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Alan Machin's Blog - November 2009

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The dates shown this month are nominal for indexing purposes only. The older postings on this page were made in groups in early November.

Image: Pagham Harbour interpretation

Pagham Harbour Interpretation


Examples of management-related interpretation from the nature reserve just north of Selsey in Sussex. See the posting of 16.11.09.

Image: East Head, Chichester Harbour

Managing Tourism for Sustainability


East Head is property in the care of the National Trust and forms a wide sand spit on the east side of the entrance to Chichester Harbour. With the villages of West and East Wittering nearby and a popular beach front estate owned by a private company right next to it, East Head is well ued by walkers and natural history buffs.

The National Trust uses careful conservation management to protect the sand-dune habitats. Marram grass and other plants help stabilise the dunes. Fencing protects areas being repaired and others where sensitive wild life is being encouraged. On the inner edge of East Head one of the harbour creeks has mudflats and salt marshes with their own flora and fauna.

Managing visitors is essential and can't be left to a few fences and nothing else. So interpretation panels and notices are used to win over the public. This adds further interest to the visitor experience, promotes the image of the Trust and perhaps gains some more members.

My step-daughter and I walked right round East Head, which also helped me burn off a few calories!

Image: East Head, Chichester Harbour


Image: University shields

Bickering Sets Up An Academic Papers Production Line


The dissertations manager of the – er - well-known Bickering University, Bernie Pollard, has been having a quiet word with his colleagues. His line manager, Derek Carver, had an even quieter word with him about the need for the institution to rack up its number of academic staff research papers published in refereed journals. Their personal status as well as that of the university and of the course depends partly on successful publishing. Some of the overworked tutors at Bickering have long complained that teaching, administration and pastoral care of students means they have little time for research. So Bernie, whose reputation has been, according to one critic, ‘all pious hopes and Pollyanna’ has taken a slightly more aggressive role. One tutor has already described it as unscrupulous. Another said “So what? It’s a dog-eat-dog world”.

Pollard is allocating students interested in particular topics to tutors who want to publish research in those areas but have little time to do the research. His verbal and “don’t quote me” suggestion is that the student be guided – indeed, led – by the tutor towards a high quality piece of work by feeding in suggestions and approaches, supplying the books and papers that the student needs to use, and even dictating the research methods to be employed. At the end of the academic year the student will gain a 2:1 or first class award and the tutor will co-author a paper based on the dissertation and submit it for publication in a learned journal. Pollyanna – sorry, Pollard – says it is a system used in other universities and one for which course managers give tacit approval. Roberta Pryor, Bickering’s Manager for Academic Standards, is reported to have asked if it was really a fair system but has been told to concentrate on proof-reading course planning documents rather than raising unnecessary issues.

Over at nearby Careswell University James Barley, Pollard’s opposite number, heard about the scheme, turned white, swore quietly and wondered whether he should take holy orders.

Image: Bayleaf Farmhouse

Weald and Downland Museum: Bayleaf Farmhouse Interpretation


This fine exhibit is a reconstructed farmhouse of the late fifteenth century which came from Chiddingstone on Kent. It is a hall house, meaning that it consists of a central, large living hall with a service room off one end and a solar - a family bed-sitting room - off the other. As time progressed later buildings were put up which had more and bigger service rooms and sleeping areas, resulting in the hall (originally where almost every part of an extended family's life was lived) being reduced in size, until by the late nineteenth century it was merely a passageway leading to the more specialised rooms. This is why we still use the term 'hall' for the quite small passage inside the main door of a house in Britain.

Bayleaf is explained to the visitor by means of the general Museum guide book, labels, an interpretive panel and a demonstrator or interpreter who can not only give a short talk suitable for the audience standing in front of him or her, but who can do something that the the other forms of interpretation used cannot do: answer questions.

Image: Bayleaf - interpretation


Image: Weald and Downland demonstrators

Explanations – Demonstrations – Interpretation


Fifteen people from five related families met up at the Weald and Downland Museum in late October when the weather was still dry and immensely beautiful. This is the first of a few postings about the Museum.
It might be called a Museum of Buildings. Set as it is in a valley of the South Downs its collection of domestic and working buildings with gardens or farm fields around them is what catches the eye most. The focal points for most visitors however must be what they relate to best: the recognisable features of homes inside and out from the flowers and vegetables in the gardens to the rooms, furnishings and people within. Yes, people. They are not artefacts, not objects in cases. At night they have gone to their own homes. Even so, this Museum like most other open air museums today has people to talk to visitors and demonstrate bygone ways of life. They may be permanent staff or volunteers. What is essential is their knowledge and ability to communicate well. Usually they are in appropriate dress and are doing things which relate to their exhibit – cooking or blacksmithing in the photos above. They might also be called interpreters or guides, though the latter term is usually used for those who take a particular group on a particular tour.

