MERMAID TALES

Mermaids? Seriously? As if.

My name is Rob and I’m a mermaid denier. To me, the idea of a creature who is half-woman, half-fish, is ridiculous. She would smell! And why are they always top-half human? Why not fish-head and human legs? Why do they always sit on a rock, combing their hair and gazing into a mirror? Like they’re taking a selfie? The entire mermaid concept is daft.

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So why is the mermaid image still stuck in our heads? We have cool superheroes now, like Ironman, Hulk and Black Panther – and not just men, who doesn’t want to be Wonder Woman? The Little Mermaid has no powers, she just flaps around dreaming of a Prince. It’s hardly an advert for Girl Power.

Let’s face it, mermaids don’t exist. It’s a dugong, a fat seal with a big nose. Some drunken sailor saw one and mistook it for a woman. He should have gone to Specsavers. But in that moment, an urban myth was born.

Because that’s all it is, a myth. No proof, no evidence, no nothing. You examine any so-called mermaid exhibit in a 21st century lab and what do you find? A shrunken head stuck on a kipper.

So let me ask you again, why is the image still stuck in our head? 

Perhaps it’s because most of our body is made up of water?

Or like all folk tales, it’s a story rooted in fear. Because we are frightened of The Other. The Strange. The Unknown. Frightened and intrigued.

If you live in Buxton and there’s a storm coming, they let you know on the telly. But in the olden days, when hairy-people saw dark clouds on the horizon, they thought it was a curse. The fish-god was in a bad mood so was going to pelt them with rain. They genuinely thought that if they sacrificed a granny, the flood could be stopped. Thankfully, now we have apps, so can plan alternative routes.

But the primal fear remains. No matter how smart we get, there is always stuff we don’t know and that makes us curious.

We are fascinated by weirdness. Look at The Buxton Museum, the entire building is jam-packed with weird stuff that is totally brilliant, some it millions of years old. That is Pre-Ed Sheeran.

As humans, we are inherently curious. Look at babies. If they find a little disc, they want to know what it is. Is it a weapon? A toy? Or a Mini-Oreo? Because as any baby will tell you, if it’s not a threat, it’s food. It’s how we learn, by looking at weird stuff. It’s why Museums are important.

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I’m one of the artists who has been commissioned to ‘bring an exhibit to life’. I love that. What I’m going to do is this: spend the next few months looking at mermaids and let you know how it goes.

I’m going to start with the Buxton Mermaid because she is, without doubt, the best (and I’m guessing only) ‘shrunken head stuck on a kipper’ in the whole Peak District. And the Peak District is massive! 

So even though she’s ‘fake news’, I am still obsessed with that creature, because she’s not just a spooky doll, she’s the gateway to a thousand crazy stories and over the next few months, I’m going to haul ‘em up from the deep.

I’m going to share them in all sorts of ways:

I’m going to photograph a mermaid, not a real-one, obviously, a synchronised swimmer at Sharley Park Leisure Centre (Is it still synchronised swimming if you’re doing it on your own?). One of their brilliant swimmers is going to put on a fish tail, then we’ll turn off the lights off and try to create something spooky. I can’t wait.

For a land locked region, the Peak District has a surprising amount of ‘mermaid pools’ like Blake Mere where legend has it, a mermaid still lives. I’ll be trekking around the Peaks in search of stories, inspiration and evidence (like that’s going to happen). I’ll also be finding out whether having a sailor-scoffing-siren in your back garden pond has any effect on your house price.

I’ll be finding out what modern-day mermaids might look like? What issues would they might face? Does having a non-conventional body mean a mermaid qualifies for disability benefit? Is she half way through transitioning or an immigrant of no fixed abode? How do each of these groups relate to being viewed as ‘The Other’ when the truth is, we are all equal. My plan is to celebrate diversity using the mermaid as cipher.

I’ll be hosting storytelling workshops, so you can write stories of your own. If you don’t write, or can’t write, that is not an issue. Workshops for schools, groups, adults, fish… everyone is welcome.

I’ll also be writing a story of my own, a dark one, about a boy who lives in Buxton and a girl who lives in a pool. What could possibly go wrong?

And in all of the above, I’ll be working ‘out loud’ so you don’t just see the end result, you see how I got there. And why would I do that? To share my journey, so it’s not just me investigating the weird world of mermaids, it’s us. 

