Tuesday, June 15, 2010

“Only a link in a long chain” On being a Dorchester Abbey Museum helper

I am ‘old’ Dorchester – nowadays in more ways than one! I feel like a museum piece myself sometimes because people come over all shiny-eyed and peculiar when you tell them you are Dorchester born and bred, and they want to know what it was like ‘in the old days’. So there am I, an exhibit amongst other, even more fascinating, items explaining my links with the place, this building, and life in Dorchester on Thames in 2010.

I volunteered to help at the museum when we returned to the village in 2001. Mine had been a long absence – since 1966 – and I returned to rather a different Dorchester from the one I had left all those years ago. But the museum was still there and I thought it would be an interesting place to spend a few hours usefully, and a good way to meet interesting people. I knew Edith Stedman, the formidable and very amusing American who started the museum way back in the 1960’s. In her book A Yankee in an English Village (1971, Dorchester Abbey Museum) she describes a late Dorchester afternoon in June rather like the one I enjoyed last week:

“There’s that lovely purple-gray light on the stones … its absolute peace gives a sense of remoteness, of timelessness of being only a link in along chain.“

Why don’t people wearing rucksacks take them off when they come to the museum? We had five visitors wearing back packs this week and they all sidled around the exhibits like packhorses on a cliff path. People ‘just nip in’, sometimes while they are waiting for the famous tea room to open, and often, at least half an hour later, they are still quietly “oohing and aahing” over the wonderful treasures we have.

Children are indulgent with the adults who accompany them. They listen patiently to cries of “Oh, I had a desk just like this when I was at school” and “See this cane? You got whacked with it if you were naughty.” Once the adults have moved on to examine other exhibits, or to browse in the shop, the children then get on with the serious business of taking turns to be teacher at the high desk, wearing the mortar board and gown, calling the register. Many of them also value the special table with items that may be picked up and examined – the fossilised sea-urchin, the bird’s nest with eggs intact (this is a real favourite) and the pieces of pottery dug up by archaeologists at the allotments.

It is great that although some exhibits are permanent we also have new exhibits. The lovely new display cases which show the archaeology are proving very popular. My favourite really old thing (I am not too good on dates and historical periods) is a ‘thread picker’. I am not sure if it is bone, or wood but, although it’s only about three inches long, its silky polish and smooth surface conjure up an image of some unknown old “Doddestr’un” bent weaving at a primitive loom, somewhere near our broad bean patch, a very long time ago.

And now to my favourite not-so-ancient exhibit. Way back my Granny’s neighbour was Mr Dick Jerome. He lived on the corner of Crown Lane and Queen Street and was a master woodsman. I remember going up to Wittenham Clumps on my bike and standing at a respectful distance watching him make hurdles. He was a man of few words, (“Awright?” “Yes, thank you, Mr Jerome.” “Awright then”) but as long as you kept quiet he went on working as if you were not there. Deft, quick, confident, orderly – stacking the hurdles against a tree as they were finished. It is wonderful to see such an interesting display dedicated to his story – you can see a miniature hurdle that he made for an exhibition and his working tools, kindly loaned by his family.

There are bonuses to be had when volunteering at the museum. You get a cuppa and a piece of cake from the kind tearoom ladies. People pop in for a chat. You meet folk from all over the world. I once met a woman from Birkenhead who knew my husband’s family back in the 1940’s. I met my great auntie’s nephew and his mother (for the first time) and learned a lot about the history of Dorchester’s gravel pits. Mairi Metcalfe came in last week and we spent a happy time while I tried to remember the names of people, long dead, bless them, in lovely old black and white photographs donated for safe keeping.

I could go on – I haven’t told you anything about my Grampy who went to school in the Guest House in the late 1800’s, the award-winning Cloister Gallery, the gift-shop, the village history display boards, the Community Archaeology Project, the brilliant walks around Dorchester leaflets (people can never get over the fact that they are free!). If you want to get to know more about the village and meet some lovely people, consider volunteering for the helpers’ rota. If you are from Dorchester and love the place, or new to the village and care about its history, and if you have not been into the Museum for a while or ever, do pop in. Be a link in that long chain that Edith Stedman wrote about – be part of the place, even if only for the afternoon (but please take your rucksack off – we can keep an eye on it for you, and please don’t shout across the museum because it spoils the children’s concentration). Thank you.

Next time you can read about the new 'Tuesday Coffee in the Abbey' sessions which have become a regular fixture for many locals, as well as the occasional visitor.

For more information about the museum see www.dorchester-abbey.org.uk/museum.htm
(Blogged by Denise Line, volunteer Dorchester Abbey Museum helper)

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