A page from a diary of 1756 describing the weather on January 1st A page from a diary of 1756 describing the weather on January 1st Show image info

1756 weather diary by the Rector of Bath. Ref: TC Bath Churches

A Map of Words: Stories and Poems of Somerset and its Residents

The pages that follow contain such things as a poem about a mythical 'man of Mendip', a narrative about a ‘Water Wych’, a monologue by a policeman trapped in floodwater, stories of 18th and 19th century shopkeepers, personal memories of living on Camden Crescent, a poem about the Blitz, an acrostic poem about graffiti, a reflective essay about the Egyptian goddess Isis, memories of Exmoor and a story of refugees in southern Africa, among many other vivid forms of writing.

Historians know that history is about more than cold, factual research – it’s also about creative engagement with the stories of the recent and distant past.

This writing project was a workshop collaboration between Bath Record Office and writers at the St. John’s Foundation. Regular fortnightly creative writing classes had been taking place at St. John’s since July 2017, eventually building up to two fortnightly classes in Bath and one monthly class in Radstock, with a group of about 30 writers in total, 21 of whom eventually submitted poems and stories for this anthology.

The project grew, originally, out of a desire to see the St. John’s Foundation writers’ stories and poems published in an anthology of writings about local history and landscape. Bath Record Office were referred to me as a possible collaborator. We hoped that the St. John’s Foundation writers could engage more deeply with the history of their local community and landscape by responding to materials from the Record Office archive.

With the help of Lucy Powell (Collections Manager: Archives), Helen Daniels (Learning Workshop Leader) researched the Record Office over a number of days in late 2018 / early 2019, to identify suitable artefacts and materials. Helen and I then met several times at Bath Record Office during that period to plan the project’s content. Helen informed the planning through her extensive and ever-growing knowledge of the archive, while my role was to guide the design of fruitful writing exercises and figure out the detail of the lesson plans.

A total of ten workshops were designed, to take place in February and March 2019 in Bath and Radstock. The workshops covered the following themes – Maps, Weather, the Bath Chronicle, Crime, Retail through the ages, and mining at the Combe Down quarries. Artefacts included 17th century maps of Bath and Somerset, an 18th century weather diary by the Rector of Bath, photographs of floods from the early 20th century, Victorian crime reports and police files, copies of the Bath Chronicle from over 200 years ago, and a number of other gems from the archive. There was a wealth of rich, usable material – and it felt like the workshops were only scratching the surface of available possibilities.

The results of the writing – in the form of poems, fictional stories, and non-fiction essays are in the pages that follow. They show what amazing results can arise from creative engagement with historic materials. Thanks to Helen’s expertise, we all learned things about Somerset and about the Bath Record Office that we hadn’t known before. Through responses to the writing exercises, the writers’ engagement with social and environmental history was deepened. And through engagement with archival material, the writers’ experience of creative writing was also deepened. Most importantly, as you’ll see from story titles like ‘Hamster in the Shower’, we had fun, which is a crucial part of engagement with a subject!

Michael Loveday, October 2019