Announcing the winner and runners-up of the Inspiring History Writing competition

BBC History Magazine recently ran an Inspiring History Writing competition that asked readers to describe their favourite historical place

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The contest, run in association with reading community H for History, required entrants to write about their chosen place in 400 words or less, explaining why the location – be it a battlefield, a castle or a city – is so special to them.

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From hundreds of entries, the judging panel of historical writers Tracy Borman, Alison Weir, Robyn Young and Julian Humphrys, have now selected a winner and five runners-up.

Winning entry:

Oradour-sur-Glane by Sarah Brodie

Though my historical bucket list is a long one, Oradour-sur-Glane never featured once, so it was with a sense of trepidation that I agreed to visit. That and the fact that the weather was muggier than it had been throughout August seemed to me like more than enough reason to stay in the car but my dad was adamant that it was somewhere on his bucket list, so myself and my mum reluctantly trudged in after him.

A Google Images search doesn’t even begin to do Oradour justice: the aerial shots look more like a ruined abbey from the Middle Ages than a village with a devastating story. And that’s just what it sounds like when you tell it. A story: something that happened to someone else. It’s one of those tales that is just too horrific to possibly be true. As you walk through Oradour, though, you begin to get a sense of that horror. At first, it’s a tableau; burnt out cars, the remains of shop fronts, a pharmacist’s smashed window still partly stocked. Then you notice the bullet holes in the thick stone walls that are so synonymous with traditional French hamlets and you imagine innocent men slumped like marionettes against their homes.

Then you see the church. I couldn’t set foot in it, that sacred place where sanctity had been vehemently ignored. Where women and children had lost their lives, clinging to each other through a hail of bullets and the roar of flames. I thought that would be the worst part: having a piece of history that I couldn’t touch because it was too awful to comprehend. That was before I saw the memorial. Seeing all 642 names carved into that white stone was enough, but what really broke me was the one that didn’t have a name: an eight-day-old baby who they hadn’t even had time to christen.

I’ve always been a firm believer that history should be lived and breathed, and I’ve never felt so close to the past as I did at Oradour-sur-Glane. Oradour isn’t pretty, nor is it fun. In fact, it serves as a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man, and yet whenever I talk to anyone about historical sites that should feature on their bucket lists, I immediately recommend seeing Oradour because despite its horror, it is something important that will live with me forever.

Sarahs story will be published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine. As part of Sarahs prize, she recently attended BBC History Magazines History Weekend in Malmesbury, where Alison Weir presented her with a framed print of her story. In addition to this, Sarah will soon enjoy afternoon tea with Tracy Borman and Alison Weir in London.

Runners-up:

1) Bamburgh by Peter Arnold

Stand on the ramparts of Bamburgh Castle. What can you see?

The grey North Sea stretching eastwards to a distant horizon, the sea that brought Ida to the Whin Sill as he searched for a place to found a dynasty that would satisfy his ambition. The same sea that brought the Viking raiders to Lindisfarne in search of easy plunder. Lindisfarne, the holy island, the Iona of the east, the powerhouse of the Irish mission to convert the pagan Northumbrians, the home of Aidan and Cuthbert, of the Lindisfarne Gospels. You can see the island on the northern horizon as you turn slowly from the sea to the land.

Stretching away in front of you to the west are the rolling hills of the coastal plain, today patterned by the patchwork of fields and trees that hint at the reason why Ida chose this place. Rich land to farm, to feed the growing numbers attracted by a warrior lord, a giver of rings. And in the distance, the Cheviots, hills of mystery, of an ancient people who built the forts that looked down on all who moved through the landscape, watching, waiting.

Keep turning south, and on the far horizon, see the castle seeming to rise out of the waves – Dunstanburgh, a ruin now, but once the seat of proud men who battled for mastery against kings.  

