Friday, June 28, 2013

Getting to Alnwick!

During our first weekend of free time we had a plan: going to Alnwick Castle to see where the first two Harry Pitter films we done. Our trip would be pretty simple. According to the Internet, we just had to take the train to Newcastle and then take the bus from the Berwick station to Alnwick.

So we landed in Newcastle with plenty of time to get from the train station to another station called Berwick-upon-Tweed. The only problem was that we couldn't find the station on any city maps. Finally we ended up at the local bus station and asked a worker where the Berwick National Express station was. He told us to take the city bus, and since we were being money conscious and thinking it was just at the other end of town, we said we would walk.

"Your going to WALK to Berwick!?!?" His face was priceless. What the Internet had left out and what we had not investigated fully was that the Berwick-upon-Tweed station was an hour and a half bus ride away. We definitely weren't walking. After getting some comedic directions to the national express station by said worker (they included some impressive dance moves), we made it to the National Express station, and in lime with our day so far, could not get a bus. Back to the train station we went, a little bummed we have to pay for another train ticket to get to Berwick, but we did and we were on our way.

Now that large amount of time we had to get to the bus station just got incredibly shortened. Arriving in Berwick we quickly got directions from a cabbie, and took off running through the town. After asking one more cabbie and a fellow passerby, we finally made it to a random bus stop in the middle of Berwick that the National Express stopped at.

Finally we made it to Alnwick. We had a great time there and this experience has become one of those moments of our trip that we laugh at. It is a bit disputed amongst the group but I personally count both Newcastle and Berwick as places we visited. We didn't go to any tourist attractions or stay there over night but we got lost and or ran through the towns, frequented several different public transportation centers, and we got to speak to several locals who helped us out. Many thanks for that!

Take a Look, It's in a Book

Each time I have passed a second-hand bookstore on this trip, I have made an effort to stop in and peruse their wares. I usually start in the local section, knowing that the books in one store’s local section will probably be not replicated in the next city, but definitely will not across the country. My first second-hand purchase was a book that proved quite interesting, useful, and illuminating in my first week here.  It was A Popular Dictionary of Cornish Place-Names by O.J. Padel, and I spent many long car rides looking up the origins of the names of cities, rivers, and historic sites we passed. Using the book as a traveling aid has been one of many experiences in England that demonstrates the ways in which history overlays the present. The names of places reveal a long and winding past, combining the names of figures with literal depictions of geographical features in near-dead tongues, sometimes noting historic or cultural events in poetic ways. The ability to reference the book has made me wish for the ability to always have the names of places at hand, for they provide a rich and subtle look at a long-distant past not always accessible through the sources we have readily available.

Most of the other books I have purchased will not be discussed in this post, because they were purchased as gifts for my family, and I will not spoil it for them through this blog.  Through the wonder of second-hand bookstores, I have finally had the opportunity to discover Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I have always been overwhelmed by the sheer number of books that make up the series. At this point, there are over thirty books in the Discworld saga. I picked up the first, twentieth, and twenty-sixth book, reading them out of order within that disjointed grouping. In a sense, the way I have approached the Discworld series is similar to the way the England Field School course structured an introduction to the British approach to museums and historic sites. I have taken a varied and disparate grouping of visits and concepts and attempted to draw them together into a grand narrative of learning. The alien organizations of the National Trust and English Heritage as well as the constellation of private trusts and charities that preserve and protect individual sites, as well as laws and government programs such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund, have each been illuminated by brief, small windows by the many places we have visited. The tales of the city of Ankh-Morpork and its environs, all resting on a disc on a turtle’s back, may have seemed daunting at first, but the exposure I have gained through constant reading have made it almost legible. In a similar sense, English public history, as well as the tenets and practices of the discipline in general, have become much clearer to me through repeat exposure, as I have traveled around this country, building connections with classmates, professionals, and historic places.

