One of the highlights of my fun weekend with Felix was a trip to Cold Harbour Mill. I am writing at greater length about what a fantastic place it is to visit in a feature I am producing for Rowan (look out for it in 2009, folks!). But there is one point about just why Cold Harbour is so great that I wanted to make here. While researching and editing this book several years ago, I became very interested in the policies and practices of transforming British history into publicly-accessible ‘heritage’. Cold Harbour is a sterling example of just how well this can be done without fuss, without pretension, and in a way, it seems to me, that rather admirably swims against the tide.
(Steaming-Up at Cold Harbour)
This transformation of history into heritage is particularly interesting where industrial processes, or particular commodities are concerned. Taking whisky as an example (and in complete contrast to what’s going on at Cold Harbour), here in Edinburgh we boast the five-star visitor attraction known as the Scotch Whisky Experience. Let me start by saying that I have experienced the “experience” twice, that I really learned a lot, and that I also had a great time on both occasions. But the rather bizarre assumption of the ‘experience’ is that people somehow want the same kind of thing out of history as they do out of the rides at Blackpool pleasure beach. . . .
Whisky is obviously a highly sensory thing, but does it have to involve one’s whole body? Clearly so, for at the Scotch Whisky Experience, you have to physically get into a barrel (mysteriously equipped with wheels and multi-lingual audio) before travelling back in time. This booze-fuelled ghost train then trundles through several Scottish centuries, complete with kilt-clad waxwork highlanders, the sound of pipes, and migraine-inducing malty aromas, until the historic journey of whisky concludes in a mock-up pub. A holographic ghost then appears behind the bar to reveal to you the secrets of the spirit-safe, and the intricacies of blending a branded malt. Finally, you are deposited in a well-stocked commercial outlet where you can buy a reasonable range of whiskies, a dizzying assortment of gifts with a tartan theme, or an obligatory box of flavoured fudge.
The whisky experience usefully fills a hole: tourists come to Edinburgh, they are naturally interested in our national drink, and there are unfortunately no distilleries conveniently situated on the Royal Mile for them to visit. And while most distilleries offer tours, they are usually a little more concerned with brand identity than national history. So many of what I regard as the shortcomings of the ‘experience’ concern the simple fact that it occurs in a space that has absolutely nothing to do with the production of whisky. But I am also frankly bewildered by the assumption that for the public to engage with history in any meaningful way at all, they have to berloody smell it. And it’s not even the ‘real’ smell, but the smell at one remove: not the earthy scent of the maltings but a careful chemical imitation; not the dung heap of history, but the fantasy of that dung heap.
But at Cold Harbour they are keeping it real. There is no need for imaginary gimmicks: this is a working mill that has been right here in this Devon valley since 1799. It’s history is written through the fabric of it’s buildings, through the landscape in which it sits, and through the textiles it still produces. You can really see the nineteenth-century shifts in industrial power from water through steam to electricity. You can get to grips with just what it was about the worsted process that lent British woolen products such international renown. You don’t need to clamber into a woolsack, travel back in time, or smell any fake sheep shit. You don’t need the heritage fantasy because what there is here is exciting enough: a wonderfully preserved location, carefully restored machinery, engaged and knowlegable staff, thoughtful and accurate self-presentation, and everywhere a commitment to education, to public history, and to the future of the mill. I’m someone whose job it is to think about the way the past is represented, and I was deeply impressed by everything I saw. And the fact that great businesses like John Arbon’s are now thriving at Cold Harbour is evidence of it’s straightforward and successful combination of old and new.
So go to Cold Harbour. I guarantee you will think differently about the history of British woolen textiles after being there. And yes, you can buy their worsted-processed yarn. And yes, it is really fabulous stuff.