Saturday, 22 August 2009

Vanishing England by P.H. Ditchfield & Fred Roe

Vanishing England by P.H. Ditchfield & Fred Roe
Originally Published 1910

Having previously read P.H. Ditchfield's 'Charm of an English Village' this book was a little disappointing from a Family History perspective, as it doesn't match the individual location coverage of the earlier volume. However, as a general summary of the state of all things 'English' that the author considered to be under threat in 1910 it is as comprehensive a survey as one could hope for. It is also quite illuminating that the concerns shared by so many today were already being expressed by our ancestors a century ago!

Opening with chapters on Walled Towns, the architecture of old streets and lanes, and Castles, Ditchfield shows what soon becomes a recurrent ability to illustrate his arguments with detailed and knowledgeable examples from the length and breadth of England. Whilst this richness of detail and knowledge is quite fascinating however, after a while the reading becomes something of a wish-list of places one feels one must visit - and always in the back of the mind is the sorrowful worry that his examples may have since vanished themselves in the intervening century.

The many chapters cover a wide variety of other topics, including Prehistoric Remains, Old Bridges, and Old Municipal Buildings; but the chapters most likely to be of interest to Family Historians include those on Vanishing or Vanished Churches, Old Inns, and the Disappearance of Old Documents - a chapter of particular interest and of some considerable sorrow as Ditchfield recalls tales of previous mishaps that saw the destruction of many a parish record!

Although written a century ago, Ditchfield's concerns and suggestions for future preservation remain as urgent and as vital today as they have ever done, and the frequent reminders that each generation is simply the guardian of the past entrusted to keep it safe for future generations is a sentiment that many of those who hold office ought to remember far more diligently - not least those currently responsible for Swale Borough Council's continued desecrations!

The book is illustrated richly throughout by Fred Roe's evocative line sketches which bring many of the examples to a touching life, and which provide a change of emphasis from the repeated whistlestop trips across the country.

This book is well worth picking up if you see it available, or it can be read for free on the Internet at Project Gutenburg:

Perhaps the easiest option for those who find the solid writing of earlier generations somewhat heavy going is to put the name of the village or area you are interested in the search engine and see if Ditchfield has any comments or tales to pass on.

But however you read or dip into this book, I would challenge you not to start seeing the urban landscape within your own town in a rather different light!

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