Monday, 1 April 2013

A Historic Day Out

I haven't written in my blog for a while, and usually I don't write about 'history days out' although it seems like a sensible thing to do. But today reignited that desire to write some stuff about history, because, not only did I have a really good day nerding out, but there is a lot I can write about.

So, on a freakishly cold Easter morning, my family drove to Windsor Castle. I had never been there before, but it was incredible (albeit very expensive). Walking past the 800 year old walls of the castle, watching the Changing of the Guard and marvelling at the silver-gilted doors and windows made me proud to be British. We have a fantastic history, one that should be recognised as having light and dark moments, but it is fascinating to consider our traditions and how long they have been performed. 

British monarchs have lived at Windsor for a thousand years, and I thought it was quite fitting that on the day we visited, the Royal Standard was flying over the tower, a clear sign that the Queen was present. The State Apartments and the Chapel were incredibly beautiful and interesting, though the best part for me was learning about the Order of the Garter and the traditions that came with it. In the chapel, the sigil of the Knights are placed around the choir, with half drawn swords that symbolise their readiness to aid the Queen at the drop of a shiny helmet.

After a F*!fdjf** cold walk around Windsor, we drove to Basildon Park, a National Trust house and garden. I've been to quite a few properties now - the National Trust does irritate the crap out of me sometimes but I love looking around a large house and learning the history of the people who lived upstairs and downstairs. (My ancestors were farmers and servants, so I'm definitely with the downstairs lot.) It was simple and elegant, in the Palladian style (oh lord I sound like a swot. This style was basically popular in the eighteenth century and is very classical, as opposed to the dark and gothic Victorian style a century later). As per usual, the dining room and bedrooms were hugely expensive and spacious, and the house contained traditional rooms such as a shell room (apparently it was cool to collect shells and fossils from all around the world in the 1700s) and an octagonal room to entertain people. That stab of annoyance I find about the NT always rears its head though - the history of the house is not told very effectively. Granted there are a lot of stories to tell, but there was no information about how the house was transformed into an army convalescence hospital during the First World War, and there were few details about the Americans who were stationed there during the Second World War. Despite this, without a doubt, it was the most beautiful house I ever visited, and I can't wait to go back on a warmer day when I can wear one layer instead of twenty five.

Anger at Proposals to Sell Wounded Knee

In 2006, I visited Wounded Knee, South Dakota. It was a grim few hours, as the site is part of the Pineridge Indian Reservation, and home to hundreds of impoverished Native Americans. In 1890, three hundred men, women and children were massacred by General Custer's old regiment, the US 7th Cavalry in what is widely regarded as the last battle in the 'Indian Wars'. Little remains at the Wounded Knee site today, apart from a lone cemetery on top of a small hill. A museum dedicated to the massacre, lies several miles away.

In recent months, there have been several calls to sell the land, much to the anger of the Native Americans on the reservation. The asking price of $3million will never be enough to compensate for the lives lost on that cold, December day in 1890.

But what should the local residents do? The Oglala Sioux tribe, who live on the reservation, are millions of dollars in debt and would have to borrow money to fight off investors. Should they develop the land for tourism, or continue to use the land in memoriam of those that died?

When visiting historic sites, you can sense that something took place there. That feeling is ever present at Wounded Knee, but there is an added weight to it: a heavy realisation that the conflicts of the past are ever present today. Driving through that dusty reservation is not something I am likely to forget. Thousands of Native Americans live in poverty, as a direct result of the government's policies in the nineteenth century. These debates show that in all corners of the world, history is very much alive, and often, it is painful and difficult.