House History, Historic Newspapers and other Research

Still overwhelmed by all the Who Do You Think You Are? fall out and contacts – over 1000 website hits now. My fame may even last until Wednesday when the next episode is shown! Time to leave behind the celebrity status and get back to the day job. Most of today was spent preparing a House History course for Clovelly Community Archive Association next month. I am wondering what possessed me to book quite so many talks for September. One of those ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ things.

I really need to write up the results of recent research commissions, so much history, so little time. Not that my latest research trip was an unmitigated success. Looking for an obituary in the local newspapers in a specific month should have been straightforward, shouldn’t it? Someone’s law dictated that the one page I needed had somehow escaped the scanning process. Do the Record Office hold the originals? The dreaded law strikes again – no. Whilst on the subject of old newspapers I should mention that I enjoyed looking at samples of old newspapers kindly sent me by Historic Newspapers. Seeing what happened on certain days in history helps to provide that all important context for family history. They also do teaching packs – always keen on anything that can help me encourage young people to take an interest in history. I can even give you a discount code should you want to order any – 15TODAY – they hold UK and US titles including some regional papers. Perhaps I should ask if they have my missing page!

Next research task involved looking at microfilm of some burial registers. I did notice one for the pre 1813 period that had a strange printed format, including columns for age, cause of death and parents’ names – just a shame that the incumbent hadn’t filled most of them in. Next, another burial register, totally illegible microfilm this time and yes you’ve guessed it, the originals are held elsewhere. Refraining from any tendency to seek out the nearest wall against which to bang my head, I moved on. Looking out some unusual Clovelly items including a list of the poorest inhabitants of Clovelly from the 1820s that will be interesting to transcribe. There are caustic comments against each name – even better. Did I bring my camera so I could photograph this? No. Can it be photocopied? No. Ah well better luck next time.

The History Interpreter Creates a Media Storm

Wow! I can’t claim that my blog post about ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ has gone viral but it certainly could be described as a mild indisposition. 444 views on the blog yesterday and people retweeting the link like mad. Thanks everyone.

Yesterday I nonchalantly sauntered to the family history section of a famous magazine distributors and leafed through the publications to see if my ‘Coffers, Clysters, Comfery and Coifs: the lives of our seventeenth century ancestors’ had been mentioned. This process would have been easier if I wasn’t encumbered by a large (that would be very large) carrier bag containing a boxed electrical item but I think I managed to keep it subtle. Pleasant review in Family Tree Magazine. So while I have the attention of the world, well at least some of it, buy the book guys, please – the pile is going down nicely but there are other things I could put in the place where the 20+ boxes are stored and I expect the publishers would like to see their even larger pile continue to diminish too.

And now back that quirky existence that consititutes ‘normal’ in my life. Surely dressing in C17th costume and watching my colleagues chop off arms is normal ….. isn’t it?

The History Interpreter’s Who Do You Think You Are? Experience

Well, my moment of fame is over. I was pleased that it wasn’t reduced to two seconds of the back of my head, or worse still condemned to the cutting room floor. I even managed to maintain my telephone voice for what was over three hours of filming; normally I reveal my Sawf Lunnun accent. I really have to stop deluding myself that I am still about thirty though – face lift is booked, that is if I can’t put in for a head transplant. My daughter is not very reassuring on this matter. First she tells me that one of her friend’s parents thought I looked young, then she spoilt it rather by saying, ‘she must be watching the wrong channel’. Probably my fault for wearing said daughter’s hand me up jumper for the occasion, fortunately she didn’t spot that I was also wearing her jewellery.

Anyway, back to the story. Last September the production team contacts the University of Exeter asking for an ‘expert’ on the Bible Christians. Someone remembers that they featured in my thesis and I get a request to do some research. Unfortunately it needs to be done like yesterday and I am about to set off for Australia. I squeeze it in amongst the packing, list making and general catching up that needs to be done before one disappears to the other side of the world for a month. Then the call comes back, could I do some more? and yes, that had to be done before I went away as well.

Post Australia, the production team call again, might I consider being filmed? I send a CV to prove that someone in the family history world might have heard of me and then, just before Christmas, I meet the production team. Presumably this is to check that I can string a sentence together and don’t have two heads. I sit back to wait for the call to say that filming is to begin.