Pasty, Present and Future

 The Cornish Pasty has been a staple of my diet in this grand international adventure. A pasty (pronounced to rhyme with rhinoplasty rather than being a homonym of the word that would describe a very pale person) is a pastry native to Cornwall. A “true” pasty follows a number of conventions, it must be filled with beef, potato, turnip, and onion, seasoned with salt and pepper, and, most importantly, it must be crimped before being cooked.  I have had pasties everywhere we have visited, from Cornwall to Yorkshire. The pasty has been a running theme of my trip through England, and in this blog post, I will document the various experiences I have had in consuming this tasty dish.

I purchased my first pasty in Penzance.  Unfortunately, my first pasty was filled with chicken, a fact that would have drawn the ire of some of the Cornwall natives I met had I been brave enough to let them know.  The shop I bought it from, Warren’s Bakery, is a chain native to Cornwall that is spread throughout the southwest of the country.  Because the employee who sold me the delicious treat could tell (perhaps because of my accent or because I pronounced pasty wrong) that I was a first-time pasty consumer, she gave me a sticker noting that my first pasty was from Warren’s.

On my next pasty venture in Falmouth, I purchased two. One was the traditional beef, while the second was Thai chicken.  I bought these tasty pasties from the chain Pasty Presto, which is similarly confined to the Southwest.  The pasty is one of the cultural touchstones of Cornwall, and its importance in this regard has made pasty chains as numerous in Cornwall as burger chains in the States. In Cornwall, pasties are as prolific as fish and chips.

I ate my next pasty in Plymouth, a city in Devon, the neighboring county to Cornwall. It was made by Gregg’s, which is a national chain not particularly specialized in pasties. After leaving Cornwall, the nomenclature around the meal had transformed, from being simply pasties in Cornwall to being specifically noted as “Cornish pasties.” I was a bit concerned at purchasing a dish so crucial to Cornish regionalism from a national chain, but I was hungry and it was a long day of riding buses.

I bought my latest pasty from the Cornish Pasty Bakery in the city of York. The city was dotted with nearly as many pasty shops as the cities we had visited in Cornwall. Perhaps this can be explained by the development of English mining. The Cornish are well-known for their skill at mining, leading to the expression “If there is a hole in the ground, there is a Cornishman in it.” They were most experienced at tin and copper mining, but the coal extraction in North Yorkshire may have attracted the Cornish as well as their cuisine.

I will end by discussing my true first pasty experience, which occurred in ninth grade in Miami, Florida. The teachers at my high school would sell something called “pastelitos” between classes. When I traveled to England almost a decade later, I was confused as to whether pasties were Cornish or South American.  Ultimately, the global spread of the Cornish explains this seeming discrepancy. This, along with many other experiences on this trip, has shown me that understanding the complexities of the English story does not only illuminate the history and practices of England. It provides context and depth to the international experience, filling in holes in my knowledge I didn’t even know I had. 

Barking up the Wrong Castle

I always stop to have a chat if I see a person walking with a greyhound. Back home, my family has rescued four greyhounds over the past decade, and I have a great affinity for the breed. As I have traveled through England, this tendency I have developed has been aided by the fact that the country is so dog-friendly. In my travels, I have currently chatted with three greyhound owners (although one of the dogs was a mix that baffled me because it had a greyhound's body with a face not associated with the breed). In this country, dogs seem to be almost ubiquitous in daily life. I have seen people walking with their dogs in every community I have visited (most notably a black and white breed that I can't identify that seems to be extraordinarily common here). England most definitely has a strong pedestrian culture, with near-constant access to scenic views and winding hilly roads. In this environment, dogs are a great traveling companion. I have seen people take their dogs places I never imagined would be allowed, inside second-hand bookstores, stately house museums, and ruined castles. In England, it seems like dog accessibility is the default for any outdoor site, with signage being required to bar dog owners from bringing their pets with them.

