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Learning lessons from our history

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History is bunk said Henry Ford, Sr. Maybe he’s right. Historians are notorious for hidden agendas, propaganda and plain deceptions.

But that’s not the whole story. Did your past ever teach you something important?

The Guildhall, Bury St Edmunds (3137088)
The Guildhall, Bury St Edmunds (3137088)

But that’s not the whole story. Did your past ever teach you something important? Mine has. So I was delighted to visit the Bury St Edmunds Guildhall Heritage Centre which opened last week. According to Suzanne Stevenson, enthusiastic manager of this registered charity, it’s here the past is made relevant today.

One of the most interesting of the interactive displays is the World War Two Observer Corps control room which demonstrates how the nation’s eyes and ears thwarted an air invasion from Nazi Germany. It’s an amazing feature that explains the Guildhall’s role in that crucial nationwide air-raid system.

According to Suzanne: “Radar did exist, of course, but it only looked out to sea from the coast. The Observer Corps physically monitored aircraft after they had crossed the radar lines, and so could track them as they moved inland with their bombs.”

I stood at the same style map table that women and men used during the early stages of the war to see how a simple alphanumeric grid system and dozens of volunteers in local fields with only binoculars and telephones protected civilians and air fields from destruction. To me, its simplicity is amazing. And to think this key nerve centre was housed in our Guildhall. Today you can see a faithful replica of the original removed during the Cold War years.

While there, I met Sandra Nicotera, the Guildhall learning coordinator. Her job is to help visitors get the most from the displays. “I believe history makes us who we are today. Therefore, if people, young and old, learn through stories, not just history, what the past looked, sounded and was like, they’ll have a better understanding of themselves as well as others.”

The disability-accessible Guildhall is fully restored and redecorated and the extensive gardens and lawns and state-of-the-art catering facilities will be put to good use for family events and social functions, such as weddings, pop-up events, and arts and crafts. In my opinion, this new lease on life for the Guildhall is a Bury local-history game-changer. Sandra agrees. “I love the thought of restoring the Guildhall’s old role and help making it a building for the people, where all can enjoy the past, through tours; the present, through activities and events; and the future, through weddings and parties.”

A venue for various public roles over the years, the Guildhall is the country’s oldest continually used civic building. Terry O’Donoghue is an official Green Badge registered guide who specialises in all things historic in Bury. “The Guildhall provides a peephole into our local past and how the town developed to what we see today, which, in turn, has an impact as to how the town’s future is planned, balancing the heritage, commercial and social interests.”

Also, strictly speaking, the Guildhall’s not only about the building, but more importantly the people who passed through its doors over the 800-plus years it has been a civic building. “For example, during the time of the Abbey’s power, tension between it and the town manifested several times, and in 1327 Monks were kidnapped and held hostage in the Guildhall,” says Terry.

He also told me that today’s so-called ‘fake news’ is nothing new. “During the Glorious revolution of 1688, John Stafford, a Catholic Alderman, was falsely accused of trying to blow up the Guildhall.” Shades of Guy Fawkes!

History’s bunk? Perhaps. But as the philosopher and historian George Santayana famously said: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”