The autumn smell of the past

One of my best ever reading experiences – possibly the single best ever – was going to the National Archives in Kew. The recent fire there, and Russell Phillips discussing his latest trip into the archives, got me all nostalgic for that great experience.

Doing the Doctorate

In my wild and crazy youth I wanted to be a historian. I got funding to do a PhD in medieval history at Durham, the place where I’d done my undergrad and MA, as well as a department with some pretty big names in that field.

Some pretty big beards too. The fantastic Robin Frame would not have looked out of place in an American Civil War command staff.

PhDs are all about the original research, which in my case meant reading through piles of published primary sources and, once they’d run out of fresh revelations, going to the documents that weren’t in print – the archives at Kew.

So I took a trip down to London, borrowed a friend’s sofa for the week, and settled down to work.

A very modern place for very old documents
A very modern place for very old documents

Into Narnia

Entering the National Archives was a lot like entering any old office building. There was some security – it’s a high profile place full of unique treasures – but at first glimpse it was mostly a cafe, some lockers and a small visitors’ display. I went upstairs to the reading rooms, searched the catalogue for what I was after, and handed my order in at the desk. All those precious documents weren’t just out on show.

Then I waited.

The smell of history

At last out it came. A roll recording lands held and confiscated following the revolt against Edward II in 1321-2. This huge parchment roll, which I had to hold open with special weights, was completely unique. Nearly seven hundred years old, never copied and certainly never published. I could smell the past rising up to meet me, rich and warm and fading as an autumn afternoon. I imagined a medieval scribe scratching away at those very pages to set these details on the record.

Terribly dull details.

Because that’s the thing. The interesting stuff had been published. This document was of value to historians poking into specific corners of history, willing to spend hours reading for just a few new details, but…

Well, lets just say that I never finished that PhD.

Our glorious past

I’m glad I tried the PhD. I’m very glad I went down to Kew and got to spend time pouring over those wonderful old documents in their reading room. There’s a thrill to touching history that you can’t get from other things.

While I’m a big advocate for going digital on reading in general, I’m glad we still have space for the older ways. And if you ever have reason to go to an archive like that one then seize the opportunity. It’s worth every moment.


Photo by Jim Linwood via Flickr creative commons