The experience of seeing dogs at ancient places has challenged my views of where pets should be allowed. I initially shuddered at the idea of a pet defecating upon the grave of a fourteenth-century monk or digging at the ground where, perhaps, valuable archaeological finds could be buried. After all, a dog doesn't have the knowledge or appreciation of the past that humans have developed. As I continued to notice visitors who brought their pets to sites, I quickly retracted this line of thought. Even if animals do not have an inherent respect for historic sites, it would take the most negligent owner combined with the most destructive dog to truly negatively impact the historic location. On top of that, greater access for visitors to bring pets would no doubt increase their number. As it stands, sites, especially those operated by English Heritage, put an emphasis on family and youth events. I know from experience that the responsibility of pet ownership tempers the amount of time you are willing to spend outside the house, as the longer you are away from home, the more you  picture your dog hungry, bored, and possibly fouling the carpet. In a country where most sites are technically within driving distance, at least for a day trip, the ability to bring along a beloved pet would enhance your experience while allowing you to spend more guilt-free hours at a historic location. If a family brings a dog along, children who might otherwise be quickly put off by a historic learning experience will learn to associate sites with good times and family, driving future generations to return and perhaps purchase National Trust or English Heritage membership. If heritage conservation is a business, fun and family are crucial to its marketing. Perhaps some dog poop on ancient things is a necessary ingredient for the future of the field.

Walking on History

Last week we visited Hadrian’s Wall and walked a mile along the adjacent trail. As we hiked Mike Collins, an English Heritage inspector for the site, discussed the unique challenges of managing the trail. He told us how English Heritage has had to think a bit creatively since thousands of hikers pass through each year, walking on top of areas that need to be preserved for future archeological digs. Plus there are the problems of making sure hikers don’t walk on top of the wall!

Unlike on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in the United States, which encourages hikers to walk in a single file line to limit environmental damage and erosion, English Heritage wants hikers to do just the opposite by spreading out.  Hadrian’s Wall even posts signs telling people to walk side by side instead of a line. 

The AT contains constructed the trailheads and educates hikers to follow conservation guidelines; however on Hadrian’s Wall, little construction can be done to prepare the soil for large amounts of visitors because of the area’s potential archaeological significance. Therefore English Heritage along with the National Trust put down a layer of fertilized soil about once a year to maintain grass growth (and therefore resist erosion caused by hikers) and mow wide trials to encourage more people to spread out. 

Hadrian's Wall (on the left) and the wide trail

There are parts of the trail that are too narrow for hikers to spread out so in those areas, gravel or stone walkways have been installed. Other areas needed firmer trails since they were too muddy to expect people to willingly walk though. Also these more established paths encourage hikers to avoid hiking through the Roman forts scattered every mile or so along the wall.

OK, so Hadrian's Wall does have some signs.
Collins said that he tries to reduce the amount of signs since they ruin the historical and natural setting, and believes the stone trails are enough for hikers to know what is expected of them. From my experience on the AT, this sounded a bit funny since the trail regularly has white blazes to reassure hikers they are on the correct path. Also the AT puts up signs commemorating local events and hiking groups who maintain the trial. I am sure there are regulations about avoiding too much signs, but there is definitely more of an aversion along Hadrian’s Wall. Perhaps this is because the wall does not have as many trees, which are more conducive to signs, but more importantly I think it is because Hadrian’s Wall is still seen as an active archeological site while the AT is viewed more as a challenge and attraction.

Another way English Heritage tries to reduce the hikers’ impact on the wall is through a stamp program. Hikers are given a passport that they can get stamped at various stations along the trail, but only during certain months. This way, hopefully hikers will plan to come during the months of the year when the wall can handle more visitors. I am not sure how much this would work; I think hikers just come during the months that have the best weather anyways.

Hadrian’s Wall faces a common problem we have heard from other places in trying to balance public accessibly with protecting the site from the wear of use. I greatly enjoyed walking along the wall and would like to come back one day to hike the whole thing; not only do you get great views but you also literally are walking on top of history. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"A Farewell to Kiplin"

One of our projects on this trip has been volunteering at Kiplin Hall, a 17th century manor and home to the founder of Maryland. The job that Andrew and I were given was to review the archives. We weren't sure what to expect and after a full day of reviewing documents about installing a pond we weren't hopeful that it would get too exciting.

