother that he would already have collected the animal hides from Catterick “apart from the fact that the roads are so bad that I did not care to injure the animals”. The video showing in the museum comments how funny it is how the earliest ever reference to a roman road is about how bad it is. 

Masculus, a cavalry decurian writes “to Cerialis his king, greetings. Please, my lord, give instructions on what you want us to do tomorrow … my fellow soldiers have no beer. Please order some to be sent.” This must have been the main reason that there are so many working mens clubs in the North East.