Looking back, over my shoulder

Note: the following is purely my personal view and should not be taken as any kind of official policy or attitude of organisations mentioned…

Right, back at Wrest Park again this week in Blog land, and just wallowing in a bit of nostalgia… Well I’m not, but a lot of people do come to the gardens and allow the memories to flood back.
What I think is different about Wrest Park, compared to a lot of historic sites is that people have been working here for all of the life of the place in some capacity or another and it has never stood empty. After it stopped being a family home at the outbreak of the Second World War it was the wartime HQ for the Sun Insurance Company and then the Silsoe Agricultural Institute. Between former employees of the Insurance firm and the students and staff of the institute a lot of people have lived and worked at Wrest.
So every time I do a stint, I can be pretty sure that someone I will meet will have memories of the place, or have visited many times before. They are often some of the most fun visitors too, both because they often are amazed and delighted at the state of the place now, and also the stories that they have to tell (given half a chance).
Sometimes it is the practical stuff of people who worked or studied here. We had the man who claimed to have put in the boiler that heated the place forty years ago – we could not check if it was still the same one, but according to him the chimney looked the same. There was the former student, who commented how weird it was when he was studying here to be sat at functional institutionalised plastic chairs and tables only to glance up at a gloriously decorated high ceilings and grand portraits high on the walls.
Then there are the childhood memories. Last week we had a man whose father used to be a handyman for John George Murray, the industrialist that owned the house between the wars. Apparently, his father had less happy memories of the place, because he was once badly savaged by one of the three massive dogs that lived in the Lodge house. Not surprisingly, after the initial incident his father never lingered much in that area and would hurry past as soon as the barking began.
More fun though were the couple in the nineties who were on what they called their farewell tour. They’d both lived in the south of England as when younger and they were now were resident in Scotland.
They had hatched on a rather sweet plan of touring all the nostalgic places they remembered from that time while they were still fit enough to do so, and were clearly having a whale of a time. For the lady, Wrest Park was special because when Sun Insurance had been there the caretaker’s family and her family had been friends and they had often come to stay in the house with them.
If you are a volunteer at Wrest you will know that down below there are two parallel tunnels complete with cellar rooms that open off them at intervals. These tunnels run the length of the main house and connect to the service wing, where the kitchens and other utilities were, and have intermittent staircases to allow for the servants to access the main house discretely as needed.
I get a thrill walking through those tunnels every time although now they are clinical and brightly lit. When this lady used to visit, at the age of about twelve, she told me that she and the caretaker’s kids used to have free run of the tunnels and cellars. Typically that meant running round in the pitch black, screaming their little heads off and being simultaneously terrified and delighted in the way that only children can manage to achieve.
Honestly, her eyes were alive at that point. She was delighted to be back and it was clear that all the happy memories were back to for that afternoon. I got to share them, which was something very precious.
I cannot say I’ve run along the tunnels screaming yet, but I cannot help imagine the kids doing that now as I walk among them (and the kids that visit today would pay extra for that privilege I am guessing. OK, get their parents to pay extra. Maybe I should suggest it to the site supervisor…).
Is nostalgia a good thing? I think people have a tendency to attach the concept of “wallowing” to it too much – as though you have to keep looking forward and to look back will result in you turning into a pillar of salt. However I think that nostalgia is just reconnecting with things from our past. It is part of what we are; why shouldn’t we look back and enjoy those memories again?
Then we can smile and get on with making new ones.