Turn back to the sea and close your eyes. Listen to the sound of the waves breaking on the shore below you, of the birds calling to each other as they ride the wind that never stops blowing. Imagine the sounds and smells of the ancient Anglian settlement built on this windswept rock towering above the land. Hear the lowing of cattle, the screams of children, the barking and growling of dogs, the whinnying of horses being made ready for the king and his lords to mount and ride, to see, and to be seen. Smell the smoke of fires, of roasting meat, of excrement, of animals, and people. 

Now open your eyes. Remember. This place was the centre of an ancient kingdom, old in years centuries before Scotland or England appeared, famed throughout Europe for its learning, for its art, and for its missionary zeal. Northumbria was once “the Star in the North”, and Bamburgh was its beating heart. This is where my cultural heritage began. This is where I belong.

2) Blockley Parish Church by Diane Gwilliams

I almost sat on a cappello Romano. This Catholic priest’s hat, also known as a saturno because its shape is reminiscent of the ringed planet, was placed casually next to a punnet of delicious looking strawberries on the ancient wooden pew. I knew at once to whom it belonged and was suddenly possessed of an involuntary spasm when, under the reproachful gaze of my ancestor’s elder brother William, I ran my fingers over the black velvety crown.

I was in the beautiful parish church of St. Peter and St. Paul at Blockley in the  Cotswolds and behaving like a small child. Outside the church a production crew were filming the latest series of Father Brown with the wonderful Mark Williams under the spotlight – minus the aforementioned hat. Inside the church the woman hiding under a panama was hoping that no one had seen her.

Both the television series and the church at Blockley resound with echoes of the past; the former with the familiar fashions and manners of my 1950s childhood, the latter with the ornate monuments and presence of my ancestors. For four hundred years my ancient relative William Childe, knight, has knelt here piously in his armour, his hands pressed together in perpetual prayer. There are other family members kneeling or reclining as marbled reminders of the coldness of death, but William, depicted in a ruff of the Elizabethan period, has been my catalyst and link to that most interesting of times. I believe William was known to Elizabeth I and his inscription bears witness – “twice honoured by the hand of the Princess Elizabeth, now honoured by the angelic choir who sing Hallelujah”.

William Childe (c1521-1601) lived during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I and throughout and alongside some of the most pivotal events and notable characters in history. He provides me, via his effigy in this lovely Norman church, with a personal angle and inspires a more intimate study of the period, each time being drawn back to William who on every visit becomes more and more alive, hence my feeling of being watched.     

As I once again pass by the wooden pew and the hat and strawberries, I momentarily stop and consider the potential fresh summer flavour of the fruit when a line from the rehearsals outside reaches my ears – “Bless me Father for I have sinned”.

3) Mottistone Down by Annie Johnson

If you stand on Mottistone down with your back to the Longstone, the hills unroll like an ancient map. You can use the jagged megalith as your compass, and navigate the undulating landscape.

North leads inland to the barrows, wind-racked bracken skirting the site, as if it were afraid of the dead. The mounds rise from the hillside bare against the backdrop of yarrow spears and hawthorn arrows, winter bare trees arching over like wary skeletons. Here, the past presides over the sea, encased in six thousand years’ worth of chalk fed grass and footsteps. A shiver passes over my spine as I think, ‘be careful where you tread’.

East of the stone stretches into a wide valley of lush fields and pasture-land. In the spring wild flowers cascade into the farmlands, leaving an earthly trail for the Wiccans to follow to the equinox.

South points to Castle Hill and the remnants of the fort. Shallow trenches are all that remain of the walls. The Bronze Age is revived here each summer evening when the sun flushes the ground gold and sets the mounds ablaze. You can stand on the battlements as They once did and command a view of the Channel, watching the same horizon.

Westward from Longstone lies heathland and meadows. Early autumn sees the trees shed their yellowing leaves and the heather cast a violet hue across the hills. Night seeps on to the down, the dying light making warriors of even the most timid shadows. Starshine glints off the flint in the path, and you can feel Their eyes on you.

