The magical British countryside
In Britain the countryside is a “sacred place” with its magnificent cottages, churches, castles, colourful gardens in bloom, just like in a fairytale. On the other side, there are cities with their modern buildings, globalisation, hustle and bustle, migration and so on. This image is widely known from the eloquent descriptions in the numerous books describing the exact same “green and pleasant land”. Many authors had written poems through the years, many artists had painted these landscapes, and a lot of directors made movies and series capturing the real beauty of the places.
Even in a famous speech from 1993, John Major, the Prime Minister then, said: “Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on country grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’.”
However, there comes the project Colonial Countryside, which “destroys” this image of a utopic rural landscape. It is a history and writing project in association with 60 primary schools and the National Trust (a charity and membership organisation for heritage conservation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with responsibility for more than 500 historic places). Its main target is to introduce people to stories that had been forgotten and neglected for years, highlighting the connection between the world during the times of the British Empire and colonialism (for instance India, China, the Caribbean and some parts of Africa) and the neat country houses across the island.
Most of the british people and tourists go to the National Trust sites for fresh air, tranquility, a walk or picnic, eating cream teas (an afternoon meal that is tea taken with a combination of scones, clotted cream and jam), enjoying all houses with their flower gardens. Meanwhile, for the past two years Colonial Countryside has organised plenty of trips for lots of primary school children in order to give them the chance to explore important historical places. One of these places is Dyrham Park near Bath, South Gloucestershire,where there is a sculpture from 17th century representing a chained African man on his knees, a reference to the slave trade practices being popular at those times. Another such place is Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, a country house that was seat of the Curzon family, where a tiger skin rug can be seen along with the story of hunting for trophies during the colonisation of India (one of the most wanted colonies in Europe, during the Age of Discovery, due to its wealth and the trade with spices).
Wightwick Manor, near Wolverhampton, is another significant house in Victorian style, the place tells its visitors about the high lifestyle of Sophia Duleep Singh, Queen Victoria’s god-daughter and Indian princess, famous for her women’s suffrage campaigns. Sutton House located in Hackney was Captain John Milward’s home, who was a merchant and adventurer as well with shares in East India Company (EIC - was British joint-stock company for trading in the Indian Ocean region) and he made his fortune by trading with silk, something popular and really profitable then. Actually, it is a well known fact from historians that a large part of countryside houses inhabited from the end of 17th century to 20th century were property to wealthy traders, selling mainly expensive and widely searched goods from the colonies.
The Colonial Countryside project was established by Dr Corinne Fowler, associate professor at Leicester University, specialised in postcolonial literature, due to the fact that these rural houses and beautiful gardens does not seem to define links to the colonies and greatness of the Empire. She explains: “I wanted Colonial Countryside to partner with the National Trust because country houses were so important to the operation of empire in so many ways, and to help the National Trust to tell those stories to visitors”. In addition she says: “I put together the idea of a child-led history and creative-writing project to explore those histories, whether connected to the British Atlantic world or East India Company, and to think about how we can tell these stories and make them clear to visitors when they’re central to the history of the houses,”