The long awaited filming day for Who Do You Think You Are? arrives. I have already had a phone call to warn me that they are running late so I set off at 1.00pm. I drive through January drizzle and thick fog, fortuitously ignoring the sat-nav at a vital point, to arrive in High Bickington. We are filming in the local chapel. High Bickington is a blink and you’ll miss it sort of a place, how many chapels can there be? More than one as it turns out. There is no parking outside the one I can find so I make the mistake of parking outside the doctor’s, down a nearby no through road. As I wander back to the chapel, wondering if it was really worth taking out a second mortgage to pay the hairdresser this morning, I am approached by the local postman. ‘Am I here for the filming?’, he asks. So much for top secret; this is SO North Devon. He does however know I am in the wrong place, yes it is, or was, a chapel but it isn’t THE chapel. He offers to let me follow his van round to the correct location. I go back for my car. I make the wrong decision. Instead of reversing back into the main road, I attempt a 83 point turn, during which attempt I seriously thought I was going to be stuck for ever. I do eventually emerge unscathed and follow the friendly postman round a couple of corners to the right location. He gets out of his van to indicate where I should park. He asks me if I can say who is being filmed, I reply that I am sworn to secrecy. As he returns to his van two eager dog walkers enquire whether he has found out anything. I think every dog owner in a ten mile radius just ‘happened’ to be walking past that chapel on that afternoon, several of them on numerous occasions. Then there was the man opposite who spent over an hour cleaning his car in the rain.

Inside the chapel a lovely lady called Margaret has turned on every available heater and is dispensing tea and coffee. The local archivist is also there to guard a document that we plan to use. They have not yet been told who the celebrity is to be. They think, based on a memorial in the chapel, that it is Tim Wonnacott. It isn’t Tim Wonnacott. Two other chapel ladies are hovering expectantly. We receive two more phone calls from the production team warning of and apologising for, delays. This is a miracle in itself as it is dependent on a) my phone being in the one part of the chapel where there was signal, b) my having it turned on, c) me recognising my ring tone and d) me being able to work out which button to press to answer it. When I say I haven’t yet used the £15 worth of credit that was on the phone when I bought it in July 2006, you’ll get the idea. The archivist is already worrying about the work he could be doing back in the office.

They arrive, much to the relief of the dog population of High Bickington and the sensation seekers can melt away; this is so not going to be a secret. The celebrity is Masterchef’s Gregg Wallace. When I learnt this I was just grateful that it wasn’t a rap star or a footballer; I had at least heard of him and could recognise him. Before his name had been revealed I had tried tracing forwards from the research I had done for the programme to see if it led to someone famous but I had failed. Once I had the name, I traced backwards to find out why – there was an mis-indexing in the records.

My cooking is of the ‘there is no smoke it must be salad’ variety but I know my younger daughter and her husband are great fans so I have bought one of Gregg’s books hoping he might be approachable enough for me to get it signed for them. I have chosen the pudding book, Gregg examines it like he hasn’t seen it before. Apparently it featured as a Christmas present on East Enders. I later discover that Masterchef is also one of my elder daughter’s favourite programmes and feel suitably guilty that I haven’t got a book signed for her as well. Gregg was wonderful to work with, completely approachable and friendly. Had anyone felt nervous they would have been totally at ease. Comments like ‘Don’t ruin this Janet, there will be 7 million people watching’, were only made after he realised that I wasn’t fazed by the experience and that non-scripted ‘performing’ wasn’t new to me. I even manage to give as good as I get. Gregg: ‘Now look, Janet, we had a list of 27 names we could have chosen from for this.’ Me: ‘Yes, but 26 of them were mine.’ He also keeps up a stream of truly awful jokes. Sue, the director is keeping a note of these for the benefit of her nine year old.