Our luck changed the next week when we found a play that the last Kiplin resident, Bridget Talbot wrote. In an attempt to save her home, which was falling apart, she turned to the National Trust and later the British government and was turned away. Her reaction to this news was to write a play called "A Farewell to Kiplin," that demonstrated not only her disgust with the whole process but also her plan B on how to save the house.

The scenes of this play are engaging, mostly because they play up the extremes of the mid-1950's. She has the government officials come in and discuss the various ways they are going to ruin the house. These ideas go from the very extreme (H-bomb), to political (turning it into a communist school), and immediate acts of destruction (throwing darts at a famous painting.)

Another tactic used in the play is bringing in foreigners (American, Russian, Indonesian) to show their reactions to the manor. No tourists are featured more prominently than the American one, who confesses that no matter how much money America has it will never be able to have historical homes as old as Kiplin. The American tourist gets increasingly upset about the house not being saved, especially when he learns that the house belonged to the man who started the Maryland colony. This was intentional by Bridget whose plan B was to get American support in saving the house. She even goes so far as to call the house "an American shrine." It didn't completely work in getting her house saved, that part would come later, but this play did reach an American audience and Bridget Talbot was heard.

Is this play over dramatic? Absolutely! Yet when you get beyond that I think this play really shows the struggle that Bridget went through. She clearly loved her home and was prepared to do a lot to save it, and I admire her tenacity. Working at the archives and seeing the first hand accounts of the preservation process makes being in Kiplin an even more enjoyable experience because you know about the effort that went in to saving it.

Today when I walked through Kiplin and said my own farewell, I couldn't help but think that Bridget Talbot would be very happy that her home has not only be restored but that it is a thriving part of the historic community in North Yorkshire.

                                       Kiplin Hall

(Photo Courtesy of Robert Olguin)

The Quest to Find Cannoli

This is the tale of the quest I found myself over the past few weeks. It is may not seem like the most exciting tale, but a great discovery did hang in the balance.

When we first began our trip, Andrew, one of my classmates, expressed a rather intense desire to find a cannolo. (More on exactly what this food is later on.) He had spent the last few days in London but had not succeeded at finding this particular pastry. For the next week or so, Andrew’s periodic request to find cannoli was either ignored, or joked about by the rest of the group. However since I am quite the “proper” competitive person, after a couple weeks I began to see the search for cannoli as a personal challenge to my ability to locate something.

The quest began quite slowly. All I did at first was glance over the menus I saw on the outside of various Italian restaurants wherever we happened to be. Before too long, the entire group was not only looking over the menus on Italian restaurants, but also actually going a little out of our way just to search out these places. All of our efforts were to no avail.

This past Monday, we continued our search in York, despite the fact that Andrew was not with us. York possesses a great number of Italian restaurants within the city walls, and between the four of us there, I honestly believe we looked at the menus for all of these places. Not a single one offered cannoli. This was when I decided to take our search to the next level. For the challenge was no longer Andrew’s personal desire to eat the pastry; it was now a grand foreign quest for our group. If we failed, our entire voyage would have been in vain. (Ok, maybe not the entire voyage, but we would be really bummed.)

After returning to our base at the Coach House, I ran a keyword search and located a single café that sold cannoli, just outside of York’s walls. Then, using a “highly-detailed” map, I marked the location of our destination. We were officially prepared for the final stage of our quest.

The "highly-detailed" map of York. Also known as, a marked up tourist map. 

The marked location of the Cannoli. 

Tuesday afternoon, we set off around the walls of York. For two of us, the walk meant we would have completed an entire circuit of the city’s walls in our two days there. But this walk meant something much more than a silly accomplishment. This walk allowed us to fulfill our destinies through the completion of our quest.

Robert walking all the way around York on the city's walls with me. 

