I am on Maiden Castle with the Museum’s Illustrator, on a day to die for. We are talking about Story, which is one of our favourite subjects, and also admiring the view (which is all bare earth and black crows and skylarks and cloud shadows) when it occurs to me that everything that we are looking at is an Imaginary Landscape. Down below is Wessex, Thomas Hardy country, and so with only one foot in reality. Also at our feet is Powys Land, the much story-fied Dorset of the novelist John Cowper Powys, high priest of much of the artsy lunacy that took place in this county in the 1930’s. And directly behind us is Maiden Castle, whose ditches and ramparts were painted by Paul Nash in great, swirling loops.
All these are Imaginary Landscapes. Sometimes it’s good to remember that museums are only one of the things that we want to do with the Past; that visitors don’t only want to learn about the Past, they also want to paint it, draw it, re-invent and re-imagine it; that they love to fete it, mythologise it, run towards it and escape away from it, whenever possible.
Still I am enough of a museum-person to also want to understand it, and Maiden Castle, stunning as it is, is distinctly short of explanations. In fact there are almost no explanations at all up here on this hilltop, just grass and sky and swirling ramparts. And so we route-march back to Dorchester and to the County Museum, which turns out to be the perfect town museum, being chock a block with dinosaurs, fossils, the skeletons of Iron Age dogs, an Iron Age mirror, hammers, nails and other implements from a hard-scrabble farming life; and also the letters, diaries, posters and book jackets that represent all the writers who have pitched up in Dorset and written it into something else. You would think that museums, being thing-worlds, would be better at expressing facts than they are at expressing emotions and ideas, but oddly it’s not true. Things also capture feelings.
In fact this Museum perfectly proves my theory, that you can pitch up in any town in the UK and make sense of it by going to the local town museum.
That said, hill forts in general and Maiden Castle in particular, are distinctly mysterious. We spend some time in the Museum and then also flicking through books in the local Waterstones, from which we learn that nobody really knows the purpose of Maiden Castle, or of hill forts in general. By about 500 BC they were springing up all over the UK, often but not always sited on the tops of hills, always built to impress and probably to mark the territory of tribes but not necessarily as a tool of war. And if Maiden Castle did have a military purpose – well, nobody knows which war it was or who was fighting who, only that it was well into decline by the time the Romans came. On the other hand I also pick up a copy of John Cowper Powys’s novel ‘Maiden Castle’ to read when I get home, so although I may not be able to tell you an awful lot about hill forts I can tell you a great deal about Dorset’s Imaginary Worlds.
PS: The Powys’s were a sprawling, talented Dorset family, all of them into words, landscapes, visions, history and story. ‘Eccentric’ doesn’t begin to describe them. Some people believe that John Cowper Powys was the unsung genius of 20th century literature; others that he was mad and boring beyond belief.
PPS There is a neat observation that I wish I had been the first to make – I wasn’t – it comes from Morris Hargreaves McInture and goes as follows: – that museum visitors come for many reasons – intellectual yes, but also social, spiritual and emotional and that if you quantify these emotions on average the social, emotional and spiritual outweigh the intellectual. Which is neat because it upturns the traditional assumption, that museum visitors only want to learn and nothing else.