Transforming the Trent Valley

Why heritage, Conservation and Environment matter in the 21st century

Our speaker on November 16th was Dr Mark Knight, Cultural Heritage Officer of Transforming the Trent Valley (TTTV). Despite the projector not being available Mark gave us a vivid description of a fascinating job. Last week, on Remembrance Day, the work of the TTTV team was featured on BBC's "Countryfile" program and his cousin, Ken, asked "why does history matter! What use is it?" So, in his presentation, Mark explained why heritage matters.

The project is funded by a 47 million grant from the Heritage Lottery and 18 different organisations are involved. Mark has a contract with the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust and, while Covid-19 interrupted the project, it still has some months to run.

Conservation and environmentalism are different; one to preserve and enhance, the other to reverse the worst effects of civilisation. There are three aspects to heritage: 1) Tangible objects / artefacts such as coins or sculptures that are movable; 2) Static monuments and 3) Shipwrecks and ruins. All these are found in the Trent Valley.

Then there are the intangible aspects of heritage, covering the oral traditions, performing arts and the inherited culture of social bonds, folk lore and music, dialect and accents within the region. As an example, Mark picked an expression from the East Midlands, "get home before the nine o'clock horses arrive"; a warning to children, probably referring to the ash pit men who collected the day's toilet waste.

Examples of dialect caught include the alternatives 'cobs', 'breadcake' and 'baps'. (During the Bosnian war in Yugoslavia, the way a word is could be a matter of life or death).

The TTTV project includes the re-invention of lost customs. Derbyshire Council has erected a Community Heritage Orchard on green wasteland with apples representing the two world wars. An Apple Day was celebrated and included a revival of the Wassail [1]. During lockdown a group from Tamworth was assisted in creating their own orchard. Mark thought an orchard in Lichfield might be suitable for such a project and Stephen Sanders suggested the Erasmus Darwin orchard as a suitable venue.

Local maps have been made indicating important areas or objects, a special tree, a park or a pub; they may be embroidered.

"Stop!" was established by the War Office in 1940, in response to a possible invasion threat; after the retreat from France a series of stop-lines were created in the Midlands along the river valleys of the Trent, Tame and Dove. These included 73 pill-boxes, situated in strategic positions near rivers, bridges and roads, to deter the Germans. They were initially manned by seven men, later by the Home Guard. After the war farmers were offered 5 to destroy them but many were saved owing to their robust, concrete, construction [2]. Now some of the remaining pill-boxes are being considered for new uses.

Everything from pre-history to industrial history is being researched - a time span of 7,000 years. Even apparently 'invisible' objects, seen beneath the surface only in aerial photos or on LIDAR, are of importance to the project. Farmers are being persuaded to grow less damaging crops or pasture to preserve the precious layers of Archaeology. Few object, as many see themselves as guardians; for example, the proud owners of an iron age hill-fort - now a scheduled ancient monument at Walton-on-Trent.

The Staffordshire Wildlife Trust has a problem area, involving a Roman Road that was once a highway from Leicester to Colchester. There is a short section of 150 metres, that has not been quarried for gravel, where the archaeologists are using LIDAR to locate the old road. History comes full circle with hill-forts and pill-boxes!

Some perceptive questions from the audience followed Mark's talk; relating to Parish boundaries and the role of Heritage Lottery monitors; and Mark will be learning more about the Darwin Walk orchard at Elmhurst via the Darwin Walk Trust's website. There was also a question about the expense of using LIDAR equipment - supplied free by the Environment Agency for the project. Metal detectorists are also important in discovering artefacts.

A member asked about the end of the project and how will its legacy be recorded. Mark said that the research which has been carried out by volunteers is a valuable contribution to the project; the East Midlands Oral History Association is just one example.

After the meeting, Mark Knight was thanked for his very informative presentation. Maybe the Society could ask him for an update when the project is complete?


[1] Wassail was revived by Common Ground in the 1990s, encouraging local distinctiveness.

[2] There is a pill-box at the National Memorial Arboretum with information on its construction and use.

Lorna Bushell
November 2021