Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Henry VIII Tour: how to make history die

I learnt about The Henry VIII Tour when looking online for guided tours of Portsmouth and found that the city council arranges tours every two weeks on Sunday afternoons around different topics. This weekend it was Henry VIII's turn.

The tour began with us assembling and paying for tickets. Many of us had already bought them in advance through the City Museum and D Day Museum, while one or two people bought them on the spot from the guide himself. It cost just £3 so was inexpensive and there were about 20 of us taking it all in all.  

The tour began with a history lesson. The guide read from notes and freely acknowledged the researchers who had done the bulk of the research on this topic some 30 to 40 years ago by consulting original documents from the time of Henry VIII, that is to say from the early 16th Century. The tour was presented as a history of the king's relationship with Portsmouth and it was told chronologically starting with the situation that he inherited from his father. 

As the first part of this story related to the size and nature of the British fleet the guide produced a book that had some illustrations of warships so that his talk had some images to relate to. It was unfortunate that the style of illustrations was a little like those in a children's book. This older man showing us childish pictures of warships was slightly ridiculous but also charming. 

After some time introducing the topic we moved from the Square Tower to the beach. The guide again read from his his notes and then added some observations of his own to them. This was to be the general format that the rest of the tour settled into. 

Something that was quite striking was that the actual spaces we passed through were strangely absent in the tour. By that I mean we saw many things that could have been brought into the frame of the tour if the tour was about the real geography of the location. I'm thinking, for example, about the Solent Guild of Woodcarvers who we passed besides and who were producing carvings with medieval designs. This made me see how this tour was developed as a text that served to impart historical research and had not been written in situ developing the historical information from what was already there on the ground. 

We came to the marina and here the subject matter turned to beer. At this point I realised there was another organising system to this tour, material had been put together according to topic as well as according to chronology. It had been written in such a way that these two orders of classification interrupted one another as little as possible but it was inevitable that within each topic there were some chronologies of their own. This meant that these two orders sometimes pulled in separate directions, added to which the order of the space imposed a quite separate logic again. The route we walked neither followed the Henry VIII chronology precisely nor did it wholly follow the thematic logic either. This meant that the guide was often left saying, "anyway..." and then throwing in some observations of his own, which at times added a new order of its own.   

We stopped at two churches and I learnt one rather interesting fact that was new to me. The city of Portsmouth was excommunicated for over 50 years following a visiting bishop being killed by an angry mob who demanded to be paid their wages. Add to this another little known story I heard about Queen Victoria who, when she visited the city was so upset by the population's indifferent reception that she had a new train line built so she could avoid the city and reach her Isle of Wight residence via a Gosport quayside instead. There is something of this unruly, iconoclastic history of the city that lives on today.

The structural problems of the Henry VIII tour notwithstanding, it was interesting to see a genuine local history tour given by a blue badge guide. I now realise that my approach to tours comes from a  completely different perspective: I prioritise form, structure and live presence whereas this tour was all about the content.

As well as this tour being useful general research on tours I took it to research the tours of Portsmouth as I would like to do something local. I now realise however that the city would be even more challenging than Stuttgart as there are very few tours on offer and not such a great a volume of tourists either. This was abundantly clear from the vacancies sign displayed outside this guest house near the sea front. A mid-summer weekend in which the city was bathed in warm sunlight and they still had vacancies. Well, it is either that the tourists are not coming in great numbers or, that this guest house "ALBATROSS" has chosen a particularly bad name for their establishment, the bird being a byword for a burden or curse.

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