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Local History – A Little Town in England

April 3, 2011

Wherever we live, we should cherish our local historians. People who toil away on a labour of love to show us how previous generations in our home towns lived, loved and thought. Who set up local museums, and write books that will never give them a financial return.

Local history is a counterpoint to the grand generalisations that we learn at school, in popular history books and at the movies. It enables us to link directly to the past by telling us stories about the streets, squares and meadows we know well. It reminds us that for most people and for most of time, life was about getting by. Surviving great events maybe, but most of the time living quiet lives. Doing our best to improve our lot, and that of our nearest and dearest.

For the past twenty years or so our home in England has been Weybridge, a sleepy dormitory town to the South West of London. It boasts one of the most expensive housing estates in the country – St Georges Hill – and no, we don’t live there! Henry VIII built a palace nearby, traces of which survive today. It’s a genteel kind of town, somewhat yuppified in recent years as well-heeled families have moved out from London to take advantage of its easy commuting distance. It boasts a wealth of greenery, a river – the Wey – running through it, and a plethora of ponies, Range Rovers, green wellingtons and Barbour jackets.

A hundred years ago it became host to an industry that still thrives in England. Hugh Locke King, a local landowner and automobile enthusiast, brought 2000 labourers from all over the country to build the world’s first banked motor racing track – Brooklands. And for the next thirty years racers from all over Europe came to Weybridge to risk their lives hurtling round those steep banks, and sometimes coming to a fiery end.

Today, Brooklands is host to Tesco and Marks and Spencer superstores, to a few high-tech companies and to the Mercedes World showroom and test-drive area. All that remains of the old race track is a museum and bits of the concrete banking  – ravaged and crumbling. The track is said to be haunted – go close to it at night and you might still hear the screaming of engines. Perhaps the ghosts of some of the many drivers who lost their lives in the days when the only protection was a leather cap and goggles.

Brooklands Museum is not just a shrine to motor racing. You will find one of the retired Concordes there. And in a shed you can visit a World War II Wellington bomber salvaged from a Scottish loch.

Why? Because Brooklands has another claim to fame. It was there that A V Roe, an early aviation pioneer, is said to have made the first powered flight in the United Kingdom, five years after the Wright brothers made their landmark flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Roe’s success led to the area inside the track becoming one of the major centres of the British aviation industry. And that co-location was to have consequences for Weybridge and its neighbour, Walton-on-Thames, far beyond the annoyance caused by the noise and crowds on Saturday race meetings. Many of the great names of early aviation started at Brooklands – Sopwith, Roe’s company AVRO, and Hawker, the company that became one of the mainstays of Britain’s air war against Hitler’s Germany.

The aviation industry became one of the principal employers in Weybridge right up until 1986, when British Aerospace, the successor to those pioneering companies, closed down its factory.

Last time I was in the UK, I happened upon a short and unprepossessing book while browsing in my local bookstore. Called Raiders Overhead, by Stephen Flower, it is a chronicle of the experience of Weybridge and outlying areas during World War II.

By 1939, the Hawker factory was at full stretch producing the Hurricane fighter. The Hurricane, along with the Spitfire, was one of Britain’s principal weapons against the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. So not surprisingly, Brooklands, which was well-known to pre-war German racers, became a prime target for the Luftwaffe as it sought to destroy Britain’s aircraft manufacturing capability. And that meant that Weybridge came in for special attention throughout the war.

Raiders Overhead contains a mass of technical information about the capabilities of the aircraft on both sides, about air defence techniques and about the bombs that rained down on the area with terrifying regularity.

What made the book special for me was the narrative – day by day – of destruction inflicted on streets I know well. Streets where I drive, shop, visit friends. Where my kids went to school. Houses, literally on my doorstep, wiped out. Families killed or not killed at the whim of fate.

And the eyewitness accounts.

The stoic description of an 82-year-old veteran of the Boer War and the First World War whose his house – no more than two hundred yards from ours – is shattered as the gun turret of a British bomber crashed through the roof and ends up on his bed. Of a Hawker manager crawling out from under a table during a raid to find an unexploded bomb sizzling in front of him. Of a mother placing her husband’s steel helmet over their baby to protect him from the shrapnel. Of a shelter full of female factory workers wiped out by a direct hit. Of shrapnel embedded in the headstones at a cemetery where a loose bomb fell. Of a shopkeeper whose hair went white overnight after he and his family were caught up in a blast in Walton. Of cows mysteriously dying, only for vets to discover that they were eating debris from the V1 flying bombs that rained down on the area in the latter part of the war.

All this in sleepy Weybridge and Walton.

There are other towns and cities that had worse stories to tell. Weybridge lost 119 civilians, and another 750-odd wounded. A far cry from the East End of London, Dresden, Stalingrad and Tokyo, whose losses were in the tens of thousands.

But this was a story of my home town. About people whose descendants most likely rub shoulders with me at the counters in Waitrose, or walk their dogs in the same parks. And that’s why Stephen Flower’s book is special to me. As I walk around Weybridge, and look at the sale signs on the windows of beleaguered clothes shops, or stop by Starbucks for a cappuccino and overhear complaints about the local library shutting down thanks to cuts in council spending, I’m reminded that this is a town that has known far darker times than any but the most elderly residents could imagine.

And that’s why we should cherish and encourage local historians everywhere. They give us a sense of perspective. Most of them have no political or ideological axes to grind. They see it as their task to document lives past – the history of people trying to get by.

Living as I do in Bahrain, of course I’m interested in the political and social background to the present troubles. But equally I want to understand what was here before the tower blocks, highways and land reclamations. About the lives of traders, pearl divers and fishermen. And about why Bahrain is dotted with cemeteries throughout the island. And what the island was like when it was blessed with underground water and covered with date palms.

These things matter too. And they should matter to everyone who lives in a town, village or settlement that has voices from the past. Because if we stop and listen to those voices from time to time, perhaps our lives will be richer for stepping out of the moment, and remembering that we are not just creatures of our age and our personal worlds, but part of a continuum that will roll on long after we’re gone.

And perhaps, if we’re going through a rough time, thinking about the past beneath our feet will make the present easier to bear.

From → Books, History, Social, UK

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