This is a book review but also a) a tribute to the glory that is Time Team and b) a consoling hug to my 18-year-old self. Please forgive the self-indulgence.
I started watching Time Team during my A-level years. My mum describes Teenage Turner as being ‘on a mission’ and I was. I took things very seriously. To my mind, what happened in those two years – how well I did in my A-levels, which university I got into – would dictate my whole life. If I got the grades required to gain entry to that-amazing-university-I-couldn’t-believe-had-offered-a-little-ragamuffin-like-me-a-place, then all would be well. If I didn’t, all would be shit. It was an early example of what therapists describe as ‘catastrophising’ and it is not a very rational approach to our time on Earth. More worryingly, I had somehow concluded that getting into That Place was a way of proving my worth. It hadn’t quite twigged that we all have inherent worth, whether we read History at the University of Cambridge or not.
So I was working my socks off, head deep in books, when I should have been gallivanting with Scrumpy Jack cider, Rock N Roll, and boys with questionable hygiene routines. The problem was, I was doing both, cos Every Turner Likes Cider N Party Time, and looking back I have no idea how I did it all. But at Sunday evenings at 8pm, I allowed myself to slow down. I would sit in front of the box with ma, pa and my younger brother, indulge in the decadence of a toasted cheese sandwich, and let Tony Robinson take me on a journey around the UK’s green and pleasant lands. I would enjoy the Somerset drawls of the marvellous Phil Harding, perpetually in denim shorts and hat, ooh-ing over pieces of flint in a way that made me realize that some men will never marry, set against the dulcet tones of Robin Bush, the archivist with his very British cardigans and bow ties. Tony would run to finds, like a mini Roger Bannister powered by the scent of Old Stuff In The Ground, whereas Mick Aston, with his flowing grey locks and multi-coloured jumpers, knew that a piece of Roman pottery that has lain in the ground for over 1500 years ain’t going anywhere fast. Then amidst the male throng, the wonder of Carenza Lewis, making her voice heard above the men. I saw her in a pub in Ely once and almost cried in adoration.
On what was one of the best days of my life (one of the others being the day I did get into That Place), I discovered that I could find every episode of Time Team since its beginning in 1995 on Channel 4 OnDemand. In between living our extremely rock and roll lifestyle fuelled by pale ale, my other half and I are now working our way through all twenty series. This book, a Valentine’s Day present, accompanies the programme and can best be described as a UK holiday guide for geeks. There are some phenomenal sites here – the Weald and Downland Museum, established in 1967 to rescue and conserve historic buildings; Creswell Crags with its prehistoric art that includes a 13,000 year-old carving that may be the earliest nude in the history of British art (a woman, obviously); the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy (apparently there are an estimated 2000-3000 deserted villages in Britain); and the Roman fort of Vindolanda, where hundreds of handwritten documents have been found, including one of the first Latin texts written by a woman. The stand-out site for me, however, was Tyneham, a ‘remote and peaceful village’ until it was requisitioned by the British Army in 1943 for the war effort. Residents believed that they would be able to return, leaving this poignant note pinned to the door of the local church:
Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly
It remains the property of the MOD, with most of the houses in ruins except for the church and the school, preserved exactly as it was in 1943.
So as I watch these episodes or read this book almost twenty years on, I remember a rather anxious teenager with fondness and want to reach out to her to say ‘Chill your beans, it’s gonna be ok!’. My ‘geek crushes’ have moved on too. Carenza will always have a special place in my heart, but these days I focus my adoration on the resident artist Victor Ambrus whose beautiful historical drawings ( which are included in this book), and ability to pull off a very challenging leather waistcoat ensemble in series 4 (which sadly is not, but I am working on a homemade poster), make him my new favourite.