Places that quicken the pulse

6th June 2003 at 01:00
LIVING THE PAST. By Val Horsler pound;20. ENGLAND'S HERITAGE. By Derry Brabbs. pound;16.99 (paperback); pound;30 (hardback). English HeritageWeidenfeld and Nicolson

There's something special about being where history's happened. Becky Hewlitt looks at two books that help to track down our heritage

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching history is enriching children's experience of learning through visits to historical sites. The opportunity to touch the walls of a Medieval castle, hear a lute played at a Tudor Manor House or "leg" a canal boat provides a tangible link between that which is on the page and that which is seen to be "real".

As Dr David Starkey comments in his introduction to Living the Past: " It is the graffiti on the wall of a prison or the sonnet scratched into the glass of a casement window that quickens the pulse." However, for a busy head of department it is always tempting to return again and again to the "old favourites" and I was looking forward to reading these titles to get some new ideas for site visits.

England's Heritage is a thematic exploration of English history using England's historical sites and archaeological evidence to paint a picture of change and continuity in aspects such as invasion and conquest, education and religious belief, travel and trade. It is in the first instance a quite beautiful book. There are more than 600 photos and illustrations that remind us of the wealth of places we have to visit in this country. The stunning photography provides food for thought in itself, for example, we can compare changing attitudes to death through photographs of Neolithic burial chambers side by side with Victorian infants' tombs on the Thames estuary and the lavish Albert memorial in Hyde Park.

The text is not an account of sites to visit and what is there, but is rather a journey across broad sections of English history using examples from the rich resources of English heritage to illuminate the author's findings. It is a fascinating read. I especially enjoyed the sections on "Death and Remembrance" and "Law, crime and punishment" as these are topics not commonly covered in a book such as this. They provided me with lots of interesting nuggets of information and tales to tell in the classroom - for example did you know that Sir Thomas Moore enjoyed bowls of custard while held in the Tower of London and that the Tower's governor resigned in disgust after hearing of the torture of Jesuit priests? The final sections of the book stress the value of conservation and touch on the undoubted importance of the work of English Heritage.

While Derry Brabbs uses sites to illustrate an overview of English history, Val Horsler's book Living the Past is a more practical guide suggesting the most evocative sites and living museums to visit. Once again, Brabbs's photographs beautifully illustrate the text but this time the majority of them show re-enactment events reflecting the different approach of this book. It would be a superb gift for any history teacher who enjoys taking children on visits or indeed visiting historical sites themselves. It covers a wide variety of places including some little-known gems - such as the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, which provides a unique picture of an industry that has not dramatically changed since the Industrial Revolution - as well as the much loved attractions at Ironbridge and Dudley's Black Country Museum. However, this is not just a fancy guidebook.

The text provides an evocative account of the periods re-enacted in the photographs and I was particularly impressed by the "How to" sections - short illustrated accounts of the practicalities of the past, which include the arming of a Saxon warrior, loading a flintlock musket, and a Stuart tea ceremony.

These are both well researched and imaginatively illustrated texts which take a different approach to similar subject matter - the superb work of English Heritage and the enormous wealth of historical resources we have across England. Living the Past would be more useful to a classroom practitioner looking for new places to visit but they are both a reminder of the power of site visits to inspire the imaginative historian.

Becky Hewlitt is head of history at Windsor High School, Halesowen, West Midlands

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