I took this photo on a visit to Bede’s World, near Jarrow, where I was taking part in an AHRC-funded project on co-design in heritage. I simply had to go across the park from the main building to the ancient church of St Paul, Jarrow. Tucked away by the altar is this ancient chair that has been dated back to the mid to late Saxon period and is generally referred to as ‘Bede’s Chair’. It has great personal significance for me, and perhaps for others.
In the context of heritage theory there is a great deal of discussion about identity formation and the role that can be played by heritage objects (places, buildings, things). Most of this theory starts from the object, rather than the person. In the process it misses the essential, individual emotional connection and the process through which that is created (or not – not everyone succumbs to this).
I was born in Darlington. Normally one’s birthplace might be expected to be a place of identification. It is for me to a small degree, but it has no emotional pull. I have lived there for two periods in my life, between them amounting for almost half. But I have no desire to go back there to live any more. The town has resonance through memories of events that happened to me there, not so much the place itself. Some memories are not always happy, the associations not always positive, though the majority are.
One event was brought to mind the moment the location of our project workshop was announced. Way back in 1959 or 1960, I was on a school bus trip to explore Hadrian’s Wall, starting from Wallsend and visiting places en route to Housesteads Roman Fort. I had already begun to form an emotional identification with County Durham, mostly through reading a book called ‘Land of the Three Rivers’.
On the first sight of ‘Bede’s Chair’ when we arrived at St Paul’s it was as if something from an ancient past had grabbed hold of me inside. I became a Northumbrian from that moment to the present. No matter where I have lived in the past, where I live now or where I might live in the future, this will stay with me.
I have no desire to see a new tier of regional government based on Durham City, Newcastle, or Yeavering for that matter. I don’t fly the Northumbrian flag out of my bedroom window. I don’t particularly take an interest in regional football teams (though it is somewhat romantic that Darlington FC is now toiling away in the depths of the Northern League).
Being Northumbrian is an emotional thing. It is more relevant to me than being English – that is just the country of birth, the language I speak – and something far more vital than being British, yet another imposed identity value. Being Northumbrian is something I chose, though it felt as if it chose me. I guess it is that two-way process that creates identity.
And what could be more appropriate than to blog this on St Cuthbert’s Day, 20 March! Yet another part of this identity process, alongside listening to Kathryn Tickell play the small pipes, books on the Anglo-Saxons, spending the real Millenium day on Holy Island (1 Jan 2001). This is Heritage, but let’s not kid ourselves that it has anything to do with its analytical cousin, History.