Saturday, 1 September 2012

Archives and memory

I spent yesterday in the company of many old documents. They are the residues of the old Redgrave Estate and general family admin. Over 7,000 similar documents have already been catalogued by the Redgrave History Group, and there is already an archive in the Suffolk Record Office. While there is little family material of public interest, there is much information about local people and places over two centuries, and through them it is possible to get detailed insights into the life of villages such as Burgate, Botesdale, Hinderclay, Rickinghall and Wortham as well as Redgrave. The oldest papers go back to the 16th century, the most recent date from the 1970s, though most span the period 1780 to 1860. The residue has passed into my hands since my father's death, and it is my little task to sort it for posterity. Once catalogued, most of it will go to the Record Office and the rest into a box of family history.

The remains of Redgrave Hall, c.1955. The Georgian house was demolished in 1946,
leaving the Tudor core, with the eventual intention of restoring it. This never happened,
and these ruins were demolished c.1970. Photo courtesy Shaun Addy.

Drainage plan, C16th.
Here, I am inevitably drawn into the story of Redgrave Park. I first encountered it at the age of six. I was fascinated by the crumbling ruins of the Hall and its overgrown gardens, the rambling Park and beautiful lake. The impression made by that place has never left me. Who would not be amazed by such a place? The landscape had been designed by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to catch the human eye and heart. My sister Pip and I swam in the lake, collected birds' eggs on the islands, explored the hollow oak trees; we picked plums in the overgrown gardens, visited 'Wop' Garnham in his keeper's cottage beside the lake, and had picnics at the Round House. The Park is a focal place in the Mythic Geography of my life.

From an Estate terrier, 1803
The Park was sold in 1971, when I was 12 years old; my parents split up and my mother moved to Scotland. As a teenager I pored over photographs, maps and plans, resurrecting the prelapsarian life of the Park in my imagination. 

Views of the Park, c.1935

We never lived at Redgrave Park, but it is still alive in my psyche, as if it were a cherished homeland destroyed by a War. I recently caught some words by author Jonathan Coe, speaking on the radio. I think they are a clear statement about the importance of 'place' in the psyche, and importance of personal memory in creating - and re-creating - it. 
"Sometimes I think that these spaces we inhabit are not physical places at all, just layer upon layer of memories. They are built out of experience - human experience - not steel or pre-cast concrete. A friend of mine used to live on the 19th floor of a tower-block near Liverpool. They knocked it down, but he still used to drive past that place every day, and look up into the sky and remember all the things he had done, the friends he'd met, the women he'd loved and lost - and all these in a few cubic metres of space which were now hung, suspended in mid air. When this place is gone what will be left of the people who lived here? That mound in the middle of the court, my court, Bobby's court, will be flattened, no one will remember it. No one will remember I met Susan there, fell in love with her, and when we were children we called that The Moon; and that other people lived within these concrete walls, had their own memories, had their own stories. It will all disappear, it'll all be lost unless we struggle to remember. Someone has to keep the records".
 (BBC Radio 4, October 7th, 2011)     

If I set fire to the Redgrave Estate papers nobody would ever miss a thing. But perhaps future generations would lose some richness which I have it in my power to give them. This archive is a resource of memory for other people's families as well as my own. The struggle to remember serves the future, but in doing so it also serves the people of the past. Someone could use the archive to resurrect the bare bones of past life, and through diligent research, give them flesh. Maybe I am standing with one foot in the land of massive unreason, but I feel as though I have a responsibility towards the dead and the places they knew. I have only a few more documents to catalogue, then I can hand their records over. My part in their resurrection will be done.

Redgrave Park today


  1. I believe that we are all connected to our ancestry, both people and places. Our ancestors and ancestral places shape who we are and our philosopies. Thanks Tim, for caring about our ancestry.
    Tricia Datené
    (Holt Wilson descendant)

  2. It's an interesting thought that many cultures throughout history have actively revered their ancestors. The Wikipedia entry on this is interesting -


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