Heritage and History, by Stewart Ross

About time too. On Thursday 27 May Canterbury City Council announced an ambitious – and expensive – plan to transform the city into a world-class tourist destination. In April, I lamented the shabby and half-hearted manner in which we present our very special city, and therefore warmly welcome the ‘Canterbury’s Tales of England’ proposal.

We’re currently about 20 years behind other ‘heritage’ destinations such as York and Chester. Why would a visitor choose to spend a day trying to navigate, largely unaided (seen the Tourist Office, anyone?), Canterbury’s uncomfortable and unplanned melange of the medieval and modern when they could be in Bath? Small wonder, as Council Leader Ben Fitter-Harding pointed out, that the City’s ‘visitor numbers have declined over the years.’ From the tourist’s point of view, the place is a mess.

Enter the long-awaited Tales of England plan to re-boot completely the City’s heritage experience. It’s a pity it has taken a dynamic and far-sighted private individual, Stephen Allen of the Westgate Towers and One Pound Lane, rather than the Council to drive the idea forward. But we do now have something to work on.

The fate of the Tales project depends on the ability of its proponents to attract the necessary cash, mostly from various government schemes. I fear that having a Labour MP, however excellent she may be, might not help. But let’s look on the bright side and assume the scheme gets the backing it needs. What do we want?

When Ben Fitter-Harding talked of revamping our ‘heritage offering’, he drew social media fears that Canterbury would become a theme park. I understand these misgivings. As a trained historian, I am suspicious of the increasingly blurred boundary between history and the new kid on the block, heritage. They both deal with the past, but while history strives to ascertain objective fact (forget all that post-truth stuff), heritage tends to take only such facts as suit its cause and dress them up in fancy clothes. This can feed myth.

Myths can be misleading, for example:

  1. It is often overlooked how several of Thomas Becket’s contemporaries objected to his being proclaimed a martyr because he had died not for his faith but in a political struggle with the king. Monkish opportunism and popular opinion preferred the martyr story. The rest is heritage.
  2. When looking at World War II with my French undergraduates, I mentioned ‘the miracle of Dunkirk’. ‘Oh,’ they quizzed, ‘you mean when perfide Albion ran away and left us fighting alone?’ Same facts, different perspective.

Moreover, in the hands of the unscrupulous, myths can even be even dangerous, eg ‘chosen people’, ‘master race’, etc.

Back to Canterbury’s Tales of England. The Kentish Gazette reported that the scheme hoped to ‘showcase the story of the Blitz in Canterbury.’ Fine, but let’s not have a Horrible Histories-style simplification featuring Plucky Brits v Nasty Nazis. We need to be reminded, for instance, that Germany launched its Baedeker Raids in response to the RAF’s firebombing of the ancient city of Lübeck, with its large stock of wooden buildings. Perhaps, when we commemorate our Blitz, we might also remember all the other cities and their inhabitants around the world that suffered so horribly by fire and high explosive during World War II?

So, three cheers for Canterbury City Council and Stephen Allen for producing an exciting and imaginative plan to make the most of our fascinating history. It’s now up to us, when giving our feedback, to ensure that what materializes is not a Disneyfication of the City we love but a complex, enlightening panorama, warts and all.

Stewart Ross is acting Chair of the Canterbury Commemoration Society

One Comment

  1. Very good Stewart, when we think of Canterbury’s Blitz on the 1st and 2nd June 1942 we ought to think of Lubeck, Brunswick, Cologne, Wurzburg, Aachen, Frankfurt am Main, Dresden and other historic city centres in Germany which suffered far, far greater damage than us. We have this obsession in Britain that we showed great spirit in resisting a nasty enemy, when we were engaged in indiscriminate bombing against civilian rather than legitimate military targets.

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