Chairman's Report, 2008

Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. Last year's Chairman's Report began as follows:

For most of us, the lasting memory of 2007 can be summed up in one short four-letter word. RAIN. It seems that from mid-June to the beginning of September it did nothing but rain in torrents, pour down, drizzle, mizzle, rain cats and dogs, deluge, bucket down, spit, precipitate and shower on us. Typhoons were reported elsewhere in the country; but monsoons seemed to have hit Moretonhampstead. Anyone who avoided being drenched was lucky, to say the least.

Now, I don't want to be accused of repeating myself, but it seems the only thing I have to change in that paragraph is the date, replacing 2007 with 2008. I went on to ask, were we downhearted with all this bad weather? Last year I declared, no, not a bit of it! This year I feel that to take this weather-defying stance again would be tempting fate. Call me boring and old-fashioned ? but I want some sun!

There is one good thing about rain, however ? it keeps the rivers full. And in particular it keeps the East Dart and the West Dart running. In November 2007 John Risdon gave us an illustrated tour of the West Dart River down to Dartmeet, where it meets the East Dart. Along the route we took in Bronze Age sites and Wistman's Wood, Crockern Tor and Dartmoor Prison. So popular was the event - due in no small part to John Risdon's superb photographs - that he was persuaded to return to talk about the East Dart later in the year.

The Society's Christmas Dinner in 2007 took place in the White Hart. I have to say it was not the best dinner we have had. I found myself thinking longingly of the long room that used to be used for functions in that same inn a hundred years earlier, which ran the length of the building on the first floor. By all accounts it was a splendid meeting place for both farmers and members of the Literary Society (which used to be the main nineteenth century thinking society in Moreton). Of course, it?s been divided into bedrooms for many years. But now that the inn has changed hands, I hope that we will see an improvement in the quality of food, if not quite the full structural reorganisation it would receive if I were in charge.

January 2008 saw me deliver a talk entitled "A Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval Moretonhampstead" in St Andrews Church. I was gratified that 120 people turned up. I was even more gratified that I heard no one snoring. But what really made this a good event for me was that, for once, all the details were fresh in my mind. Normally I get to talk about my books in public only after they have been published - normally about a year after they were finished and about six months after I've forgotten all about them. But this time, having just finished my book on visiting medieval England, I didn?t have to struggle - all the facts were easily retrieved - and so I did enjoy the occasion.

I was very pleased that one of Devon's most charismatic, charming and perceptive historians came to visit us in February. And what a subject! "History that Hurts". I mean of course Dr Todd Gray. You are now well aware that Drake probably never drank in the Ship Inn in St Martin's Lane, Exeter, and that the first coffee which Molls' Coffee House saw was probably labelled Nescafe. Drake and Raleigh certainly did not meet to plan an attack on the Armada, and Drake was knighted in London, not on Plymouth Hoe. Sadly I was unable to attend Todd's talk ? but I am prepared to bet that he mentioned some of the bed chambers in which Queen Elizabeth is supposed to have slept which are further west than the royal progress ever took her (she never came to Devon) and, of course the pasty story. Even a newspaper in China carried the news that Todd had discovered the oldest known recipe for a Cornish pasty in - of all places - Devon!

March saw more than sixty of us gathered in the Stable Bar of the Union Inn, to listen to a talk on medical history from Dr Tim Dudgeon. Medical history of course has that great advantage over all the other sorts of history in that you can feel it; it makes you squirm all over. In addition, we are profoundly grateful that we don't have it any more, and we instinctively have a deep sympathy for all those who endured it. I have two lasting memories from that talk. The first is that, at one point in the late sixties and early seventies, Moretonhampstead Hospital had the only operating theatre in the country which was heated by an open fire. And the second was how you coax money out of a potential philanthropist who might be persuaded to donate sufficient funds to keep open the cottage hospital. You look at his cheque, and then you pause for a very long time holding the said cheque, and when he asks you nervously, 'is everything alright?' you answer, 'there aren't enough noughts on the end'.

Mike Perriam talked to us in April about Dartmoor from the "Ice Age to the Romans". He led us from the origins of Dartmoor through the limestone caves at Buckfastleigh 30,000 years ago to the Neolithic and Bronze Age remains on Dartmoor. And of course that's really where his story ends, for although there are Iron Age remains on Dartmoor, by the time of the Roman invasion Dartmoor had long-since been abandoned. And so it remained empty for more than a thousand years - until the population expansion of the thirteenth century. I wonder what travellers across the moor in Saxon times thought about the standing stones when they suddenly loomed up out of the mist. No wonder we have such rich folklore, even today.

In May we visited Exeter. Of course, quite a few of us had visited Exeter before, but this occasion was a tour of the older parts around the Cathedral Close. John Heal was our guide, and we ended up walking around the gardens of the Bishop?s Palace. The big earth bank just inside the Roman wall fascinated me; and so did the images John produced of the rebuilt house at the end of the row in the Cathedral Close. I think that that rebuilt house is one of the most handsome postwar structures in the whole city. If they could rebuild that building to such high quality, with a modern grace and yet preserving its medieval materials and proportions, why oh why did they have to rebuild the east of Exeter in concrete?

