It is perhaps one of our favourite pastimes, especially over the summer months, to go and observe the Heritage that England has to offer. This comes in its many forms from grand estates like Buckingham Palace and Hampton Court to monuments like Stonehenge. But much of this heritage is now being sold away. Is this financial gain pragmatic or should we be holding on to our history at all costs?
Just last week the BBC announced that Catherine of Aragon, the infamous first wife of Henry VIII which led to the King’s Great Matter and the establishment of the Church of England, was to have her stately home Castle Lodge in Shropshire sold for roughly £1 million for the purpose of modern renovation. The house was then also owned by Thomas Seckford, an important official in the court of Elizabeth I until his death in 1587. The house has previously been renovated (due to natural degeneration) but maintains a lot of its classical early-modern features, including the open fireplace and beams, which sustains its interest to tourists. Naturally, the re-selling would also take it out of the hands of the Heritage Trust and mean it is no longer open for public viewing. The home had previously been a tourist attraction charged for entry and although not extremely popular, received rave review with people calling it “unique”, “impressive” and “spooky”. This is very similar to many homes around the country, such as Enid Blyton’s house in Buckinghamshire, which was also announced to be going on sale, by the Guardian, for roughly £1.85 million in July 2015. Once again, though currently still a summer tourist attraction, it’s likely that Blyton’s house will no longer be open for public viewing from as early as 2018.
By why should we care? Should we really put effort in to preserving these houses as places of historical interest to tourists? It seems that on a base level many of us do because we recognise the cultural and historical value of these landmarks. We only need to cast our mind back to the riots in Athens in March 2014 after the Government announced its plans to sell off Greek’s cultural history, including the Acropolis, in order to repay its monumental debt. There are, however, two perspectives to consider here. The first is of the average tourist, a non-specialist in History who just enjoys engrossing themselves in English heritage. The second is the historian who not only enjoys heritage but uses it as a key to understanding and unlocking the secrets of the past. Many historians, for example, pay close attention to the architecture and furnishings of early modern castles, houses and churches when making judgements about the political, social and aesthetic state of the Early Modern world. So why should the average tourist care? Well, essentially, they lose their hobby and pastime. It seems that we, as a nation, enjoy, respect and take pride in our history (or at least most of it) and hence by removing these landmarks we can no longer have our day-trips out to engross ourselves in the past. But perhaps this does not matter too much, as these landmarks being put up for sale are smaller and less significant – no one, after all, is suddenly going to sell off Stonehenge!
But it seems, then, that we become pragmatically choosy over what ‘landmarks’ deserve historical protection and which do not. From statistics, released by ALVA, the Tower of London had 2.75 million visitors in 2015 alone, followed by 1.6 million to Westminster Abbey and 600,000 to Hampton Court Palace. None, however, beat the British Museum which recorded a record 6.8 million visitors. So, clearly, all these landmarks are ‘safe’ because they invite mass public interest and have a great financial inflow. This in itself is a really good thing. The problem then becomes that the historical value of the past is not based on the history and heritage it possesses but the financial value of it in the present. Hence the houses of major historical figures get sold because it provides a greater flow of income to sell and renovate than to keep it as a site of historical interest. I, however, think that we should value history in-and-of-itself and not just make it equatable to present financial values. The home of Catherine of Aragon has a value in that it is the home of Catherine of Aragon; the secrets of the past which houses like these can help us to unlock are themselves worthy.
Many will be sceptical of this, especially those that don’t study history, and will simply be thinking “but why should we care?” But for any student, whose aim is to further their study in their field and unlock its secrets, they should then understand the value of these houses. What good would a scientist be if we decided to remove all microscopes from labs? Or a nurse who could not have access to the medicine cabinet? The reality is that these houses, to historians, are the bread-and-butter of the work we do. For many they are key sources of evidence and interest. To say that it “doesn’t matter” that they are being sold and stripped of their historical value is to undermine the very value of academic study itself. In fact, it is to undermine the very reason we are all so passionate about what we study. This also cannot be understated by suggesting that the selling off ‘will not affect the historical value of these sites’. Take, for example, the current plans to sell off landmarks owned by the National Rail, including London Paddington Station announced in March 2016. If this is successful, names are likely to be changed and infrastructures adapted and remodelled under new foreign owners. We simply cannot have it both ways.
So what can we say then about the plans to sell Catherine of Aragon’s home? For me, it represents another fatal blow in the removal of our heritage and historical distinctness and it is this we should cherish for both its value as a form of legacy and a key to unlocking the past. Of course you may still just think the money is worth it. But I hope I’ve at least given you a reason to think twice.