I have this strange fascination with the River Severn, I am clearly a Severn Bore. I did not fully understand why until I studied a branch of history known as Public History. The definition of Public History changes from day to day, but in my own confirmatory bias, I like to think of it as someone who has an interest in history, but prefers to work outside of the restraints of the academic fraternity. The ideas of the academic route of documented and externally sourced evidence is far too dry and is in fact restricted by its intellectual approach, which concentrates on structure, form, and historical conventions.
I also find that some academic historians tend to be less focused on unimpressive patriotic narratives: they argue that they very often tend to glorify the people or individuals, therefore they attempt to be more objective and offer a more complex analyses of social and intellectual forces . My argument here is that this approach to history and the past is far too narrow.
Who wants to sit in an archive all day, reading through well thumbed, jealously guarded documents and manuscripts days after day gaining knowledge for the purposes of academic power. Knowledge is nothing without understanding.
Publish History opens up a whole new world of objects, landscape, images, memory and oral history. I appreciate that the monarchy has been one of the few constantly continuous institution in the UK, but as far as we, the everyday people are concerned, we are no longer so confidently members of a social class, we feel our identities are more fluid, perhaps as a response to the present social and political conditions that today are far more sensitive to gender, sexuality, ethnicity and religious backgrounds. Therefore by understanding our past, we can define ourselves and our place in this world.
I am not the only Severn Bore, there are others, however it is Brian Waters who touched something very deep inside of me. He informed me, he elicited questions, and he change the way I think about the past.
Brian Waters was born in Tewksbury, Gloucestershire in 1907. He was an author, editor and poet, he wrote and published several books; most notably Severn Tide in 1947 and Severn Stream in 1949; both books telling anecdotal stories about his travels along the river Severn. Waters’ books are in fact significant accounts of our past and give us an insight into the lives of everyday people; people who believe that their history is not important enough to become history.
His book, Severn Stream and Severn Tide invited me to undertake an exploration into the importance of presenting the past through personal accounts, landscape, and artefacts, in relation to the River Severn, and with reference to the public history methods that Brian Waters unknowingly created.
In recent years, there has been a terrific growth in the quest to know one’s self, this therefore has subsequently fuelled a prolific growth in people interested in their own history, as a way of answering this question of self. Understanding our self brings together people’s relationship with the past. By uncovering the past, just as Waters’ did, we reveal a wealth of stories and histories of everyday family life. These stories are both engaging people with the past, and by opening dialogs with them, we help people to connect with their self and propagate a historical desire to understand more of this ‘how things were’.
This is important because we need to understand how the landscape of the river Severn is a very different place today, from how it was in the past and that these changes are part of an ongoing process that continues. Only a generation back, prior to our modern road transport systems, Britain’s transport was in the main provided by water: sea, river and canals. Surprisingly the railway system, as big as it was did not have the capacity to support all of our trade moment, therefore river and canal systems provided the nation with the means of movement for people and goods. The skills employed in water transport systems also enabled Britain to trade with many other countries. The Severn, like most other rivers in Britain also was a major provider of food; there were over 300 fixed engine fisheries in the estuary alone, and a fish weir every mile all the way up the Severn into Wales. The evidence of these fish weirs or bylets associated with them are still visible to this day. So for the sake of this blog, it is important to have a picture and an understanding of how things were in past years.
Now we see why the books written by Waters’ are providing significant accounts of our past, from which we can answer the question of who we are, and therefore should be revisited….