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Stay tuned… 

Rob Young

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Lullaby of the Larks: The Fin Cop Massacre

New multi-sensory exhibition Lullaby of the Larks commemorates the massacre at Fin Cop, an iron age Hill fort near Ashford-in-the-Water. Derbyshire Museums Manager Ros Westwood explains more:

Haunting anthems written by award-winning composer Amanda Johnson are now encouraging visitors to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery to reflect on the events that may have occurred about 2,500 years on a hilltop in Derbyshire. Sixteen pictures by Richard Johnson are memorials to the remains of sixteen young women, children and neo-natal babies that were recovered from the surrounding ditch, and are now retained at Buxton Museum. In four exhibition cases, bashed rocks and stones from the archaeology surround scarlet rosehips and hawthorn berries, and a sole leg-bone of a tiny bird reminds us of the larks in the landscape.

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Amanda Johnson

Lullaby of the Larks is Richard and Amanda Johnson’s response to archaeological remains from Fin Cop. Many artists working at the museum have been moved by events there. Visitors to the Wonders of the Peak gallery can see the work of Caroline Chouler-Tissier, and read Gordon McLellan’s moving poetry and stories, while considering the face of one of the people who was there.

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Richard Johnson

But what is the story behind this?

I first learnt about Fin Cop in a letter that was sent to the director of the museum (me) over 15 years ago. The notelet was written in the hand of an elderly lady who had heard about the remains of a woman being found in a ditch. “I am appalled…”, I read, and then I had to work out where the letter continued, so that ultimately, it is these words that hang in my memory.

“I am appalled…”

I worked out that this was not a matter for the Derbyshire Constabulary Cold Case squad, since this was all too long ago, but rather for the archaeologists at the Peak District National Park, and they were already ‘on to it’.

Let me take you there

Fin Cop is a high spur of a hill overlooking the deep valley of the Wye River. If you go to Monsal Dale, and stand on the Headstone Viaduct and look downstream – Fin Cop rises on the left. It is probably a good place for a settlement, with meadows on the hills around offering level ground for modest iron-age pasturage and ‘gardens’, and fertile soils in the valley below, and fish and wild fowl from the river. From this platform, the views are spectacular (although be aware, this is private property and visiting isn’t encouraged). Back then, people would be able to see the smoke from fires from neighbouring settlements in the early dawn, and the comforting glow of distant firelight under the sweep of the Milky Way on dark nights. Communities then were not necessarily alone.

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Fin Cop facial reconstruction

But something happened here, and the limestone of Derbyshire has preserved some of the story. Between 2010 and 2012, an award-winning, community archaeology project excavated at Fin Cop alongside archaeologists from the Peak District National Park. What they found asked more questions perhaps than anticipated, but the story suggested does not make comfortable reading. It is not my task here republish the archaeologists’ report; that can be seen at www.archaeologicalresearchservices.com , but what remains there were preserved in the limestone and what is missing leave many questions to consider.

What might have happened at Fin Cop?

People had been going there for thousands of years. There is a tool-knapping floor, with the remains of chert flakes scattered around, dating from long before the iron age. But by the time of our events it seems that there was a community here, maybe not permanently, but with the security of a wall around the houses. Something happened, and the community reinforced that wall, not very well so we can imagine it had to be done quite quickly. And then…?

Let us start with the things which are missing from the archaeology. We would expect clothes and baskets and other organic materials to have disintegrated completely, which they have. But there is very, very little pottery – admittedly the pottery of the time was friable and poorly made – more like flapjack than ceramics!  No metal – well, the limestone reaction will not have helped that. No beads, no bone ornaments and tools; no spindle whorls or loom weights. If you want clothes made from wool, then these would surely survive, just round or circular pieces of stone with holes drilled through them?

It is unlikely that the archaeologists didn’t choose to collect them. They just aren’t there. Nor are the bones of animals – pigs or sheep. There is no evidence of men, or older women. There is no evidence of infection, nor of a site being raised to the ground.

So what is there?

What there was, found seemingly tossed into the ditch below the wall, and with the wall tumbled above, were the remains of young women, children and unborn babies, including a woman carrying twins. No clothes. No ornaments – not a bone pin that might have held a cloak, or beads that may have braided hair. The soles of the feet had been beaten, to such extent that the marks remain even now in the bones. A drinking cup, broken and friable was thrown away too, like a modern emptied takeaway coffee cup; this was the only artefact other than the rocks from the wobbly defences above. Sixteen skeletons or partial remains were removed from the trenches. There may be four hundred more – let them rest there.

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skull from Fin Cop

The removed bones have been subject to a variety of investigation. Amongst my favourite pieces of information is of the woman with caries in her teeth: clearly she liked honey, the best and easily available natural sugar. My imagination wanders with her as she steals it from the pots, licking her fingers and the residual taste on her lips; as she follows the bees back to the hive so that she can plan to harvest the comb.

