Heritage! The Battle to Save Britain's Past, BBC Four | TV reviews, news & interviews
Heritage! The Battle to Save Britain's Past, BBC Four
Giving Britain's past a future - from Victorian pioneers to the National Trust
He may have been lampooned in his lifetime as the man who kept a pet wasp, but Britain owes much to John Lubbock, the Victorian MP whose legislation gave the country its first bank holiday. His Ancient Monuments bill of 1882 (nicknamed the “monumentally ancient bill" for how long it took to get through Parliament) was even more far-seeing, paving the way for the Heritage movement as we know it.
It would be hard to imagine Britain today without the National Trust, English Heritage and the other crusading organizations whose representatives people BBC Four’s thoughtful three-parter Heritage! The Battle to Save Britain's Past. It was not ever thus: Shakespeare’s Stratford home got knocked down by its owner, a not very reverent Reverend, at the end of the 1750s, because he couldn’t abide the visiting crowds (he really blotted his local copybook, however, when he chopped the mulberry tree that Will had apparently planted himself).
Hill may have 'lost' Swiss Cottage, but without her Hampstead Heath wouldn't be what it is now
Nowadays, of course, it’d be submerged in its own ticket stubs - or long ago bought up and moved, every last brick, to America (as happened increasingly in the early 20th century). That might have been the fate of Stonehenge, too. Lubbock (pictured, below right, BBC/The Lubbock family) came to heritage through archaeology (we owe him the words “Neolithic” and “Paleolithic”), and it was the land that was his interest, rather than the things people built on it. He put his money where his mouth was: raised to the peerage, Lubbock took his title from Avebury, the smaller sibling of Stonehenge that he had purchased to avoid it being built over.
None of this went down well with landlords, who thought they could do what they wanted with what they owned, so early preservationists faced uphill battles (in every sense). Lubbock’s first inspector, the magnificently monikered Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers (of Oxford ethnographic museum fame) and his minions were up and down the country charting the stone sites, circles and burial grounds that were on their first wishlist for the album Our Ancient Monuments (main picture, above).
John Ruskin added in elements of environmentalism, while politics was never far away, bringing in the likes of William Morris. The impressive Octavia Hill (who'd have known you can watch restagings of her progressive teaparties in Cambridge today?) was as much concerned about the street conditions in which working Londoners lived, as about their chance to breathe fresh air: she may have “lost” Swiss Cottage, but without her Hampstead Heath wouldn't be what it is now. Hill was one of the founders of what today has become the National Trust.
There’s lots of fascinating detail here, but making it all speak from the heart rather than the history book is challenging (the narration from Siân Phillips is nicely restrained, just the right side of plangent). Heritage touches us all, it's the “bits of the past we take into the future”; so much more than the country houses - Downton fever? - to come in the second episode, that many may associate it with today. I hope we get a writer or two cropping up later in this series to remind us of that greater resonance, of the fact that landscape really is memory.
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