Chris the sound man shoves his hand down my jumper to attach a microphone. An enormous umbrella light is erected so that it still looks daylight when it gets dark. I have three documents to show Gregg. His ancestral story so far has been sad, well it isn’t going to get any better with my bit, or the bits that follow. We are to sit on the back pew and twist round uncomfortably to reach the documents that are on a shelf behind us. This is firstly, quite difficult to achieve without knocking each other’s knees but also very uncomfortable. After three hours we are locked in a bizarre twisted position and I am glad that am not still parked where the 83 point turn would be necessary as my neck doesn’t move. The insight into the way the programme works is fascinating. The celebrities really don’t know what is coming. Although we do have to do some retakes and go over things so we can be filmed from different angles, it is very spontaneous. Amy, from the production crew, is keeping continuity notes so she knows which part of the document we have pointed to and with which finger. It is quite an experience maintaining a conversation where only one of you knows the ‘script’ and I have to steer Gregg in the right direction so we don’t stray into areas that are not to be revealed until later on.

Finally the afternoon is over and we say our goodbyes. I tell Gregg that I am glad he wasn’t a rap artist I hadn’t heard of and he gives me a hug. As I am going out of the door Chris the sound man realises that I am still wired up to his microphone and has to retrieve it. I still have to negotiate my way across the pitch dark, uneven car park but my day is done.

 Since the programme went out last night I have been overwhelmed with messages and comments from people who watched. Some are already saying ‘Best Who Do You Think You Are? ever’ and this from people who don’t know me. It has done wonders for my Twitter following and I have heard from people I haven’t seen in years. I wonder if I will be pressed for autographs as I walk down the street or if I should look out the sunglasses before I venture out later on? If you missed it, where were you? It is available on iplayer.

Mistress Agnes acts as runner and other televisual matters

Today was my day off so why then was I at work a full two hours before opening time? We had been asked to help out with a television series for the Yesterday channel to be called, I think, ‘Instruments of Death’. Our episode was to be about the weapons of the Civil War and the treatment of subsequent battle wounds. As I was member of staff without portfolio for the day I helped to get people in the right place at the right time for the production team and presenter Karl Ude-Martinez We dodged rain showers and pike drill with the visitors while the team filmed surgical treaments, musket ball making and then kitted Karl out as a pikeman. I somehow got roped in for some promotional photographs although noone in their right mind would use me to promote anything. I did even get to explain the role of rue in preventing camp fever, for the camera. Should be a really good series. Tomorrow I get to watch Gregg Wallace’s Who Do You Think You Are? and see if my part of the programme gets to be aired. All this star of stage and screen lark could go to one’s head.

History Interpreter Spans 8 Centuries and CCCC royalties

Lovely day at 1646 yesterday with some very interested visitors. In one session I had a family who inhabit the C11th and a lady from the Napoleonic era all discussing our respective periods’ footwear! I am still not sure why Medieval footwear had a left and a right, whilst C17th footwear does not. I really don’t buy the theory that soldiers needed to have ambidextrous footwear so they could put it on quickly during battle. Whoever thought that one up has clearly ignored the battles of Medieval times! I did sustain a helmet related injury today. A little tricky trying to explain the delights of the armour of the pikeman with blood pouring down one’s hand. A kind lady in the audience supplied a not very authentic looking plaster and I managed to avoid getting the customers covered in gore. Their next session was with the barber surgeon so think of it as a warm up.

Exciting to receive my first royalties payment for Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs – still waiting for the reviews in National Magazines with trepidation.

Day finished with a meeting of the Clovelly Archives Association Committee. Ok, so maybe it was a mistake to try to keep pace with the thirtysomethings up the (very steep) hill afterwards – especially after Zumbaing the day before but hey I almost managed it – or were they being kind?

More Olympic Goings-on #London 2012

This is our day at the athletics, which always seem to me like the ‘real’ Olympics. Our reluctant Olympic attendee takes some persuading but we set off for Stratford. Again no problems with the journey, despite it being a working day and travelling during rush hour. The 70,000 volunteer games makers are certainly doing a brilliant job to make the games trouble free and friendly. I support the move to make them the winning Sports Personality of the Year Team. As we leave Stratford station more sponge fingers pointing the way and games makers sitting on tennis referee type chairs shouting greetings through megaphones. When they spot a country flag they call out a welcome to the appropriate supporters, ‘Hello Canada’ and so on.