History isn’t just a part of Mottistone’s landscape, it’s mingled into the dirt and etched into the chalk slopes; it’s tangible on the mottled surface of the Longstone and buried in the barrows along with the bodies; through all seasons, in every direction.

4) Crystal Palace Dinosaur Park by Charlotte Wightwick

Twenty-five minutes by train from London Victoria, the brightly painted mural by the station points you in the right direction. Go past the sports stadium on your left and the children’s farm on your right. At the bottom of the hill is a lake. And in the lake, there are the dinosaurs. 

Strictly speaking, many of them aren’t dinosaurs at all. There are giant elk, a huge sloth and strange, tapir-like creatures amongst the Great Lizards. Even those that can claim right to the name have toes on their noses, implausibly whip-like necks or tortoise-style shells on backs that never bore a carapace.

But that doesn’t matter.

Children run and roar, entranced by the idea of great, monstrous beasts that roamed the land millions of years ago.

Adults stroll, take photos and smile with wonder that such a scene can still exist, tucked away behind the trains, buses and takeaway shops of south London.

But child or adult, they all stop – at least once – to read the signs.

Built as part of the relocation of the Crystal Palace to south London in the 1850s, the dinosaur lake was designed to delight, entertain and educate the Victorian masses who flocked to see the wonders of the age. It opened to the public six years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species and represented the cutting edge of scientific thinking. The statues were the first attempt anywhere in the world to build full scale, accurate models of dinosaurs. 

They are the predecessors to our collective obsession with T-Rex and all the others; to the Natural History Museum, Jurassic Park, Walking with Dinosaurs. They are still here, free to view for anyone who wishes to visit.

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs bring our community together, a symbol of our identity. They are where we go to relax, where we take our children to expand their imaginations and where our own thoughts can roam free. They are an essential element of our history and of our present: a piece of the Victorian pleasure-ground from which we take our very name, the reason for the trains and buses we use day-to-day and the gracious, red-brick homes so many of us still live in.

They are part of us. And everyone loves the dinosaurs.

5) Jarrow Viking Centre by Simon Moore

You’re probably wondering why I’ve brought you to the Viking Centre shopping precinct in Jarrow, Tyne & Wear. Though they’ve given the place a lick of paint in the last few years you can still see the sixties concrete beneath the plasticky veneer. Far too modern to be of historical interest, isn’t it.

Well, I suppose. Possibly.

I haven’t just brought you here to talk about the history of retail, though there’s some interesting material here. When the precinct opened in 1961 it was the Arndale Centre – the original Arndale. If you turn around I’ll tell you that these three units behind us – the charity shop, the independent clothes place, and the shuttered, empty one – was, until 2008 Jarrow’s Woolworths.

And yes, the 2008 crash is probably one for the history books of the future, but trust me, we can work back again.

If we go the late 1950s, we’ll find several streets of slum housing being demolished to make way for the precinct. One of these disappearing streets, more or less where Woolworths will be, is Charles Street, where my mam was brought up. And via this Charles Street house we can connect to all sorts of places and times.

For instance, we can go to the War Cemetery at Saint-Désir in Normandy. My grandad saw mam, his baby daughter, for the last time in Charles Street. He was killed as the Germans retreated to the Seine after the D-Day landings.

In the 1930s we can follow my family down to work in the lost factories and shipyards on the Tyne. We can board my great-grandad’s merchant ship in the 1920s and travel the world with him.

Or we can fork away from them and stroll a little downriver and all the way back to the eighth century, to the banks of the Don and the ruins of St. Paul’s Abbey where the Venerable Bede, the father of British history wrote his great works. We can come forward to the ninth century, when the Vikings destroyed the Abbey – and in a single bound we’re back in this concrete precinct that commemorates those raiders with its name.

This is an unlovely place, certainly, but if we look closely enough we find a tangle of history here. History ancient, modern and in the making; histories of me and my family, of this town, this region, our country and the world.

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Photography by Fred Adams