But ominously, as I say, these are all women of child bearing age and children. With Liverpool’s John Moore’s University, we have tried to capture the face of a teenager who died, whose early life had been blighted by injury, illness and hunger.

What happened?

We can never know. We can surmise, but there will always be doubts.

However, as discussions for the deposition of these remains continued at the museum, I had occasion to be listening to the radio. Likely it was Woman’s Hour, because the conversation was topical, sympathetic and a women’s story. Two women from the Balkan states, refugees now in Britain (and I apologise here for my sloppy memory) were recalling horrific events they had witnessed during the war there at the end of last century. One day, their female relatives – was it mother … aunt … sister, even – were forcibly pulled away from them, walked onto the bridge, made to perch on the parapet … at which point the two surviving witnesses watched the drunken soldiery shoot these women, and their bodies falling into the river below.

How do they reconcile this memory with their grief?

Is this what happened? A falling out amongst communities? The men and older women, all the possessions – animals, looms, utensils, clothes, everything – cleansed from the site, just leaving this youthful generation, and possible evidence of a genocide. Did these women and their children have any protection, any clothes? Unlikely – clothes, blankets – they can all be reused. But just as the new male lion does, these offspring and potential offspring were wiped from the record. The killers’ will have their own children, their DNA lines, with their women, only.

After that, from what we can see, no-one except the ghosts returned to Fin Cop. But oral memory is long; the footpath to Ashford is known in Old English as the Way of the Young.

The birds still sing; hazelnut shells, rosehips and hawthorn berries bear witness of to the berries these iron age women may have gleaned. It is a meadow of extraordinary beauty, whose history can only really be imagined.

You can see Lullaby of the Larks, admission free, until Saturday 24 November. Plan your visit here.

You can listen to Amanda’s composition here.

 

Buxton High Street: Past, Present and Future

Archivist Ian Gregory ruminates on the history of trade in Buxton and whether anything has truly changed:

My latest task at Buxton Museum is to photograph and catalogue photos from an exhibition. The one in question took place years ago and one of its sections was called Local Trades, Many of the shops and businesses recorded are long gone but one has continued to the present day. It is called J.W. Potter and is a shop selling clothes, towels and bedding. Our picture of its exterior dates from around 1890.

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J.W. Potter Terrace Road Buxton around 1890

As I worked on this image, I wondered why some businesses carry on while others fail. Then I thought about changes in the wider world, from which Buxton couldn’t have always been shielded.

There was a time not so long ago when many believed that Britain’s future lay with heavy industries like coal mining, ship building and. locally to Buxton, quarrying stone. Then many of these industries collapsed for one reason or another. After that, people were encouraged to set up small businesses and especially service industries like shops and cafes. Next came the recession at the end of the 1980s and many though perhaps not all of these enterprises failed. Today, we are told the High Street is dying and big businesses operating online are the future.

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Corner of Spring Gardens and Terrace Road Buxton around 1870 showing Lawson’s Wine Vault and Ibetson the Watchmaker

Is this the whole story or have we always had features associated with one era or one decade? Buxton was full of small businesses and independent shops long before we became fixated on the yuppies of the 1980s. People still new enterprises from time to time though not often enough to fill every vacant space. The Potters shop mentioned earlier is adapting to the digital age by setting up a website . I wish them luck. I do some of my shopping there and I have always been happy with their goods and services.

Twenty or thirty years from now, will we still be fixated with the online giants or will something we can hardly imagine be taking their place? Or will we be obsessed with something new while at least some other things stay the same or adapt and carry on alongside the new?

The First 125 Years of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

To accompany our 125th anniversary, Derbyshire Museums Manager Ros Westwood reveals the history of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery:

On 28 September 2018, Buxton Museum will celebrate 90 years since opening in its new premises at the Peak Buildings. At least 35 years previously, it was established in the Town Hall, overseen by the first librarian/curator, Mr Sarjeant. But now, with the library, and under the management of the librarian, Mr Hill, it occupied a street side location in the heart of Buxton. The opening was a splendid affair, with a formal luncheon and the opening address by Professor Sir William Boyd Dawkins.

