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Four keys to unlock history

By Gery de Pierpont

Practical method to enjoy true "little trips back in time!"

There is a method to “enter history”. A way of treating yourselves to “little trips back in time” which will provide you with lasting memories.

This is what I invite you experience here – it’s the crux of our “IntoHistory” concept – a genuine “experimentation” of history and heritage – a process of discovery that goes far beyond a simple visit to a monument or museum. My intention is to give you the chance to enjoy a thorough experience as you soak up the unique atmosphere of precious vestiges from the past, plunge you into an era, provoke emotions, raise questions and challenge your certainties…

Let’s be clear on this, and I risk disappointing some of you, it is obviously impossible to go back into the past for real. There’s no such thing as a time machine outside the realms of science fiction. First and foremost, we travel back into history guided by our imagination. However, this imagination of ours needs to be nourished and put to work to bring these historical survivors back to life.

We need four keys to unlock history, to plunge us back into another era. Each works independently, but they are so much more effective when they work as a team:

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1. Identify an ancient building which has retained its authenticity

In Europe we are fortunate to be surrounded by old residences which have been lived in for generations. A precious few still exude the soul of a bygone century. These are entry points into history par excellence!

Of course, such buildings still have to possess enough “fundamental heart” to bring their past alive. They must have retained their original proportions and initial building materials. Their interiors should still reflect their former appearance in terms of décor and furnishings. Their old, well-worn wooden floors, doors and windows still be in place. Authenticity is of the essence because only genuine vestiges can recount what they have seen.

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2. Do a little preparatory research

Staying in the past is like discovering a new country. You always get so much more out of it if you prepare your journey in advance. So do take up my suggestion and carry out some research on the building you will be staying in, when you take your trip back in time.

We’re not talking about doing university research here but it might be useful to know when such a place was built and what major events it witnessed. Sometimes the building may be the dream child of a great architect or emblematic of an original style. Perhaps one of its owners or one of its guests even, has made his/her mark on history? Some sites for example, have inspired writers or artists. Maybe they have been the scene of important events or tragedies … it’s better to know before you go!

I would also recommend you first find out a bit about the type of materials or features you may expect to come across. You will appreciate the medieval framework, glazed tile floor, baroque stucco features or wrought iron Art Nouveau banister so much more, if you already know how they were made. Each architectural style is typical of its period, reflecting a mood or assertion of identity.

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3. Using all five senses

But enough of theories. The important part happens when you are there in situ, looking at the building itself. To pick up on the atmosphere we have five senses, some more developed than others. These five sensors will enable us to assimilate a multitude of touching details.

Let your gaze alight on places you don’t usually explore. Let your eyes follow the lines of the façade, as if you were trying to commit it to memory. Then close your eyes and recall its striking features. Your eye will latch onto the play of light and contrast and balance provided by the curved and straight lines.

Run the tips of your fingers over age-old surfaces. Stroke their imperfections and touch the areas which have acquired a patina over the years. Sense materials which are warm and others which absorb heat from your hands: fabrics and beams, moulded frames and wall plastering … traces of tools and the wear and tear of footsteps. Much like a sculptor who has gone blind, feel the accuracy of the proportions and the quality of the finishing work, by touch alone.

Listen out for creaks from the oak parquet flooring, the rasping of old locks and the pitter-patter of water down the sloping roof. Perhaps the wind will whistle through cracks between the windows or logs will crackle in the fireplace. Does the bed creak when you lie down on it? At night all noises seem louder. Can you identify them?

Now breathe in the evocative smells of history. Appreciate the odour of beeswax and feathers. Old books have a specific scent, as well as copper and bronze. As for the hay in the barn on the other side of the courtyard, it smells just as it did hundreds of years ago. The flowers in the garden exude the same perfume that our ancestors enjoyed. And for the lucky ones, the sheets may still be fragrant with the laundry soap of yesteryear.

Finally, taste history – I dare you! Start by savouring an old wine or regional gastronomic speciality. Then you could carry your experimentation a little further and run your tongue over a silver spoon, caress a tin plate or hug a stone wall … Agreed, this may seem a little odd to start with, but the feelings you experience via these “tastings” will lodge themselves firmly in your memory. A word of warning, however: moisture is death to old varnishes and some metals form dangerous oxides…

Above all, take time to imbibe your period setting – quietly and patiently. Go back several times to the same place at different moments in the day. Can you picture the gestures of the craftsmen who designed such a place, or the day-to-day rituals of its former inhabitants?

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4. Be inspired by artistic creations associated with the site

The cherry on top of the cake is the ability to stimulate your imagination by reading a great historical novel, seeing a film made in a similar setting or listening to some period music. There is no better “passport” for travelling in another era than being carried away by inspired creations – particularly in the heart of an historic building.

Some might be more stimulated by a piece of theatre, a poem or an oil painting. Others will be thrilled by a sculpture, an archaeological find or a black and white photograph. Not forgetting those who prefer documentaries to films of fiction… What does it matter? The important thing is to absorb these works and their essence and be moved by them – before setting out, following your stay or, best of all in situ, before you drift off to sleep …

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Your turn to give it a try!

intoHistory has been designed to enable you to identify intriguing “historical stays” which encourage you to explore them for yourselves. They have been chosen for their ability to whisk you back in time and give you an exciting experience of the past.

On this site you will find plenty of practical information and details on historical and cultural heritage as well as recommendations on such visits, books to read and music to listen to; all of which will heighten your enjoyment of these historic places which have survived into modern times.

I hope one day to surprise you in one of those magical places, stuck on an old wall, as if it whispered his story in your ear. Then I’ll know we share the same passion!

And do not forget to comment on your historical emotions by writing a note below!

Comments

Mistress Agnes

16-12-2015

Great post, everyone should try this. Nothing beats Living History for helping us understand the past. I am lucky enough to do this as part of https://swordsandspindles.wordpress.com/

Rose McGuinn

07-09-2015

I'll never forget the time when I first began to cook the recipes offered within the fascinating pages of Madge Lorwin's book, 'Dining with William Shakespeare'. Gingerbread, English Renaissance style, Applemoyse, and her Scrambling Supper. All of these were very exciting to experience, indeed.
Thank you, intoHistory. for this fun video full of ideas.

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