(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)
An English teacher once handed back an essay I’d written by scrunching it into a ball and throwing it at my head. When I unscrunched it (the essay not my head) every page was criss-crossed with creases.
I mention this for two reasons. Firstly, although I didn’t keep the essay (it was rubbish) it still has a role in my life. We’re connected. From that ball of paper came better writing, better stories and who knows, perhaps better Gudgeon articles. Secondly, I’ve noticed my face is starting to look like that essay. Time is marking me in the same eloquent but unsubtle way – with creases.
It was with this cheerful thought that Sally and I went for our daily walk. “What I need,” I said as we approached Barton Grange Farm, “is a James Ellis Preservation Trust. A group of volunteers who are willing to give up their time, restore me and keep me looking great.”
“Or to stuff you,” Sally said. “And put you in a jar.”
“But I’m still alive,” I said. “Anyway, I don’t want to be a museum piece. I’m not talking about conservation. I’m talking about active preservation, of retaining a function, of having an ongoing value and being relevant to the future.”
We looked at the West Barn. Hard to imagine that the grass on which we stood had once been a muddy, puddle-covered car park. Harder still to imagine that this building, which was partially destroyed by fire in 1982, pre-dates the Tithe Barn which itself is about 700 years old. Thank goodness the West Barn was restored and re-opened. It now hosts meetings and private functions and has public open days every week.
“This is what I mean,” I said. “Benefitting from the past by contributing to the collective good.” That’s how I talk sometimes, like a socialist pamphlet. “The key to the future is to keep the past and the present connected,” I droned on. “Did I ever tell you about my scrunched up essay?” But I could see that Sally was still thinking about me being in a glass jar.
Unlike me, Bradford on Avon does have a preservation trust and one of the reasons this town looks so remarkable is because of that trust’s good work. Priory Barn and Priory Barn Cottage, the Pippet Buildings on Market Street, Newtown Sprout, Barton farmyard itself, country park plantings – all these were rescued or created (and in some cases are still run) by the Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust and its volunteers.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of any community. They can’t be praised enough. They pick up litter and look after swans’ eggs and manage historic barns and run fund-raising events and write in The Gudgeon about the climate and sustainability. They get things done and they care. We need that in this world and we also need a regular churn of volunteers to keep that vital link to the future. Their voices with new ideas and different perspectives can answer the existential question that plagues all successful charities: what should we do next?
We walked to the river and watched the water drift by. I said, “You know, it’s not about preserving the past at all, is it? It’s about preserving the future.” But Sally just gazed at me with a faraway look and said, “I might go on a taxidermy course.”
You can read more about the Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust at www.bradfordheritage.co.uk. And if you’re interested in setting up an organisation devoted to my restoration that doesn’t involve glass jars, do let me know.