Any visitor attraction needs to communicate. It might be to explain a historic story, a process (eg blacksmithing), an environmental situation, an artistic creation or event or a sporting performance. It might be to say something about an industrial activity or even a political situation. How it does it can vary from signposting to printed guides, exhibitions or tours with an expert, audio trails (such as the one shown in an earlier posting at Stonehenge) or demonstrations like those shown above. The reasons for the communication might be to explain something unfamiliar from history or natural history, but it might also be to do with conservation and/or redevelopment. Environmental management, sustainable policies, economic and social changes, cannot operate successfully without a good communications strategy.

It is a matter of communicating the meaning and significance of something which is forming the focus of the visitors’ interest in order to entertain and inform and thereby influence some future actions.

Image: Fictitious road sign

The Archaeology of Tourism


About weeks ago as we drove to Stonehenge along the A303 outside Andover we passed a turnoff which was blocked by barriers. They weren’t simple, temporary things but solid barriers and behind them rows of big white drums. It made me think of a web site I had found earlier in the year. It listed odd things on motorways such as unbuilt service stations. These were planned years ago but never brought into being. Outside Lutterworth on the M1 full-size slip roads lead – into a works depot. Usually those would be tight, narrow turns, but the Lutterworth examples look like proper service station slips. They are on both carriageways.

Days later when surfing the web I turned to Google Earth. Finding the stretch of the A303 just west of Andover it was easy to see these mysterious places. I say ‘mysterious’ because they are ... or were. There are all kinds of interesting, strange places that you can peer in to on Google Earth. It’s like being a cybertourist, and an inquisitive one at that. Now you can believe in fairies and Roswell aliens if you like – I don’t – but it’s much more satisfying to believe in real mysteries that can be solved – or maybe left as little enigmas in all their variations.

Look on an Ordnance Survey quarter-inch scale map of the Midlands or South of Britain. In odd places there are marked railway lines ending in little loops for no obvious reason. Once you had to find a detailed guide book to stand any chance of working out what they were for. Many years ago a friend drove me to Edge Hill in Warwickshire, famous as the site of the opening battle in the English Civil War. “Look over there”, he said. In the distance on lower ground could be seen strange, regular humps in the fields between trees. They were big and in straight rows with a sort of military precision. “I came up here during the Falklands War” continued my friend: “there were trains running along tracks daily between those grassy bumps. They would turn out onto the main line and disappear”. He explained further: it was Kineton military munitions depot from which weapons and ammunition were being taken away to be delivered to the war zone. If you go on to Google Earth there are clear views of this huge depot. Railway tracks circle around. There will be several trains of long munitions wagons to be seen. At least one photo is linked to the site showing the concrete bunkers. Go to Google itself and search out Kineton. Web pages give details of the size and scope of the place. Harbury.villlagebuzz.co.uk calls it the biggest munitions store in Europe – 2,500 acres, 21 miles of track, 300 personnel. Just to the right of centre is a long, narrow shape in the middle of an open field. A link on harbury.villagebuzz.co.uk takes you to a site with oblique aerial photos. It consists of two long terraces of ‘houses’ within a walled enclosure. Along with ‘farmhouses’ nearby these are for the training of bomb experts in defusing explosives. The houses originally represented Northern Ireland buildings.

The A303 sites are easy to find on Google Earth using the nearest named village, Penton, as a search term and marker. They are quite intriguing. Each of the ‘twin’ sites is surrounded neatly by trees which could have been planted specially to screen them off. Car parking and pitched-roof buildings occupy both. The several barriers across the slip roads and the tree-belts around them could lead someone with a fanciful turn of mind (fairies and Roswell, for example) to misinterpret them as secret government centres for ... something or other. This region is peppered with army and air force bases after all.

The web was the starting point to finding out the real situation. An email to the county library for Hampshire produced a rapid response with the local Andover reference library’s email contact. A second email – reply received on a Sunday – gave a name for the local history society secretary, Jane Flambert. A third email went off and next day came the explanation. These two sites were once Happy Eater Restaurants, opened with this section of the A303 Andover bypass in about 1979. In 1996 they became Little Chefs but as such were shot lived, closing in 2007. Jane passed my enquiry on to a local expert, John Barrell, and his confirmation arrived next day. And not a fairy, alien or Secret Government Centre in sight. As the great Sherlock said, the simplest explanation is the most likely one to be proved correct, and it is intellectually (this is me, not him) much more satisfying.