When we arrived at Skeldergate Bridge, we continued walking along Bishopgate Street, rather than climbing back up on the wall. After approximately three blocks, we found ourselves in front of Trinacria: Sicilian Café Bar. Inside, we found several varieties of cannolo. Our object fulfilled, we completed our quest by returning to the walls of York and completing our circuit.

Cannoli: the object of our quest.

Some of your may be wondering why we struggled so much to find cannoli here in the UK. As it turns out, these little fried tube-like pastries traditionally filled with ricotta cheese are a Sicilian dessert that American Italian cuisine has adopted. In other countries, including mainland Italy itself, the owners of Italian restaurants haven’t even heard of cannoli. So our grand quest led not only to the sweet dessert itself, but also to a little more knowledge regarding the differences between the US and UK. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Personification of Tom-Tom

Ever since we began our journey we have been guided with the help of a Sat-Nav. The beauty of these devices is that you can program different voices to read you directions. While it would be wonderful if Snoop Lion or Arnold Schwarzenegger were available choices they also were only available to premium subscribers. However. We had plenty of voices left to choose from. The default voice was Serena (who had a voice that sounded like a computer). We very quickly tired of her and moved on to Tim (The Brit). His accent provided some general amusement, but he was no James (The Australian). He turned out to be the group favorite and also had the most "proper" phrases. For example, "next chance you get pull a U-eeee" or "Make sure you toss those back seat drivers out and bear right."

Another fun curveball we came across was the sound of a cow, aka moo-ing. Apparently, whoever last rented the car changed the factory settings to moo at any warnings the navigation system had to tell us. We definitely had a good laugh once we realized what it was. Though we did not realize what the moo-ing meant until a day or two later…

With such a wonderful experience the first time around, we made sure when we arrived in the North our new car had a directional unit. The initial voice was very lame and uneventful so it was quickly changed to something a bit more flavorful. Sean (The Irishman), is a delightful little man who doesn't take our ignorance very well. The other day there was an unknown chemical spill on the motorway and so we had to improvise a way around it. This was DEFINITELY not the way Sean wanted us to go. He made it extremely clear. So for the next 20 minutes or 11 miles he continued yelling at us. He used every different phrase he could think of to trick us into U-turning. "Go around the round about, fourth exit (when there were only 4 exits)" "Turn right, then right again" Luckily, we out smarted him and he eventually rerouted. 

Ever since we have had our programmable GPS it seems we have personified the voice into a live person. When we are upset that Tim (The Brit) led us down a 5 foot wide street with a moat on one side and construction on the other, we yell at Tim. When James (The Aussie) said something funny we thanked him for the joke and laughed away. Or when Sean (The Irishman) kept yelling at us we told him he had too much to drink at the Irish pub and to properly reroute us. They have been a wonderful source of entertainment, direction, and we cannot wait to make more memories with our A.I. voices.

Friday, June 21, 2013

English Food?

Over the course of the last couple weeks, several of us have been on the lookout for odd/English foods to try. I am sure I have not identified everything but I think this list has at least made a good dent. Coming to Britain, I did not expect to find much difference from America besides blander taste but I have been pleasantly surprised.

Fish and Chips: This one was obvious to me from the beginning. I have had this twice so far, once in London and once in Cornwall; of course with the vinegar ketchup- and actually liked it the second time. On my first day in Penryn, we went to a restaurant called “Nemo’s” and had “take away” orders for dinner. As we ate outside a man came up to us and asked how the chips were, to which we responded that they were ok. The man started to walk away, but not out of ear-shoot yelled to his friend that we said they were ok but “they’re Americans…”  

Clotted Cream and “Scones”: Another English classic we tried out on our first day in Falmouth (day two of the field school); I greatly enjoyed them with jam. We have also tried clotted cream fudge and ice cream! Just make sure you don’t mistake the cream for ice cream or else you’ll basically end up with a spoonful of butter in your mouth.