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Mr T.A. Serjeant

The Peak Buildings was only a little older than the museum. In June 1881, Samuel Hyde, a noted balneologist (someone who understands cold-water spa treatments) became proprietor of the Buxton House Hydropathic Co. Ltd, and opened a private sanatorium on Terrace Road. He was a persuasive businessman and negotiated a purchase of land from the Duke of Devonshire to build an imposing Hydropathic hotel. The hotel opened in 1885, with several further extensions and building programmes. Although several of his businesses on the premises failed and were reformed, Hyde remained as proprietor and lessee the Peak Hydropathic. He raised the funds to keep the business going and to improve it. In 1895 architect Charles Heathcote designed the east wing with its ball rooms and additional bedrooms, now the Green Man Gallery.

This was a time of recession. Time and again, the business failed; early in the 20th century the Leek and Moorlands Building Society repossessed the hotel on at least two occasions since the mortgage was in arrears.

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In 1915, The Peak Hydropathic was taken over for military purposes, as an annexe to the Canadian Granville Military Hospital which had its headquarters at the nearby Buxton Hydropathic on the Broad Walk. Amongst the doctors who worked here was Frederick Banting; he would survive the war and in 1923 was awarded the Nobel Prize as the co-discoverer of insulin and its therapeutic potential.

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After the war, in 1921, William Turner of Stockport bought the building and opened the Peak Hotel. Within three years, it was sold again. In 1926, the Buxton Corporation bought most of the Peak Buildings. Within two years, the ground floor was opened as a museum and the first floor became the public library. Many residents of Buxton remember coming to the museum and the library in these interwar years.

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In 1968, the County Council took on the responsibility for the library with the museum alongside. Within five years, the library was moved to the Crescent and then to Kents Bank. Buxton Museum absorbed the vacant spaces and opened the art gallery in 1978. In 2018, the main art gallery will celebrate its 40th anniversary. More significantly, in 1979, the first professional museum curator was appointed, Dr Mike Bishop, who brought specialist knowledge and professional collection management to the collections.

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The Buxton Public Library and Reading Room by Robert Lewis McLellan-Sim, oil, 1934

There have been only ten custodians of the collections. Mr Oliver Gomersal, resident of Buxton and one of the museum’s benefactors, remembers them all.  One of them, John Leach, assembled and published the history of the building, which has provided much of the information in this brief tale. Most of the custodians have worked in the challenging hotel building, where visitors admire the beautiful stained glass even before they are welcomed in the doors. But once here, visitors amazed by the collections that we have cared for over 125 years.

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Mr Oliver Gomersal

I25th anniversary exhibition Collectors and Curiosities: Buxton and Beyond can be seen until Saturday 6 October. Admission free. Opening Times. 

Orient Lodge

At one time there was a rather grand house in Green Fairfield.

Hardybarn Lane is a long single track running from Waterswallows Road and ending just short of the Buxton to Bakewell A6. As you head down it you are all too aware of the huge Tunstead Quarry nibbling away at the land a few metres away to the east. The quarry is fenced off with danger notices and ‘Beware of Cliff Edge’ signage, periodically there are concrete igloo blast shelters close to its cliff edge perimeter.

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What remains of the tree lined driveway off Hardybarn Lane

Between the fence lining the road and the quarry’s raw edge is a no man’s land where amongst the native flora rhododendrons bloom and if you wander through where you shouldn’t there is a monkey puzzle tree towering majestically above the ash and sycamore. Close by there is evidence of a tree lined driveway running from the lane straight to the great drop into the quarry.

An online search on ‘side by side maps’ (1) where you can compare old maps with satellite images illustrates two driveways; one straight leading to out buildings with a court yard and one further down the lane with a gate house, winding through formal gardens to a much larger house.

It was called Orient Lodge.

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Side by Side Maps; the grounds of Orient Lodge and how it is today

I googled the name and Buxton Civic Association (2) have a link which revealed something of its history from Alison Wilton whose family lived in nearby Daisy Mere Farm, which still stands today.

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Samuel Swann Brittain of Orient Lodge. Copyright Tunstead Archive of Tarmac Cement and Lime

Built in 1896 for Samuel Swann Brittain and his Arabic wife Emma there are accounts of the grand house of Orient Lodge employing dairy staff, farm workers and servants. Originally the grounds were open farmland but the Brittains landscaped the estate with formal gardens and planted mature trees from Ashwood Dale and overseas. There are tales of an orangery filled with exotic fruit trees, beautifully built stables for a stud farm and shippons with luxuriously tiled interiors.

It is said that Samuel Brittain spoke seven languages and that the couple had business interests in tea and cotton from Egypt, India and Africa. They lived in the house throughout the First World War until the 1920’s when it said that an uninsured shipment of tea sank resulting in them getting into financial difficulties. They began to pay their farm manager Ben Bingham in land in lieu of wages owed and by the early 1930’s he owned the whole estate.