Even if it is a teensy weensy bit sad to be so mundane. The story of tourism recorded in our landscape.

Image: Tidal Tourism

Tidal Tourism and Weather Watching


While exploring the area around Selsey and Chichester Harbour a couple of weeks ago we could enjoy the good, late autumn, weather. West Sussex was looking beautiful in the warm and sunny weather – indeed, the hot weather for several days. Autumn colours were coming through strongly. In the Downs the woodlands were richly shaded. Green fields were edged with gold. Red rowan and yew berries added a hint of Christmas to come, the yew berries like soft plastic, the rowan like hard beads.

My step-daughter Rosie and I walked round East Head at the entrance to Chichester Harbour as morning mistiness gave way to bright sunshine. Sea birds perched like sentinels on top of river markers. As the morning progressed the human ecology changed: it was schools’ half term so families were spreading along the beach at West Wittering. Rosie is doing a course in coastal erosion so this part of West Sussex was ideal case study material.

In the afternoon we turned out attention to Pagham Harbour to the north of Selsey. This is a natural sea area which cuts inland and indeed at one time reduced Selsey to an island. Before the Normans arrived and decreed that Chichester, as the main centre of population hereabouts, should have the cathedral for the area, it was Selsey – Church Norton to be exact – which held the seat of the bishop and a castle as well.

At low tide, as we saw it on this particular day, Pagham Harbour from the western edge looked like an area of fields sliced by mud-lined creeks. Open water could only just be seen in the distance. We walked from the Sussex-run Visitor Centre up towards Sidlesham Quay. The pathway follows the former track-bed of a railway which joined Chichester to Selsey. Only fourteen years after it opened in 1897 the section north of Sidlesham Quay was flooded by the sea. The line never really recovered, struggling on until closure in January 1935, and there is little of it to be found.

Walking at the edge of the Harbour at low tide it is surprising to think that a railway could be attacked by the sea. Sidlesham Quay looks picturesque in sunshine at this state of the tide. A small brick corner remains of a tide-water mill. Pubs and houses look out over the Harbour. At one time this was a thriving harbour for ships, but after around 1870 few boats were using it. The decision was taken to dam the entrance and reclaim the land, so the tidal-powered mill closed down. Then in 1910 the floods broke through the dam wall, flooded the area, and the present-day appearance came into being. This is now a 1,500-acre nature reserve of salt marshes and mudflats.

At high tide it floods, the water rising at Sidlesham Quay as seen in the second photo above. I had returned on the Sunday morning to see the difference, and then drove down to Selsey. A car park close to Selsey Bill was being drenched by breaking waves. Cars – mainly 4x4s – were turning in through the entrance and their occupants, like me, parked to see the fun. The photo shown was, needless to say, taken through a side window open for a minute or two. The protecting skylight filter on the lens kept the rain off the glass proper and needed wiping away frequently with a cloth.

We see those enthusiasts on TV chasing storms and tornadoes abroad. We can find some quite spectacular scenes of bad weather around our own shores. But in addition the tidal sweeps bring plenty of more gentle interest to river mouths and rock pools that are well worth watching, too.

Image: Careswell and Bickering

Bickering Preserves Its Reputation


News arrives that changes have been made to the way dissertations are being supervised at Bickering University. The tutors are widely recognised for being good at Bickering, but the management needs to see better outcomes and has therefore set new targets. At the end of the current academic year ten per cent of undergraduates should achieve first class awards. Since dissertations form the core of each course and the jewel in each student’s academic crown – and Bickering is lagging in university league tables – the supervision and marking systems have been changed. The dissertations manager, Bernie Pollard, has reshaped the two-tutor marking system so that a quick chat over the phone or in passing in the corridor will decide results. Criteria-based marking sheets can then be completed to deliver the desired result rather than help decide it. Marking pairs will be chosen by letting tutors who share rooms decide between themselves. Tutors not sharing rooms will mark with someone who is most likely to agree with them and not cause problems. In future any tutor failing to mark generously and sympathetically will be assigned other duties. Pollard, known to some of his critics as Pollyanna for his over-optimistic and badly thought out educational projects, most of which fail to deliver, said of the new arrangements that he was sure they were innovative examples of the creative thinking called for by the management. “All pious hopes and Pollyanna” was the view of others.

