Discovering the Heritage Value of Chaucer Fields

Dear all

Since the last blog, awareness of the importance of Chaucer Fields as an unspoilt space has continued to escalate. We have seen sympathetic coverage in the local media, and moving from march into april, viewings of the ‘Concrete Lung’ youtube clip of Richard Navarro and Brendan Power reached four figure territory (to date 1,067 people have seen the clip: multiple viewings do not count). If you have not looked yet, can I encourage you to do so.  And those of you who live locally will be able to see Brendan himself perform at the Westgate Hall in the centre of  Canterbury next month: please go to http://timedeyandbrendanpower.eventbrite.co.uk/ for a chance to get one of the precious  tickets. Its all for a good cause too –  the refurbishment of the Westgate Hall!

In the last blog, with one simple example of the Green Woodpecker, I tried to begin hinting at the part played by colourful wildlife to what might be called the ‘Chaucer Fields experience’ (I personally don’t like this expression, but its the language of the moment, from public authority planning documents to University policy documents so we had better take it seriously!). There’s clearly a great deal to explore and enjoy in Chaucer Field’s 10 acres or so in terms of Open Space, tranquility and the natural environment on the Fields. This is a point which hundreds of local people, University staff and students have made repeatedly in their responses to the University’s own ‘consultation’, the Planning Application (through Canterbury District Council) and most recently in statements and representations for the pending Village Green Application (Kent County Council) for the wider Southern Slopes (43 acres, stretching Eastwards from Chaucer Fields).

At the same time, let’s remember that the land on this precious site and the experiences encountered here, where ‘rural’ meets ‘urban’, is never purely ‘natural’, but deeply ‘semi natural’. It has been shaped by the ways in which people of all kinds have shaped landscape  over decades and centuries. Who cares and protects this inheritance? Well, our City Council gets a lot of stick for matters ranging from parking policies to housing. But, credit where credit’s due: it has long recognised the value of the Southern Slopes and embedded that recognition of the value of unspoilt landscape in the District Plan, which continues to provide a key framework for policy at this level.

But how has the development of this particular land depended upon man over historical time? Looking at campus maps from the University, Ordnance Survey maps or other sources, it seems impossible to address this question. Chaucer Fields tends on many maps to be treated as blank and grey (or green if we are lucky), with some occasional recognition of tracks and a hedge or two. But there’s  no sense at all  of how the place has connected with people living and working here over the generations. In other words, there’s a massive gap between official imageries of this space, and the historically evolved reality.

Can the community fill in the blanks? Well, at least in the case of the Chaucer Fields site,  help is at hand. As part of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) mandated under British and European law, as part of its recent planning application, the  University were forced to fund research into heritage. Luckily for us, the renowned Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) were charged with this work, and their evaluation, buried deep within the EIA  – and yet to be widely read as far as I can tell –  is most revealing. To give just one example, they unearthed and discussed with scholarly insight a map covering this site and its environs as it was mapped some 300 years ago (Figure 8.4 in chapter 8 of the EIA). This has more detail than any modern maps, and evocatively refers to the spaces on and around the site: We are vividly shown Dover Down Field in the West, for example, and Bramble Tithe (or Tye)and Sand Pett Fields close by.  Beverley Farmhouse, already over 200 years old when this map was formulated, is lovingly located and portrayed. And at least one side of the spectacular, towering hedge that runs upwards towards Beverley farm within the site is here revealed as tracing an ancient boundary.

I think it is now time for the community to begin building  on this important CAT work, and try to make it relevant for all of us. Its another means of collectively demonstrating the importance of this place which so many intuitively feel deeply, but need to express in a publicly accessible way. My belief is that to make this resonate to maximum effect, we can indeed start with this type of scholarly endeavour, but we must also  use our imaginations and accumulated personal experiences to identify and name what matters to all of us.

To get the ball rolling, I have tried to create (above) a sort of ‘heritage map’ of Chaucer Fields and an associated key and glossary (below). This is a tentative first step; it is personal; and it certainly does not claim to be professional. It is open to revision in every respect if people wish to pass on relevant comments, criticisms and suggestions to me.

Our Chaucer Fields Glossary

I’ve proceeded in three ways. First, I have read carefully read and sought to understand  (as far as a non-archaeologist and non-historian can) the current import of, and likely current interest in, the fascinating materials assembled by CAT.Second, I have reflected on how this could connect with what I already happen to know about Canterbury and the area, and my personal experiences of the Slopes over the 20 and more years that I have grown to become familiar with it. Third, I have long had a fascination with language and modes of communication, and the way they reflect local priorities and values. In a much more experimental and playful vein, I have sought to draw on the valuable research of the Kent Archaeological Society into local dialect to add colour to the features combining nature and man-made endeavour which are so fascinating here.

Indeed,with the exception of a reference to a ‘hot spot’ (having listened to Concrete Lung again, I couldn’t resist that!), I have often suggested some forms of words which faded out with previous generations, and many would now consider arcane or irrelevant. But for me, revisiting the language developed by our forbears is all part of the process of clarifying who we are: to a significant degree, it is up to us to decide for ourselves what we remember, retrieve, and consider ‘Heritage’.  Why not bring ‘defunct’ language back to life if it helps us make sense of the present? I hope you’ll find something of interest in the suggestions, or at least get sufficiently irritated by them to propose constructive alternatives!

So, please do let me know what you think of the map and the accompanying glossary. The more we talk about it, the more likely we are to get to a position which reflects the collective wisdom and experience of the community as a whole.

Happy Easter!

Chaucer Fielder

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