In June we had a day trip to Cotehele. This tour of the house, entitled by the National Trust a "Symphony in Stone", was a disappointment. Yes, we all love Cotehele, but the standard of the tour was not high. Most of us had a deeper knowledge of the house than the guide did, and are expectations were certainly of a higher standard from the National Trust. The tour was clearly geared around a visit to Cotehele for the uninitiated tourist ? not for a local history society. The house might indeed be a "Symphony in Stone" and the garden might be an Opera of the Outdoors, but the talk we received was little more than a Gobbet of the Guidebook. In case you were wondering, the strange woman who attached herself to our party was another volunteer guide, learning 'on the job'. Good luck to her, I say.

In July we had an outing to Tucker's Maltings in Newton Abbot, one of only four tradtional malt houses in the country still in business. How atmospheric it was, in the warm and dark, listening to the machinery, seeing the old-fashioned posters and advertising material from yesteryear. The malting floors themselves, where the germination took place, gave me a real sense of connectedness with the distant past. The method was so simple, even the mechanical processes were simple and depended on old, sturdy machines. Best of all we were given beer! I got carried away and bought a crate of the stuff, brewed to a recipe of about 1890, thereby combining two of my greatest passions in one glass. Alas, now that beer is historical in every respect.

One of our own members, the enthusiastic medievalist Michael Thompson, came to speak to us later in July, and enthralled us with the story of fashion in armour. As his presentation was described in the Society's Newsletter
The scheduled meeting for July was cancelled. Into the breach stepped the bold Sir Michael Thomson, guardian of Castle Drogo. With great aplomb and the convenience of a chivalric slide projector, Michael showed us how military hardware was influenced by fashion from its origins in the tenth century through to its apogee in the sixteenth. From chain mail to plate armour, breastplates and backplates, great helms, bascinets, and even steel skirts, we saw the whole array of body protection displayed and explained in relation to what people were wearing on a day-to-day basis. Folds in tunics were mimicked in steel backplates. Helmets were shaped to reflect the tips of hoods... Best of all, Michael brought along many pieces from his extensive collection of reproduction medieval armour, so the more gallant members of the audience were able to try on a hauberk or a pair of gauntlets. Fortunately no one was tempted to take up a sword and actually put the equipment to the test..

As usual we did not hold a meeting in August. Normally this is because of the summer; this year it was due to the monsoon.

We reconvened in September for John Risdon's return and another photographic presentation, this time on the East Dart River. Having recently seen this in full spate ? yes, indeed, we?re back to the weather again ? I paid particular attention. But as with John?s previous talk it was not the river itself which sticks in the mind so much as the hidden evidence of so many activities alongside it over the centuries. The Gunpowder Mill is familiar to us all, but few of us were familiar with the Stannon Starch Factory. Or quite how far the leats took the water used in the mines at Birch Tor and Vittiford.

And then the last talk. Adrian Colston on "Climate Change and its Implications for the National Trust". This was a superb talk ? thought-provoking, informative, radical, shocking, worrying and, quite frankly, one of the most important presentations this Society has ever hosted. Who can forget hearing that the sessile oaks which we take for granted, and which are the remains of prehistoric woods, will probably have disappeared from the region within fifty years? Or that the peat might have gone, and so many species with it? And who was not inspired to see that someone like Adrian is prepared to tackle the hard questions, and not only tell National Trust staff that they are going to have to change their ways of doing things but provide leadership himself with his water-power project at Castle Drogo, and the implementation of policies to preserve the peat on the moor, and to have carbon-neutral energy generated from sustainable woodlands. Whatever your views on how best to tackle these issues, there can be no doubt Mr Colston gave us food for thought, new ideas and a new perspective on how life will change over future time just as much as it has changed over the past centuries.

That descibes the year's events. What else is there to report?

Well one thing I am pleased to say is that there has been a whisp of progress with extending the facilities on our website. After Adrian Colston's talk, two members of the Society asked me to put the text of my introduction on line. It seemed inappropriate to put it on the Society's website, so I stuck it on the Notes and Essays section of my own site. However, many other documents are now on the Society's site. For a start, you'll find the text of this Chairman's report on there - this is, in fact, a printout. You will also find

All of thes eyou can now download and printout. We even now have the facility to monitor how many people are using the site ? about 120 per day. True, I have yet to make any headway with the historical data on our website ? and I would still encourage anyone who wants to help, please, to contact me ? but the website is now valuable for documents which conern the functioning of this society, and it should be your first port of call for information if you happen to have lost your programme or need to find out where a meeting is taking place, or you need to look at the constitution.

 

As many people will be aware, the development plan for the Old School Building, where we hoped to hire storage space for our archival material, fell through. Therefore we are still dependent on the generosity of Ian and Pam Mercer for providing a safe space. But the above-mentioned list of the material on line should go someway to helping people know what we have in our possession. If you find you need to look at a document, please do contact me in the first instance. Given the circumstances, the committee decided it would be sensible to restrict access to our archives only to members of the Society for the time being. Despite this, in the hope that one day we will have easy access to a community archive, I have registered our holdings on the community archives portal, www.communityarchives.org.uk. I have also authorised the British Library to make regular electronic copipes of our website for their own electronic archive.

All this brings me to the point at which there is little else for me to say except to thank our president, committee members, and you, the membership. I would like to thank especially

 

One reminder: it is time to pay your subscriptions ? I hope everyone notes that subscription levels are once again staying where they were.

Thank you, to you all.

Ian Mortimer,
15 October 2008

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