Security negotiated, we find our seats in the stadium. We are, of course, early again but it gives us an opportunity to take photographs. Once again we have excellent seats – row 5. The weather is announced as ‘British Variable’, which about sums it up. We are to see qualifiers for discus and shot put and heats of 100 metre hurdles, men’s 800 metres and women’s 1500 metres. We are quite impressed with the remote controlled car retrieving the discus and the game makers’ synchronised setting out of the hurdles and lane markers. Not seeing any finals is not actually a disadvantage as it means we see all the contestants. We enjoy cheering on the also rans who come in significantly behind the rest of the field but are none the less getting national records for obscure nations or clocking up personal bests. The shot putters crossing the track to consult their coaches during the races are however a little disconcerting.

Athletics session over, we allow Victor Meldrew, who has clearly had as much as he can take, return to the van, whilst Martha, Rob and I continue our tour round Olympic Park. There is the largest queue in the world for MacDonalds but in general, although it is quite crowded, the 200,000 people allegedly at the Park are not a problem. We spend some time watching the events on the big screen. Martha wants photographs of all the venues so we attempt to achieve this and spot Ewan Thomas giving an interview.

Andrew Osagie Team GB and eventual winner and world record breaker David Rudisha (Kenya) in the 800m heats

The concept of gluten free does not seem to have penetrated the many Olympic Park food outlets so we return to the van at about 5.00pm in order to prevent Martha starving. We do manage to visit every platform of Stratford Station before we arrive at the correct one but apart from that, our journey is uneventful. It is exciting to see the Athletics on television and be able to imagine ourselves at the venue.

Next stop Paralympics at the end of the month.

Getting Wet and other stories #London2012

Not quite such an early start today. We got the train to Charing Cross where I noted that ‘spending a penny’ now costs 30p. We walked to find a position on the Marathon route, passing a couple of fibre glass Olympic mascots that are apparently scattered round London for us to find. We manage to get a space opposite a water and sponge station, which Martha is irrationally excited about. Collecting up discarded water bottles probably doesn’t rate as highly as equestrian pooper-scooper on our list of sought after Olympic jobs. We try to identify the flags at the water stations. Even with the help of the initials (TLS), we have difficulty with one. Once the assistant turns round, his track suit reveals that it is Timor Leste, of which more later.

Chris has still not quite forgiven us for dragging him away from Clovelly Lifeboat Day and is sporting his Clovelly Lobster festival t-shirt as if to make a point. He chats up the nearby policewoman and then exhibits his knotting skills by helping our neighbours to fasten their flag to the railings. The rain starts but that’s fine; I don my plastic poncho. This works well until Chris and Martha, who have not had the forethought to bring anything actually waterproof, try to join me. This results in water pouring down the neck of the poncho so that it is wetter inside than out. There are some bizarre sights amongst our fellow spectators, including a chap who is about seven foot tall and wearing C15th style costume in bright orange. Perhaps he is supporting the Netherlands.

Two support vehicles go past on the far side of the road. They are followed by a lorry showing the time since the start and another with lots of media photographers covered in polythene. Then come the athletes. In all, they pass us three times on the far side of the road and three times on our side. They gradually string themselves out and it becomes evident that the competitor from Timor Leste is a long way behind the others. We get used to waiting ten minutes after the penultimate runner before Miss T-L appears and then cheering her on. There should be three GB runners, Paula Radcliffe having pulled out. One of the three never reaches us but we spot the other two mid pack. Some children opposite are cheering for each country in turn, starting with the end of the alphabet, whose water stands are opposite them. They are hoping to be given souvenirs by the officials waiting to hand out sports drinks and energy bars to their teams. It seems to work, although the inscrutable Swedish official takes a long time to crack. The Timor Leste official is entering in to the spirit of the thing and we start to feel quite sorry for him having to wait so long for his athlete to appear. In the end Miss T-L is not last as an Irish athlete fails on the last circuit and drops a long way behind even Miss T-L. It turns out that Miss T-L achieves a national record so well done her. Unlike many other spectators, we brave it in the rain to cheer these tail-enders on to the last moment.

It does take rather a long time to get back across the road at the official crossing point but this is the only occasion where we have had to wait for anything. The sun comes out and Martha and Rob decide to take a look at Hyde Park but I am deterred by the squelching in my shoes, so Chris and I return to the van.

We are glad to get back, bail out our shoes and make over the van as Dame Wishy Washy’s Laundry. We are even in time to see Andy Murray demolish Roger Federer.