If the past is a foreign country, it's one many of us want to visit.
Witness the 192 million trips made to heritage sites in the United Kingdom annually or the hoards flooding into Venice – more than 20 million a year. It's unlikely they're there just to admire how the City of Water was built or to marvel at the fact that the pavements are tiled with a "flat and lightly textured" volcanic stone which provides good grip especially on rainy days.
For me, one of the main motivations for pounding Venice's pavements, making a beeline for historic bridges and palazzos and art galleries but getting horribly lost in its Diagon-like alleys, is to wonder, "who walked here before me?"
Not the last load of tourists off the cruise liners overwhelming the waterways but the refugees who fled here from Rome when the Visigoths invaded in 410AD or the servants to Venice's first doge in the 7th century, the crusaders who passed through town early in the 13th century or those who nursed the sick when merchant galleys docked late in 1347 bringing with them treasures from the Silk Road and the Black Death.
Who were they, what did they eat and wear and how did they cope with the cold in winter and giving birth without epidurals and basic sanitation? All questions I'll never really get a conclusive answer for.
This curiosity with the past started in childhood where many things profound, ground-shifting begin. Mum and Dad came from the United Kingdom; they talked about "home" with a wistfulness that made it clear they weren't referring to our three-bedroom weatherboard. To my parents, and therefore me, home was a mythical land where you needed only to turn around to trip over some intriguing piece of the past. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to walk in those ruins.
Just 5 years old, I got to go there on a family trip. Mum and Dad were right. The past was everywhere; mum's hometown was like a theme park packed with ancient attractions rather than rollercoasters and Ferris wheels. You can't really get more historical than the Roman City of Bath; it's been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1987, but people have been taking the waters and worshipping goddesses since the Mesolithic age.
y most recent foray into the past didn't involve taking a plane or a train or a three-hour history exam. Instead, I drove 15 minutes from home down the road to Clevedon, in south-east Auckland and arrived at Forgotten Arts to join a Saturday "wild weaving" workshop to make a seabasket. Housed in one half of a capacious stable, Forgotten Arts is one of the many passions of Maureen Conquer, who brings in gifted artisans to run workshops in bronze casting, leatherwork, Windsor chair-making and knifemaking.
Maureen is an international apiculturalist — or bee expert – a trained chef who ran the famed Hunting Lodge Restaurant on the other side of Auckland, a former part-owner of Matua Valley Wines and founder of the Bees Online Honey Centre and cafe. She likes fishing and can make rope out of flax. When she walks along a beach after a storm, she forages interesting bits and pieces to put to good use. She is a practical person who once took part in a Forgotten Arts workshops where she was presented with a log and given a week to make it into a chair.
Lately, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the future – turning 50 will do that to you - by again going back to the past. Forgotten Arts is a way of trying to move forward – to do something utterly different just to see if I could. Weaving a sea basket out of driftwood, cane and beachcombed bits and pieces seems a good way in. I like the description of the wild weaving workshop which makes me think of the calm after a storm.
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As I weave, I think about my great (times 10) grandmother, Catherine Cook who, in 1820, married my great (times 10) grandfather, Richard Christian and found herself caring for 13 children from his two previous marriages (both wives died young shortly after giving birth to children who also died). Catherine and Richard then had six children of their own for a "blended family" of 19. Had rugby been big then, they could have had a first XV with reserves.
Instead they were big on horses and hounds. At least he was; I'm not sure Catherine had time. I have enough trouble coping with two children so how did she manage before automatic washing machines and sending out for a pizza when you were too tired to cook?
First, I select the driftwood which will be the frame for my basket; I wonder if Catherine ever walked along the beach picking up bits and pieces to use them to make something for the family. She would've had to have made nearly everything in their home – where did they all sleep? – but she wouldn't have walked along the beach because she lived in the Midlands. Did she ever even see the sea?
I think about all this, as I pay homage to the past at Forgotten Arts. But here things aren't always done traditionally. We use electric drills to make the holes in our driftwood where the cane will go; I had never used an electric drill before but once I got going, I was in the zone. Did Catherine sit by the fire at night darning and weaving and candle-making and feel like she was "in the zone" – relaxed yet awake, satisfied by the results of her own handiwork?
It takes me some time to work out the structure of my basket. I start small, wanting to make a basket my 10-year-old could use to carry the eggs laid by our chickens. I think about whether Catherine and Richard had chickens and if she would rush one of the chooks to the vet if its comb went a bit lopsided or just make soup out of it.
Perhaps best bit of all – aside from the home-made vegetable soup Maureen invites us to share for lunch – is learning to make rope from flax. By the end of the six-hour workshop, I feel more capable than I have in a long time. I wonder if Catherine ever felt "empowered" or if she just put her head down and got on with it. There's a reason why life in the past is sometimes described as "nasty, brutish and short". Because it was. Later that night, I resume some family history research.
Of Richard Christian's second wife, Elizabeth, it is written: "With the fearfully high infant mortality rate then extant and with Elizabeth worn down by all-too-frequent-child-bearing, the North Luffenham burial register tells its own pathetic story…" It goes on to list the children she had and how, out of eight in 10 years three survived, before she died in childbirth.
My children give mixed responses to my basket. One says lovely; the other asks what is that "thing" on the dining room table? But I am glad for the time, where we could sit, weave and enjoy good company and food and an electric drill.
Forgotten Arts, in Clevedon, runs semi-regular workshops. forgottenarts.co.nz