Past Present

Do you ever find yourself thinking about the seeming randomness of life? For example, maybe the first person you meet at school becomes one of your best friends. Would things have played out differently if you or they had arrived at a different time that day, or would you have bumped into each other at some point anyway and your friendship was predestined?

Or perhaps you read a bit of information while killing time online, only to discover that it’s a perfect fit for a new project at work. The word serendipityan unexpected discovery or fortunate chance—was coined for just such occasions.

It’s something that I consider all the time when I’m scouring the beach in Lyme Regis. Although instead of friendships or facts, it’s fossils and other detritus that I’m scanning for. What are the chances of me finding an ammonite or piece of seaglass as I walk along the shore? How much randomness is at play for me to be in the exact right place at the exact right time to find something interesting that the waves have decided to toss on shore? A few minutes earlier or later and the item would be gone, dragged back into the ocean for someone else to discover on a different day, perhaps in a different year, decade, or even century.

Beyond the fossils that Lyme Regis is best known for, it also has a rubbish dump eroding out of the hillside above the sea that can reveal a wide-range of Victorian and 20th century household items. The same rules apply though: what are the chances that something of interest will turn up when you’re walking by?

During my last visit to Lyme Regis, back in pre-pandemic times, I stumbled on piece of metal that had developed a beautiful green patina during its years outside and exposure to the sea air, with a curved shape reminiscent of the prow of a Viking longship. I brought it home and promptly asked the archaeologists and historians in my life what they thought it could be. No one had a clue. The little relic was consigned to the finds table in our living room, the place where we collect pebbles, shells, and various bric-a-brac from our travels.

Every so often, MrElaineous and I get the urge to declutter. This year’s cleaning frenzy was sparked during the summer while watching the BBC show Sort Your Life Out in 7 Days. It took us a little more than seven days to go through bookshelves, DVDs, kitchen cabinets, and our respective wardrobes, but we eventually ended up with a pile of belongings we were happy to part with.

There was a slight problem though. What to do with them next? Charity shops are already bursting with many of the items we wanted to get rid of, but we didn’t want to take them to landfill either. The plan became to wait for good weather so we could sell them at a car boot sale, the British equivalent of a flea market or communal garage sale. In one of those strange twists of randomness—or is it fate?—a local shop advertised that they were going to start an indoor boot sale. We signed up and off we went.

We had a lovely time meeting the other sellers and managing to make a few pounds while also offloading a few freebies (to the gentleman who took all of my scrap notebooks—I am so pleased you had a use for them). While doing all of this, I got to chatting with Kayleigh. Not only did it appear that she and her family have a similar taste in entertainment to me and MrElaineous since they bought a few of our pre-loved items, but I learned she was an object conservator at the local archive, the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.

An archive is perhaps one of the best examples of a place that tries to organise the chaos and randomness of life into literal boxes so it can be found by others. Rather than relying on being in the right place, at the right time, it’s simply of matter of navigating the filing system to uncover information about the near and distant past.

I admitted to Kayleigh that I had never been to the WSHC, despite living in Chippenham for over a decade and having a background in archaeology and research. It should practically be my native environment. So when she mentioned that there was going to be a public tour later that week, MrElaineous and I promptly signed up.

Despite spending a lot of time in various libraries while researching my PhD—including the stunning Bristol Central Library—I wasn’t really sure what to expect when we arrived. Maybe an introduction to the collections and a quick peek behind the scenes? A few Ordnance Survey maps and publications about the local area? A card catalogue or two?

To say that I underestimated the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre would be an understatement.

Heritage education officer Ruth Butler opened my eyes to the treasure trove of material that was just down the street. A document signed and sealed by Queen Elizabeth I provides a brush with royalty. Letters from Florence Nightingale reveal Wiltshire’s connection to the wider world. School registers from the late 19th century serve as a snapshot of local conditions, making note of 14-year-old boys who had left to work in the quarries or indicating when schools were closed so that the children could help their parents with the harvest.

As we went through the different levels of the archive and its rows upon rows of neatly stacked boxes—each with a carefully written identifying label—Ruth helped give voice to the great, the good, and the everyday lives of those who once called Wiltshire home. It’s almost a cliché in the UK to compare a building that seems bigger on the inside to a TARDIS, the physics-defying police telephone box that Doctor Who travels in. Yet this was a TARDIS in more ways than one: beyond its miles of shelving, the Centre is practically a time machine.

We finished by paying a visit to Kayleigh and her colleague Carlie in the conservation lab. As object conservators, anything can and likely will come across their desks. At the time, they were in the middle of conserving a wasp nest for display at a museum and cleaning a book that documented the presence of Eric Walrond in Bradford-on-Avon. This Caribbean writer was once a part of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City and documented life in Wiltshire between the wars; he currently has his own exhibition at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.

My head was buzzing after the tour. Archives hold more than bits of paper: they are a repository for stories.

And what is a good story without a sequel? I signed up to attend a free conservation surgery with Kayleigh and Carlie to discuss my mystery object from Lyme Regis. As soon as I brought it out of the Tupperware container, Kayleigh said without hesitation, “Oh, it’s a picture hook.” And this item that had stumped me and my friends for years now had a name.

During a time when picture rails were much more common than they are now, picture hooks would allow you to safely hang pictures without needing to actually hammer anything into the wall. This one was slightly bent out of shape, and after looking at it under the microscope, Kayleigh thought it probably contained lead, which would have made it softer than it should have been. Could this be the reason that it ended up in the rubbish tip all those years ago? After all, a picture hook that doesn’t hold pictures isn’t much use of anyone. We imagined someone getting frustrated and deciding to throw the hook away, only for it to surface decades later at the feet of a visiting beachcomber.

So, this is how a holiday to Lyme Regis, a household declutter, and a car boot sale led to me discovering the wonders of the Wiltshire and Swindon Heritage Centre. Chaos and randomness. Fate and pre-destination. Serendipity. Isn’t it funny the stories we tell ourselves?

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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  1. Sue Dudley
    November 16, 2023 / 8:55 am

    Picture hooks (and rails) are really useful – I am amazed so many people couldn’t recognise one!

    • November 16, 2023 / 9:27 am

      It’s funny: I can’t say I ever noticed them before, but as soon as I got an ID on the piece I noticed them all over my mother-in-law’s house! I think the context confused people since I would introduce it by saying “I found this on a beach in Lyme Regis.” As someone who struggles to align pictures, I can definitely see the advantages of picture hooks/rails, provided they don’t include lead.

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