 

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Ariel view of Orient Lodge around 1920-30. Courtesy of Audrey Evans

 

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The Orangery at Orient Lodge. Copyright of Tunstead Archive of Tarmac Cement and Lime
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Audrey Evans

Shortly after discovering the name of the house, a lady visited the museum whose mother, Audrey Evans used to live in the gate house of Orient Lodge.

Audrey paid us a visit at the museum, bringing along photographs and accounts of life in the gate house with her parents Norman and Ivy Smith and her elder sister Thelma.

 

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The Gate House at Orient Lodge. Courtesy of Audrey Evans
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Wilf Bingham and Audrey’s father Norman Smith with dog Zippy at the Gate House. Courtesy of Audrey Evans

Audrey’s time living on the estate during the 1930’s was when the estate was owned and occupied by the Bingham family. She revealed that the winding driveway was for the main house and the straight tree lined entrance was strictly for trades people and staff leading directly to the stables and dairy.

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The stables at Orient Lodge. Copyright Tunstead Archive of Tarmac Cement and Lime

 

Audrey remembers the Bingham’s having three children; Wilf, Mary and Robert. Spending much of her time with ‘Mary from the diary’, she recalls great vats of cheese being produced in this large single storey annexe at the back of the main house. She recounts memories of a huge kitchen with numerous sinks, a range, a piano and long forms where former staff would have sat down to eat.

She also caught glimpses of inside the main house where there was a large staircase, grand fireplaces of marble and ornate covings and heard the accounts of how the Bingham’s came to acquire the house from the Brittians. Audrey believes that Emma Brittian originated from Sudan, others say Egypt, but both tally in with tales of a tall dark lady descending a staircase wearing a yashmak and striking, brightly patterned silk robes.

Norman Smith walked to work each day at nearby Tunstead quarry when it was much smaller than it is today. She recalls that one winter morning Norman trudged through snow numerous feet deep on the lane to find he was the only worker to have made the journey in to work. He received a half crown for his efforts.

Audrey’s sister Thelma attended the primary school on Queens Road in Fairfield, a long walk for such a small child. She remembers her father teaching Thelma to ride a bike and then painstakingly constructing and fixing a metal seat to the front of a bicycle so her mother Ivy could cycle with them both along Waterswallows Road to school.

In 1936 the Smith family moved closer into Buxton but Audrey still recalls returning to visit Mary at Orient Lodge. During the war years she recalls seeing the grand rooms on the ground floor stacked with sacks of grain and the Bingham’s retreating to the servant’s quarters of the house.

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Mary Bingham at Orient Lodge. Courtesy of Audrey Evans

Quarrying began at Tunstead in 1929 and gradually expanded, moving closer to Orient Lodge. By the mid 1930’s the Binghams had already sold part of the land to I.C.I. By this time it was Robert Bingham who owned the estate and he came to an agreement with I.C.I. to limit the approach of the quarry with penalties attached if the agreement was breeched. The quarrying did indeed approach faster than agreed and Robert Bingham received significant compensation.

Robert kept the house on until he died in 1977 before its inevitable sale to I.C.I.

Audrey remembers that Wilf, Robert and Mary had no children of their own and the £70,000 from the sale and proceeds from the Bingham family’s compensation funded The Bingham Trust (3) which continues to serve to relieve poverty in Buxton and Fairfield and to fund the provision of educational services.

What became of Samuel and Emma Brittain I am not sure. Online war records reveal a son, Major Edward Samuel Brittian of Orient Lodge. He served in France in 1915 in the Royal Field Artillary and then in Sudan where he died in 1923 aged just 31. He is commemorated in St. Peter’s Church in Fairfield.

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Detail of fireplace with Egyptian Pelicans. Copyright of Tunstead Archive of Tarmac Cement and Lime

One of the last uses of the house was a test bed to assess the damaging effects of different blasting techniques on nearby buildings.

Orient Lodge was demolished in 1978, its dressed stone auctioned off, its carved marble fireplaces with Egyptian pelicans sold and distributed and much of its land consumed by the quarry.

 

References:

(1) Scottish National Library/ side by side maps:

http://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/side-by-side/#zoom=17&lat=53.2662&lon=-1.8637&layers=6&right=BingHyb

(2) Buxton Civic Association

https://buxtoncivicassociation.org.uk/tag/orient-lodge/

(3) The Bingham Trust

http://binghamtrust.org.uk/

Further links:

https://www.militaryimages.net/media/edward-samuel-brittain.120852/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/galleria_de_magnifique/4737424326