Posted in Highbridge on Monday 15th March 2010 at 7:05am
It's easy to look with justifiable anger at the recent removal of Burnham-on-Sea's boating pool from the beach. A gift from the Braithwaite family to give thanks for their sons' safe return from the First World War, generations of visitors to the town have played in it's murky depths. I have my own memories of digging miniature canals in the silted up pool, and of finding decaying eels floating in the water. Mostly though, its part of the landscape - it's origins largely unknown until the recent Sedgemoor District Council decision to remove the pool. And while it is dangerous to use an internet forum to take the temperature of a local debate - and especially one as given to dyfunctional babbling and pyrexic rages as burnham-on-sea.com, the reactions to these recent events have given me cause to consider how the 'heritage' game works around here.
The final straw for those who are claiming the demolition of the pool is 'desecration' appears to be the suggestion that a chunk of the concrete edifice will be retained to bear a plaque featuring words chosen by the Braithwaite's descendants. This appears from the reactions to be adding a gross insult to a grave injury - but why is it any worse than sending this last piece to the crusher along with all the others? I think it's all about the removal of context, and the simple fact that we lazily expect our heritage to come prepackaged for easy consumption these days. Consider the embarassment of riches from the Roman era available in Britain today. I've been dragged around many a windy hillside to see these - forlorn, but evocative. Suggestive of a flow of time, but not necessarily sparking an instant vision of our history. Until of course suitable context is provided in the form of a 'visitor center' or 'experience'. In this model of heritage, the consumer signs-up for a package deal of context-setting multimedia and the artefact or location is relegated to second place. The thing itself can never match the reconstructed environment - not even the thrill of touching two thousand-year old stone walls can compete with the carefully paced walk-through designed to deliver just the right number of visitors through the site.
The situation with the boating pool is a little different, but still relates to this disconnection between relic and context. Here, the context is absolutely gone - bulldozed already and crushed into dust finer than the sand which surrounded it. The relic, a rather odd looking and insignificant corner of the concrete pool, is useless in itself and has none of the qualities of the original memorial. It's no accident that religious terms like 'sacrilege' are employed - in the strictest sense this relic has indeed been robbed of it's truth and meaning. Of course, the replacement for this lost context - a suitable plaque linking then to now - will never quite deliver the reverent and solemn 'experience' required. In a new war nearly a hundred years later, and with a deepening gulf between the personal and political in society this act of destruction signals all that is bad at the core of politics. An administration has failed to listen and understand, and seems to have deeply misjudged the heritage gamble.
How does this relate to Highbridge? Well, our own heritage here is taking hit after hit and we are in danger of losing the context too. However, the context here is an authentic market town which can't offer an 'experience' to the visitor in any positive sense as things stand. What it can offer is a view of forsaken heritage - entering from the south, the charred skin of the Highbridge Hotel, shored by an exoskeleton of scaffolding, rears at the casual traveller. Descending towards town, and just feet away the town clock too is under threat of demolition due to a lack of repair. The historic shopping and industrial areas are slowly but inexorably transformed into residential developments of the most depressingly predictable kind. Our own war memorial crumbles and leans at a busy road junction. However, the same intemperate locals who rage against the demolition of the pool can barely raise an eyebrow at the widespread destruction in Highbridge. The best response seems to be a recognition at the fact that Highbridge stands as a embarrassing gateway to it's sister town of Burnham - and that fixing it is a similar window-dressing exercise to watering the flower beds on the distributor road. The worst though, is a cynical sneer at the town and it's inhabitants. It is worryingly commonplace to find the latter view nowadays among locals - and often, perplexingly, it is those who are shouting loudest about the boating pool or poor planning decisions in Burnham who are least concerned and most scornful of Highbridge. It is of course folly to believe that the events here will respect parish boundaries, and perhaps it's time for Burnham's champions to look long and hard at Highbridge and to recognise the trend.
So perhaps the heritage game really is a lottery, and no relic is worth more than the value placed on it's immediate surroundings? This certainly seemed to be the situation for Sutton House in Hackney until the National Trust finally intervened, and it seems true for Highbridge too. As for the boating pool, I'm truly sorry that a part of my own memory of Burnham has disappeared, but politics and history are never the most comfortable companions.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.