Thursday, 24 July 2014

The People Behind the Plaques Tours: the famous and the forgotten

These two tours of Bath, one of the centre and one around the Royal Crescent, were based upon the historic plaques on the sides of buildings indicating who lived there. The idea was to understand more about these people, some of whom are well-known and others who have sunk into obscurity. 

These tours were organised by the Mayor's Honorary Guides who have been in existence for 80 years so they themselves are a bit of the city's history too. The two complimentary tours I went on were part of a week of one-off tours given to mark the guide's 80th anniversary. The guides do this for pleasure and neither ask for nor receive payment for showing visitors around the city. They are self-organising and seem to be mostly made up of older people who know their city and have the time to perform this role. 

The tour began with a map of plaques drawn up by the honorary guide's founder. It turns out that some of the plaques are not in the correct locations and some notables have more than one plaque, as they stayed in multiple properties. The group was led by no less than three guides who managed to share the work remarkably well. When I compare this with the Dalston Conservation Tour which was given by two guides speaking at cross purposes, this tour was wholly harmonious. Indeed, because this was a one-off tour and a significant number of the audience were themselves honorary guides, the spirit was more that of assisting and chipping in with information as and when it seemed relevant. It was also an opportunity for the guides to meet one another on a social level so it fulfilled this role and at the end I discovered it had a greater significance again. A well-respected honorary guide had planned this 'people behind the plaques walk' and he had passed away last year. These walks were a way to honour his memory by realising his proposed series of walking tours. In this way, there was a much deeper motivation behind giving these tours than most typical city tours, though this remained understated and the focus was very much on the plaques, people and their stories. 

A nice moment at the beginning was gaining access to the usually locked courtyard of Ralph Allen's city house. It was clearly a lost courtyard from the abundant weeds that were growing between the cracks in the paving slabs. While the story of the man was quite familiar to most, the location offered a new twist.

In general the plaques are made of bronze and were put up in the first half of the 20th Century. This one is an exception and is a more recent one. There are some complications around putting up new ones and some property owners do not want such plaques on their walls. This means that this record of the great and good is more or less fixed in time with history ending in the Victorian era. To compensate for this the guides did stop in front of some properties without plaques and talk about who had lived inside, which made for a balanced story but I should admit I was curious about the plaques themselves and what they connoted. Seeing as they reflect a historical idea of fame, which today equals celebrity, there may be some interest in testing these boundaries and sticking to the bronze plaques would do just that.

And there was a further type of modern plaque we came across, this blue circular affair for local legend Sally Lunn. I like the fact that most cities have one or two characters like this: they are a part of the story of the city and may indeed reach iconic status yet are completely unknown elsewhere. When you arrive you are told about them as if they are common knowledge and you have to take it all in faith. When you leave, you leave these personalities at the city gate, their significance lying solely in the city. As such, these figures offer quite some potential for invention and myth making.

Nelson's plaque was an interesting stop. I am familiar with him as the great naval commander who secured victory at Trafalgar at the cost of his life. This is the story that has been drummed into me since my childhood visits to HMS Victory. Indeed I'm still hearing it through my current research in South Dorset, which lies on The Trafalgar Way and was home to Hardy of “kiss me Hardy”. How refreshing it was then to hear another side of him, namely, Nelson the shameless rogue. In this way the tour managed to retain some interest in an overly famous person and it did so through taking the point of view of his wife who, it was said, he abandoned in Bath. 

The current life of the buildings on the Royal Crescent was not gone into at all as it is not yet plaque-worthy and that was a big question hanging over the tour for me, given my focus on the contemporary. The hotel behind was going about its highly-priced business and I heard on the bus tour yesterday that John Cleese was now living on the Royal Crescent. We occasionally saw someone enter or exit a door but they were like ghosts from the future who had no part to play in the tour. I had been interested a couple of years ago in making a performance about the usage of history in the present and on the basis of my observations in Bath so far I may be able to draw upon quite a number of that work's threads here. I like it when stalled ideas turn out to not be stalled at all but merely dormant, waiting for the occasion.   

The next plaques were located on the square at the end of the short road in the background. We didn't bother crossing the road and walking over there, however, and this indicated to me that the relationship between the stories and the precise locations was not that strong, it was more or less enough that these people lived in Bath but the exact building and how it looks today were for the most part irrelevant. This got me wondering whether it was necessary to make this walk at all if we weren't going to visit the precise locations referenced. I came the conclusion that it was necessary, not because the sites were significant to the storytelling but because this tour was a vehicle to bring people together in a series of attractive public spaces. It would be a very different event if it took place in a meeting room.

A final plaque and a short history of the postal service. I had never realised that Bath played an instrumental role in the setting up of the country's postal service and the city remains a stamp collector's paradise. It is definitely a niche interest but I suspect there must be a tour connected to the post service. That is a tour I will have to search out and report back on next.  

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