A couple of years ago Martin Rundkvist pulled together a series of blog posts from around the world under the heading The Ever-Present Past: Your Nearest Site. My nearest site is probably an air-raid shelter from the Second World War, but despite three trips I couldn’t find any visible remains. If you live in the UK there’s a very good chance the closest archaeological remains will be some form of civil defence from the 1940s but – until large numbers of the British are willing to accept the war is over – it’s going to be hard to persuade people they’re heritage.
There were two sites I could find and I was equidistant from both of them, so I chose Derby Silk Mill. Not everyone has a World Heritage Site on their doorstep. If I’d gone a couple of miles in the opposite direction this would have been the site posted.
This is Swarkestone Bridge, the longest stone bridge in England. It crosses the river Trent and its floodplain. There’s been a crossing here since at least the fourteenth-century, but the current bridge mainly dates from the Georgian period with most of it built at the end of the eighteenth-century. It’s about a kilometre long and someone has kindly put up a video about it on YouTube.
I say mainly because often there’s damage from accidents; being a Grade I scheduled ancient monument isn’t giving the bridge that much protection and it’s common to see rebuilding going on. The bridge needs to be used as it’s still the main route from the city of Derby to Melbourne and the south of the county. A sensible solution might be to build a second bridge alongside the old bridge and have each one take traffic in one direction obly. However, it’s probably more cost-effective over the life of an individual administration to leave it to be damaged and replace it bit by bit, so in some ways it’s also a modern reconstruction of what a Georgian bridge might look like if it wasn’t rebuilt on a regular basis.
It’s easy to overlook that ancient monuments have a life which changes in different eras. If the bridge were purely Georgian, then it wouldn’t be around in the 21st century. The idea of sectioning of areas of the modern world and declaring them to be the past gives them quite a bit of privacy. It’s common to find evidence of social activities that you wouldn’t want to share with the wider public at ancient sites. For instance the tombs I visited in Tunisia were quite deep in beer cans, which wouldn’t be something you’d want out in the open in an Islamic country. Visiting this morning I found foil, a spoon and evidence of a small fire by the side of the bridge. It was hidden amongst the undergrowth and out of sight of the local houses and pub. Clearly this is evidence of a soup party. Obviously seeing as the pub, a short distance away, serves food people wouldn’t want to be seen publicly consuming home-made soup there. The landlord would get tetchy. So instead, after a few drinks, they go the the privacy of the bridge away from the modern world and heat up small quantities of soup in a metal spoon over an open fire.
I don’t know of any archaeological studies of modern soup consumption at ancient sites, nor of extreme icing. Extreme icing is where you get the icing sugar and ice through a syringe and hypodermic needle so you can do the really fiddly bits on wedding cakes. Why someone would take a wedding cake to an ancient site is a mystery to me, but clearly they do because it’s not unusual to see the syringes and needles. I don’t know if you could get funding for that kind of archaeological research though as it’s verging on the socially useful.
If you’re a sympathiser of Bonnie Prince Charlie then Swarkestone marks the end of the road south. It was here where Jacobite forces, invading from Scotland, came to a halt. Charles Stuart had invaded promising his allies that had assurances that the English would rally to his cause. At Swarkestone he was forced to admit he’d received no such promises. His council of war voted to return to Scotland.
Derby might also mark one of the few examples of Englishness as a form of self-defence. The Scottish army camped by Kedleston Hall one its way back. Supplies are important, so someone from the army approached the hall to secure food for the 5000 soldiers. Seeing the size of the army and the potential ruin of his household it is said the lord of the manor insisted everyone turn off the lights and pretend they were out. This surely has to be a modern invention, but I do like the idea of the lord picking up a reproachful card slipped under the front door: “We called this AM/PM to pillage your hall for victuals but there was no reply. Please contact us to arrange a more convenient time. Regards, the Jacobite Rebellion.”