Home Page Marking our history can help us be more than just nice people 07/12/12

Haverhill Poll
Haverhill Poll


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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

Each year, when the fantastic fireworks round off a lively Family Christmas Night, we sit back and think to ourselves that Haverhill really is a great community.


Everyone gets together to celebrate and enjoy one big evening in the year and goes away thinking other places could learn a lot from us. That sense of the community creating its own positive energy is very encouraging and often impresses visitors.


It is something many say they find less evidence of in other, more prestigious, towns and it is usually the thing they remember most about Haverhill. This has been the case as long as I can remember, even in the dark days of the 1970s when the town had a different reputation for less positive reasons.


And that is part of the problem. Haverhill still manages to give out the impression that it is a great community in spite of everything. Very often, visitors go away with that thought. They will say with surprise how nice the place turned out to be, rather in the way my mother, who considered herself very liberal and enlightened (as, in fact, she was for her time), would praise someone as being very good-looking ‘for a darkey’.


Why is it that Haverhill is, after all this time, still not a place where people might naturally expect to find events like the Family Christmas Night and the Firework Display?


It may seem radical, even controversial, to suggest it, but this may be because we spend so much time and effort on the residents – what companies would call the human capital. It’s very laudable but, like a lot of worthy efforts, it doesn’t get you very far in that hard old outside world.


Other things matter there – economic vitality, civic pride, articulacy, sheer jaw-dropping beauty. It’s no different from the human experience. Helping the people around you is not often a recipe for wealth and success in the material sense. It’s more of an asset to be sharp, self-confident, plausible or drop-dead gorgeous.


And, if you are in the business of caring for your neighbour, it is easy to be a bit sniffy about some of those other qualities that get people to the top, as if they are shallow and unnecessary.


What is it about Haverhill that makes our local authorities feel it is not worthy of a museum? I have pondered over this question for the best part of 25 years.


Almost everywhere I go on holiday in Britain, there is a little museum trumpeting the history of the place, from Orkney to the Scilly Isles and from Colchester to the Isle of Mull. Clare has one. Ashdon has one – at least it used to have, so I suppose it still does.


Haverhill, a town more than ten times the size of those places, has a little room hidden away in the bowels of the arts centre, and even that is now under threat.


Ah, you say, but Clare is a historic place – it has a castle. And what makes you think Haverhill is not? Is it Milton Keynes, or Cambourne, which were created in our lifetimes? Anyone would think so.


In fact, Haverhill is an extremely historic town. It is one of only four West Suffolk towns in Domesday Book to have a market – the others being the abbey at Bury St Edmunds, Sudbury and Clare. Anyone who saw the results of the big dig will know that Clare must have been a fairly new centre at the time, because there is virtually no evidence of Saxon settlement there at all.


Haverhill, however, has a High Street which is, in all probability, an old Roman Road. There is a Roman burial mound at the Sturmer end of the bypass. Recent archaeological work on the research park site has shown Romano-British occupation. A large Saxon cemetery was excavated at St Botolph’s proclaiming a sizeable town.


In the first vaguely accurate map of Britain 1595, only ten places are named in Suffolk, and one of them is Haverhill. In the 19th century a complete Victorian town was created here and most of it still survives. It is unusual, if not unique, in southern England and very worthy of preservation.


None of this comes across to the casual visitor to the town at all. We hear of places being airbrushed out of history, but Haverhill has almost had history airbrushed out of it. I don’t believe that its residents have been unaffected by this, particularly those who came with town expansion from London.


I reckon most of them and their second and third generations families, along with those who have moved here since, think they came to a faceless place which appeared out of the ground in about 1950 – or, if they are slightly more familiar with architecture, in 1890.


Alas, I fear there is little hope of changing this. A prominent Conservative councillor told me some time ago they considered a museum for Haverhill would be a pointless waste of money and create no civic pride. I know of Labour councillors who would fight a museum tooth and nail because it would glorify the Gurteen family, who they see as the great exploiters of the workers.


While we have this blinkered lunacy among those who represent us, I would not be at all surprised if our entire history was buried beneath the premises of the next cut-price retailer we can clasp desperately to our collective bosom.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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