Friday, 6 June 2008

Prison, local history, and Ancient Egypt

We visit a prison today. See where this life can take you? Anything is possible.

This is a prison built in 1748, and looks like a castle. I don't think that's an accident. It stands awkwardly in the middle of Buckingham, which is a country town somewhere lost in England. In the eighteenth century they had a problem here; anyone found committing a crime had to stay put, lodging, probably, at the local inns, waiting. They had to wait for the travelling courts to roll across the green fields and roundabout hills. Then they had to wait for the day they could be tried and sentenced to death for their crimes; possibly sneezing in the street without recourse to a handkerchief, or eyeing up someone's sheep in a covetous manner. Naturally those crims didn't bother waiting. Who would? They legged it sharpish to Aylesbury, or Oxford, or hid out in some forsaken town like Reading where no-one would ever find them, and no-one bothered looking.

Thinking about this problem, a local landowner, Browne Willis, organized the building of a prison. And in that place the crims stayed put. Then they got tried and probably put to death, horribly, but we won't go into that. Now Browne Willis is dead along with his captured criminals of county Buckinghamshire, but the prison fortress still stands, testimony to our fine eighteenth century English justice. But now it's not a prison. Now it houses the local museum.

Today Grit and the Gritlets visit this little town. We're here to see the prison because we're starting a project on crime and punishment, so an eighteenth century prison seems as good a place as any to visit.

As we travel to Buckingham we go back in time, rolling into the town from the curving hills. We gently park the horses in Waitrose car park. With plenty of time to spare we can amble round Buckingham, because let's face it, it's not going anywhere. It's been like this for years. Waitrose is new, so we are sidetracked by that novelty. Then we walk straight past the goal, argue about which way the streets go, and eventually spot the crenellations behind us and wonder how to break in.

When we're in, everyone gets excited about having broken into a prison but Shark is worried in case there are any prisoners. Only the lady selling museum entrance tickets is one, I reassure her, and she's on 5pm release scheme, so it is safe. For a while, Shark is not convinced and expects there to be an eighteenth century murderer waiting to jump out at her, which I tell her is nonsense until she is suddenly assaulted by a wax man who talks at her when she walks near him by accident. She flees, covering her ears, possibly expecting to be clubbed to death right here and now by a withered wax hand.

When she's calmed down we get to tour the museum again. Grit finds herself a bit disappointed now, because there is actually not much on the history of the prison itself, nor anything at all about crime and punishment. But we do get local history. And this is local. Here's some limestone rock from the quarry over the hill; bits of broken pottery from the nearby Romano British burial mounds; a photo of the shop that used to be over there; and a cup once presented to someone by someone else. Grit tries to shut her mouth about rural practices like marrying your cousin and never stepping foot outside your village, because there's a creepy bit of me that actually approves of the local in local museums and probably wouldn't mind if there was a room dedicated to the artifacts you can find in the street outside. Preferably, there would be a bit more information about prison conditions in the eighteenth century. But, given what we have here, I start to think local is a better option than the third tour of the museum we have to do, which is the Ancient Egyptian mummy trail.

Egyptian mummies have nothing to do with old Buckingham town, or old Buckingham goal. In fact the Egyptian mummy trail is how many miniature mummies can you spot in the display cabinets. If you follow that, you get to the proud display cabinet on Egyptian civilization which is some propped up books and a poster. Why bother going to see the Tutankhamen exhibition in London when you can eyeball this? In my book, this is where local gets a bad name. Because this sort of display reinforces the idea that hey! it's a museum! We have to alert the offspring of the second cousins who've never left the village to the fact that there are civilizations existing beyond the next field! Stick to the local, that's what I say. Do not do international, because strangely you will make yourselves look like backwater retards. And best of all, do something more about the history of crime and punishment in Buckingham because this is a prison after all and we are doing a project on crime and punishment.

Well our visit goes on, and on, and on. A bit like a prison sentence in fact. We have to tour the museum twice more and spend thirty minutes in the room given over to Lark Rise to Candleford. After the fifth tour, I say This is enough! This prison tour where we have found out about local history, rural practices, local limestone and Ancient Egypt, but not actually much about the prison, and nothing at all about crime and punishment needs to end! In desperation, I whisper that I know an escape route, and it is called The Gift Shop.

In the gift shop the Gritlets acquire three book markers decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphs, and I buy a poster of Crime and Punishment because I am not giving up on the reason why we came here in the first place. Actually, buying that poster involves going back to the start of that little local museum and touring it all over again looking for the manager because the sweet little old lady prisoner on the tills, who is aged 84 and the physical size of a five-year old, cannot find the posters which are on the counter.

When we get back to the horses in Waitrose car park the Gritlets cry that the trip was jolly good and they would come back anytime. I ask them, Did you find out anything about crime and punishment? No! they all chorus. But we did find out about Ancient Egypt.


sharon said...

Perhaps if you go to the Tutankhamen Exhibition the girls will learn about crime and punishment in Olde Buckingham. Just a thought..

Grit said...

probably, sharon! i will let you know, because we are off to see king tut in a few days time ... !