We are at Sutton Hoo, the Museum’s Researcher and me, on a day to die for – a white sun, a pearl-grey sky as huge as the ocean, the wind in the fir trees, the sound of a tractor, and a jumpy radiance in the empty air over the heathlands. We are only an hour out of London, near the estuary of the River Deben, but for sheer emptiness it could be the north of Scotland.
I am here out of curiosity. There’s been so much recent talk about Identity (Who are you? Do you feel English?) that I am suddenly curious to see this burial mound to a long-lost warrior king who was buried here with his treasure in about AD 620. He’s often described as an English king who lived at that time when the English state was being established, but in practice I feel no identification at all with him. How could I? He died at the very end of the Age of Warriors, a time that is hugely remote, and had far more in common with Homer than he does with me.
But what I do feel is a fleeting, funny time-travel moment, one of those vivid, startling moments when time seems to crease and the lost past to grow very near, until for a moment it is standing bang in front of you.
The feeling of time travel – that vivid sense of the past – is an interesting subject. There is plenty of evidence, both anecdotal and from research, to suggest that it is one of the things that visitors to museums and historic houses love the most, though they don’t always get it. Or not in the way that they think they will.
And my time-travel moment is a case in point, because it’s not, as you might think, back to the Anglo-Saxon period but to 1939 – Sutton Hoo being a double story and unfolding both in AD 620 when the king was buried, and to the time he was discovered in the summer of 1939 as war was breathing down our necks.
This is the cast of characters whose story it is –
Mrs Edith Pretty, the land owner in whose garden the tomb mounds stood. She was recently widowed and lonely, and was said to hold seances in Sutton Hoo House when she talked to her dead husband.
The Friend, who one night saw an Anglo-Saxon warrior on horseback out beside the tombs and planted in Edith Pretty’s mind the idea that she should excavate them. And the old Gardener who swore blind to Edith that there was treasure underneath them.
There was also Basil Brown who dug the mounds at Edith Pretty’s invitation, in his flat cap and shirt sleeves and with his heavy Suffolk accent. He was a former tenant farmer but also a gifted, self-taught archaeologist. He kept a diary.
And there was also the bumptious Charles Philips, a scholar from Cambridge, and the men from Ipswich Museum, all nearing retirement, and the young, fancy archaeologists up from the British Museum in London, who were determined to wrest control of the dig away from the locals. The squabbling between them all was bitter, driven by age and class, and perhaps also induced by the presence of treasure (in a Treasure of the Sierra Madre kind of way).
And overarching all of them was the Anglo-Saxon king, rising up from the dead on his horseback.
But the vivid feeling of pastness comes to me in Edith Pretty’s house, which overlooks the tomb mounds. Sutton Hoo is a National Trust property, and like all the Trust properties is trying out its hand at some three-dimensional storytelling, in this case using music from the 1930’s, facsimile letters and diaries, smells, a table set for tea, and all the rest. If you have an historic house you are already half way towards an imaginary world. All you need are those extra touches that heighten the story.
The Museum’s Researcher sits down at the children’s table to try out the activities – her knees are up around her ears because she’s way too big for this – whilst I stand and watch how the bleak, white sea light comes bouncing in through the tall Edwardian windows. And there I have it, a vivid, fleeting sense of Edith Pretty and how lonely it must have been here in the 1930’s, living through the East Anglian winters, with only a dead, Anglo-Saxon king for company.
So what does create a sense of Time Travel? Here are my suggestions. Start with the Story to draw your visitors in. Give them the things that act as witnesses and that can stitch the connection closer. And then let the visitors stand on the spot where it happened, so that they can feel the past through the soles of their feet and can touch it with their fingers. Add in atmospheric lighting, the sounds of the past, and not too many people to distract you, and there you have it – six steps to Time Travel.
The nearest station to Sutton Hoo is Woodbridge in Suffolk. Sutton Hoo is where you’ll find the tomb mounds, the house and the landscape. The treasure is in the British Museum.