Crisps (American Chips): Basically they are the same thing, but I have encountered weird flavors, mainly with a stronger vinegar taste. I have tried Worcestershire, and Salt and Vinegar. I saw a Ketchup flavored bag, but resisted the urge to try it out, maybe later.

Lamb Burgers: When I went to Nemo’s, I ordered a burger expecting to get a beef burger. I think the meat instead was lamb. Since then I have seen advertisements for “beef burgers” so I guess the lamb is the default. What greater sign that you are not in America when you have to specify the burger is made of beef?

Indian Curry: I count Indian curry since Robert explained to me that as a result of the British Empire, men returning from India started to recreate the dishes they enjoyed overseas so now Britain has a strong Indian restaurant culture. Apparently there are several books on the subject.

Pasty: To anyone visiting Cornwall, you have to try a pasty. Since they are very portable and mining was a major industry in the region, miners would grab a pasty before heading down. Pretty much it is a pastry that is filled either meat or vegetables with flaky crusts. And yes any pasty outside of Cornwall is not the same.

English Breakfast: This one we made for breakfast two days ago. It consists of frying tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon, eggs, and sausage; as well as buttered toast and the infamous black pudding (very odd texture, google it if you actually want to know what it is). Not sure if I’ll eat black pudding again but you have to try it once.

Potato Jacket: I have not had this myself, but have seen this very often. Pretty much they take a backed potato and pour soup or chili on top of it. To our amusement, the American Museum served this in their café I think as an example of our type of food.

“American” Pizza: This is pretty much pepperoni pizza but from some reason pizza chains identify it as American.

It has been a great time eating my way through England. Still have a little over a week to go so hopefully the list will get longer. Next stop is Scotland...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Guest Post from Alice

For our first week in Cornwall, we partnered with the University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus. Alice Elliot, one of the 2nd year Cornish students, is guest contributing this post about her experience with public history.

The week that the University of South Carolina Masters students came to visit provided us with a great range of opportunities! The week commenced with a welcome drink where we were able to introduce ourselves to each other and discuss our contrasting countries, universities and cultures. Our next encounter took us on a trip to the Godolphin House, Helston, where we spent the day exploring the house and gardens. We analysed, discussed and reflected upon the practice of public history within the National Trust property and suggested improvements for the site. Saturday hosted our public history workshop and allowed us to thoroughly converse about our experiences in the field, comparing the American Masters programme to our undergraduate curriculum. The day was most stimulating as we inspected key issues in public history and how to further our study into the subject, perhaps even pursuing a career into it! Finally, on the Saturday evening we parted ways with a delicious meal at the Greenbank hotel and said farewell to our American guests!

Not only was the experience useful, but I really enjoyed it too. We were able to meet a group of interesting, lovely and entertaining Americans who we could share our knowledge of Public History together. Our various experiences and studies complimented each other as it allowed us to have a taste of English, American, undergraduate and post-graduate Public History. Overall, the week and the prospects it presented have encouraged me and some other students to consider furthering our work in Public History.

Monday, June 17, 2013

England Old

One of my favorite things to do when walking through an old graveyard is to look at the dates on the tombstones. I have a little game I play of trying to find the "oldest" person on site. This might have started when I was little and used to play hide and seek in a graveyard with my grandfather… I digress. Generally speaking, when one is in America the dates (especially on the West Coast) do not really range farther back than 1860/ 1900s. On the East Coast you have the chance of seeing a lot more 1800s some 1700s. As expected, this is not what it is like over here in England. The other day I was standing over a grave with the year of 1688. As if it was no big deal…

As a group, this has actually been an ongoing discussion about what constitutes the term "old". The American term for old or ancient is nowhere close to what the English understand it to be. The amount of "old" over here is ridiculous. Every day it is like, "this castle was built in 1056" or "Back in the 16th century the family of the current family bought this castle.." (By the way, make sure you say this in your best British accent) It is just so commonplace over here. It definitely makes me feel lame as an American, though we have an excuse since our country was not even close to being founded back then. Let alone, I cannot trace my family back 700 plus years and they definitely did not own a castle.