What a pity that, as usual, the nearby Careswell University, which was, like Bickering, a product of the conversions from Polytechnic status in 1993, continues to get both high levels of academic results through good teaching by experienced tutors – but is ignored by its Bickering neighbour. Bickering managers look for quantity, not quality. They see education as a numbers game firmly in the hands of the bean-counters. At Careswell, James Barley, an IT wizard popular for his friendly,'older brother' kind of personality, takes a long term view when introducing new ideas. "They need thorough discussion with colleagues first" says James. "Pushing half-thought-out projects in order to gain brownie points with management is not on. Nor is damaging another colleague's quietly successful efforts just to let you indulge your own interests".

Image: Chichester gargoyle and faces

Famous Faces and Not So Famous


I visited Chichester Cathedral with my daughter and her husband and son. Living in the USA and not attending a church with European-style architecture they were not used to the decorative traditions of our own. Chichester is not, as someone said, a particularly spectacular cathedral but it has a varied and attractive range of features. The stained glass is of interest. There are many good windows and they depict several people connected with the cathedral and the town. Side chapels are well provided with sculpture. There are tombs with memorial figures lying along their tops. All in all, like village churches throughout the land (Boynton and Rudston for example as described in postings here last October) they are popular showcases for their neighbourhoods. It does not mean that they commemorate members of their communities chosen objectively across the divides of wealth, class, and, of course, creed. Those who served the interests of the church in one way or another are shown.

Chichester has some external carving – gargoyles and faces. Placed one on each side of the main, west door, are the faces of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Also present is an interesting gargoyle (a traditional carving used to form a spout for streaming rain water away from the fabric of the building). I have tried to find out who it might depict, but without success. I should, of course, have enquired while visiting, but put too much faith in the internet sources. It’s shown in the photo above: seemingly a lawyer in his wig and holding a book. A lead spout makes him appear to be smoking. Why was a lawyer chosen? Is this a friendly tribute to someone or a sly dig at some fellow the church authorities had problematic dealing with?

Image: Chichester memorials


Networking Making Up for Lack of Mobility


A personal point: what a boon social networking sites like Facebook are. I don't usually initiate chat conversations on Facebook, but yesterday I found myself being engaged in four conversations with past or present students from the Leeds Met University tourism course. One was with a student at present in South Africa who had very interesting things to say about his experiences there. I found myself offering advice. And why not? Life-long education means continuing the teaching process as well as the learning process. And nowadays we don't always have to engage in costly travelling in order to keep easily in touch.

Image: Stonehenge visitors


Nothing Set in Stone

This isn’t the place to attempt a survey of the controversies surrounding Stonehenge. It would take several pages. Getting everything agreed and the place redeveloped is probably impossible.

There is the issue of access to the stones themselves. Many people demand to be able to walk round them, touch them, make real contact. Some of them have religious philosophies as the basis of their wishes – contact with such ancient objects is essential to them in order to complete their feelings of experiencing mystic truths. Others want to examine the stones close up for more prosaic historic or scientific reasons. Between these ends of a spectrum come people who want to be amongst the stones on midsummer’s day so they can see the sun rise above the horizon. And those who want to find inspiration for their music-making, painting, sculpting or dramatic productions.

Against these are those who fear direct access would lead to vandalism or theft or people making political statements using banners attached to the monument or even chaining themselves to it in order to demand someone be freed from jail, or prosecuted, or allowed to do things presently decreed illegal. The anti-access people worry about sit-ins, love-ins, demonstrations and publicity-grabbing musical or theatrical performances. Others have a simpler concern, and that is that the monument would lose its air of drama and mystery once crowds of tourists were allowed all over it.

The next, and biggest problem, is that of the surroundings of Stonehenge. Should the adjacent road be diverted away so that a major twenty-first century intrusion – traffic – is removed from disturbing that ambience of mystery? If so, how could that be done at acceptable cost and without damaging still-uninvestigated archaeologies nearby? Should a tunnel be built – at enormous expense? The present government has rejected this proposal on grounds of cost. What about the visitor centre? You might ask, what visitor centre, since only service functions are on hand at the moment. There is no interpretive centre. If one is built, should it be close by or far away? Above ground or out of sight somehow?

You could add questions of foot access for visitor with mobility problems. Should a road-train be used to move folk around, as has been proposed? Ought commercial services be allowed close by? Should the King Arthur Pendragons of this world be allowed to advertise their concerns and beliefs?

No wonder that famous statement in Parliament twenty years ago about Stonehenge being a disgrace is still relevant today.

