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100 Places: Music and Literature in the East of England

This month, 100 Places - a list of a hundred places that best tell England’s story - is looking for the ten places to represent England’s contribution to music and literature. Natalie Gates, Principal of our Historic Places Team blogs about places in the East of England that have inspired music and literature.

As the Principal of the Historic Places Team in the East of England, our cases take me to places across six counties. And so one brisk January morning I found myself on a site visit standing at the corner of St Nicholas’ Church graveyard in the oldest part of Stevenage. I looked over the fields that I had first read about more than 20 years earlier and glimpsed Rooks Nest House. The Grade I listed building is better known by book lovers as the inspiration for E.M. Forster’s novel 'Howards End'.

A chuch bathed in warm sunlight with grave stones in a grass graveyard in shadow in the foreground.
St Nicholas' Church, Stevenage

I was taken back to my 17-year-old self standing alone in the late October sun in the Piazza della Signorina in Florence. Full of romanticism, hope and expectation of wonder. I was following in the footsteps of the character Lucy Honeychurch from another of Forster’s novels, 'A Room with a View'. There in that bustling Renaissance city I was taking in all the evocative sights, smells and noise.

Back in the present, walking in Forster’s footsteps in my job for Historic England, I was assessing the potential impact of a proposed development of about 800 houses in this quiet landscape. It’s still much as Forster described it both in 'Howards End' and in a series of essays reflecting on change after the Second World War (WW2, World War Two).

Forster was conflicted about his childhood home becoming the very first New Town. He could see the public benefit and the sense of hope and optimism that accompanied these plans. At the same time he lamented the loss of both the urban and rural landscape and way of life.

Literature weaves through our lives, as does music, almost without us appreciating what they bring to enrich our day-to-day lives, including how we feel about a place. Everyone has certain songs that transport them to a certain place, time or event. I can’t hear Take That's 'Relight my Fire' without being transported back to a bridge over an Italian motorway. There, at midnight, during a teenage trip to the country, my oldest and dearest friend sang the Gary Barlow part as I sing Lulu’s part.

People going about their business/leisure in Piazza della Signorina, Florence, Italy, 1994
Piazza della Signorina in the Renaissance city of Florence, Italy

So how does all this reminiscing relate to the work of Historic England?

Places are more than the sum of their individual parts. Those parts include both the buildings and spaces that are there but also the feelings they engender in people - which can change with the time of day or the fortunes of an area. These feelings can then be expressed through art: particularly music, literature and art, and they add to how we see and consider a place, especially one facing change.

When we turn to Forster, or Pink Floyd and their depiction of Ely Cathedral on the cover of their album 'The Division Bell', we see a wider appreciation of what’s important, or in technical terms ‘significant’, about a place. We have a glimpse of how people relate to and understand places, and we have a record of how other generations may have viewed things differently.

Ely Cathedral with frost covered lawns and trees in foreground.
Ely Cathedral which was once included in the background of the Pink Floyd album cover 'The Division Bell'

I took my toddler to Framlingham Castle, the inspiration for Ed Sheeran’s hugely successful song 'Castle on the Hill', recently. It reminded me just how important it is to let children explore music, literature, and historic places. The journey’s part of it. It might be the physical journey and that first sight of your home church spire peeking above the trees signalling you’re nearly home. Or it might be an imaginative journey as you walk in the footsteps of your favourite literary hero or heroine. It might just inspire the next generation of Eurovision Song Contest winners(1) , 'Doctor Who' script writers(2) , or even future Historic England advisers…

What’s your musical or literary inspiration from the East of England? What do you want the next generation to be inspired by? Nominate a place and tweet your nominations to @HE_EoE.

#100Places #musicandliterature #EastofEngland

Dr Natalie Gates
Principal Adviser, Historic Places

References

(1) 1997 'Love Shine a Light' by Katrina and the Waves. Best known for classic 1980s hit 'Walking on Sunshine', the band originated in Cambridge.

(2) Douglas Adams, better known for 'Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy', was born in Cambridge, went to school in Brentwood in Essex, and went to St John’s College, Cambridge. He wrote several scripts for 'Doctor Who' in the 1970s and served as script editor. His most famous story, 'Shada', was set in Cambridge and was partly filmed there but was never finished owing to industrial action at the BBC.

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