Another interesting aspect of this was brought up by one of the other students Kim. She asked one of our guest lecturers what the definition of "ancient" means to people over here. While she was asking in more of an academic context, I still think the answer has relevance. His response was that when people first started protecting and preserving monuments and buildings they considered the term "ancient" to categorize the prehistory age; i.e. Stonehenge. However, nowadays the term has started to include things that are medieval as well. While this is one interpretation of the term, I think it has been confirmed with the many sites we have seen.

As an outsider, everything we have been seeing would easily fall into the category of ancient, yet it is not the same for England, since the country has been around forever. To us in America, medieval was always a given ancient. But then. I guess there comes a point when you have to differentiate in some fashion and that is supposedly how they have done it. I am still having trouble acknowledging that 18th and 19th century buildings are "newly old" but it has provided a new way for me to view sites and places. I think before I was biased and misguided in the idea that something is super old, therefore, we must preserve it. Now with this abundance of ancientness constantly around me, I have begun to understand that just because something is old it does not necessarily mean we must preserve it, rather we need to look to additional criteria like cultural significance, aesthetic value, its history, etc. Seems like my experiences and participation over here are having an affect after all.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Audio Tours

One of the first places we visited during this field school was St. Mawes Castle in Cornwall. St. Mawes is often overshadowed by its sister castle Pendennis, partly as a result of accessibility (as we had to use a ferry to get to Mawes) and because much more history (and effort) is being interpreted in Pendennis. Both sites are run by English Heritage, but while St. Mawes primarily only focuses on the 16th century, Pendennis goes through the World Wars. Most people whom I have talked to prefer Pendennis, however Max (another student) and I both enjoyed St. Mawes more because we both liked its audio tour.

I think audio tours can be a great way to explore a site. They allow you to wonder around at your own pace and if a topic strikes your interest, you can chose to listen to more commentary. However as we have visited other sites, I have realized some drawbacks as well. Since St Mawes we have always said yes to any opportunity for audio tours, but I have found they so far have not been able to replicate the experience we first had.

 (An audio tour device that many sites use, this one is from St. Mawes. Simply select a number, press play, and hold it to your ear.)

Most recently we visited Whitby Abbey, a very nice site overlooking the North Sea. I eagerly started the audio tour, which as usual had much more information that any of the text panels and gave a more chronological order to events. However I was not able to listen to more than a fraction of the tour since the rest of the group whom had chosen not to use the audio tour wanted to move on. I therefore felt rushed and missed most of what I wanted to hear. It was later pointed out to me that I could have separated from the group and done my own thing, but I did not want to be left behind. I think my (and Max’s) experience at Whitby is representative of what other visitors could go through- the pressure of being rushed by their group. Therefore I believe audio tours are best when the site is relatively uncrowded and a visitor is willing to go it alone if only for the tour.

Another common problem that I even experienced at St. Mawes was getting lost. Some sites are better than others directing the way you are supposed to go, but I have always made at least a couple wrong turns. Since St. Mawes was a relatively small, uncrowded castle I was able to correct myself quickly, but in others I ended up just skipping ahead. At Whitby Abbey, I started down the wrong path going straight toward the abbey instead of taking a right turn away from the building (eventually circling back). The Rievaulx Abbey tour seemed even more confusing to me as the information desk gave me a map to find where to stand when listening to the tour. The American Museum also had audio tours, but I quickly stopped using it partially because I wondered into the rooms out of order and docents wanted to talk with me and were put off that I had a listening device to my ear most of the time.

Overall I think audio tours can work and be successful, but only under the correct circumstances. Several museums do not use them and I would not necessarily want them to since people seem to wonder all over the place from one exhibit to another. I think the tours are at their best for visitors who are willing to move at their own pace without a group pushing you along, and at a site that does a good job directing where you should wonder next (and preferably not too crowded!).