Image: Stonehenge Audio Guide

Stonehenge Described


The audio commentary works well. Whoever supplied the voice is very competent. The description is clear, well delivered. The script is well written. For me the overall effect of what I heard - and I didn't listen to every bit of it, nor can I recall it all - was that the monument retains its mysteries. It was not used for sacrifice. It was not a giant, stone-built, astronomical device. It was not used by druids or any twenty-first century imagined culture. Its builders were skilled, not primitive prehistoric ignoramuses. They were not people like ourselves with our twenty-first century outlook on life. Neither were they stupid or lacking in imagination. Whatever they were building in different forms during different centuries was highly significant. Their structures required knowledge and resources that would challenge us today if we had to build them without modern, powerful tools. What they did was impressive.

Is the way we care for their legacy as impressive?


The next posting will explain why.

Image: Stonehenge tickets and tunnel

The Ministry of Public Building and Grotty Works


Before English Heritage came along there was a government department more or less of this title looking after many thousands of Britain’s heritage sites. Advantage: entrance was dead cheap. I seem to remember in the 1970s paying just a few pence to see a set of abbey ruins in Shropshire. Disadvantages: many – most notably the defence-depot appearance of many of them. Chain link fences were common, huts served as ticket booths and the grass was Mown Very Carefully, probably by someone retired from caring for some regimental parade ground.

The present facilities are of the same order. There is the car parking area by the road with huts serving as toilets. A walk along tarmac takes you down a slope to a cafe and shop set against the road embankment. Ticket booths where staff have to be brisk and business-like to deal with almost a million visitors a year are placed here. Interestingly, audio guides to the site are free, which is unusual and will be commented on later. Tables and chairs might be set out in the open for visitors – there is no indoor cafe or restaurant. It’s a very busy area. We were there in October and the photos show the activity which must be pretty intense in the summer. No – pretty is not the best word!

After buying tickets or showing an English Heritage membership card the visitor walks through a tunnel under the road. It looks like an urban subway, hard-edged, dead straight, reasonably lit and cleansed, and with mural paintings. People start using the audio guides somewhere here. If numbers are high I suspect this might add to the bottleneck of the entrance area.

Out of the tunnel the paths and slopes curve away with a little more variety. The tarmac paths give way to grass. A low-level rope acts as a barrier with notices telling people to stay on the paths. Numbered markers link with stages in the audio guides. It appeared that almost everyone was using them, a few choosing to read a guide book, a few just to walk and look. The audio guide did have the effect of moving people along in a reasonable way, though again busy summer seasons must be trickier, rather like a continuous crowd of people moving through a popular indoor exhibition and struggling to get good viewpoints. Popular exhibitions (the British Museum’s ‘Terracotta Warriors’ show, for example) use timed ticketing, but such a development would prove difficult here when many visitors turn up on the spur of the moment.

Image: Stonehenge entrance area

King Arthur Pendragon


Very noticeable by one part of the car park is the grey-bearded figure calling himself King Arthur Pendragon. He operates outside the car park by standing in an adjacent field but has banners are posters fixed to the wooden fence. ‘King Arthur’ chats to anyone with an inclination to talk to him. I can’t say I had much interest myself as I tend to avoid anyone seriously presenting themselves as characters from history: re-enactment societies are a very different kind of thing. This gent’s message – his campaigning point – was that artefacts had been removed from Stonehenge for research or show elsewhere and they should be returned as they were sacred to the people who used them around the monument. A landmark site like Stonehenge gets claimed as being ‘sacred’ in one sense or another to all kinds of people – druids, pagans, history geeks, environmentalists, astrologers and several shades of politicians with axes to grind or flint arrowheads to chip. Most of them are numbingly didactic about their beliefs and impose them on the rest of us whenever they can. It does not respect a site like Stonehenge to treat it in this way, nor help to unlock what are still the great secrets of this prehistoric landscape.

Image: Stonehenge: national disgrace?



With American relatives visiting as part of a family gathering in West Sussex a trip to Stonehenge was bound to be high on the list. Victoria had been before, many years ago, but her husband Jay had not. Neither of them is the sort who would look uncritically at what must rank as close to the top of every American-to-the-UK visitor's list. They knew of the problems of the nearby main road, the cramped and worn parking and entrance facilities. Jay, especially, having heard stories of the monument and pictures in books and films based on it, was keen to see for himself.

It must be quite a few years since I went to Stonehenge. It looked then virtually as it does now and my memories of it were fairly negative. This time I could see all the usual problems but felt a bit more positive. That's not to say that it needs the road moving, the entrance shifting and making much better with a proper visitor centre and so on. I do like the fact that people are kept off the stones. Having visitors clamber round and over them would destroy them visually and also physically. The chain link fence doesn't do anything for the place except make it look like a defence establishment.

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