Since moving to Torbay I’ve enjoyed discovering new lanes and paths whilst taking the dynamic duo (otherwise known as “the dogs”) out for a walk. Luckily, I’m situated near many options within walking distance: a beach, a hill (Sugarloaf Hill), a park, and a nature reserve. Recently I’ve completed a circular route that involves a walk down a rather deserted footpath, and whenever I complete the walk my thoughts always focus on a little bridge.
This little bridge is, on the whole, rather pointless. It spans a small stream of water; a stream that one could easily overcome with little effort. The stream is a mere trickle, and presents no real obstacle. I thought at first that the bridge was there for pushchairs, however, the terrain on the footpath is not particular idea for this type of transportation (it is rocky and not surfaced well). So, on the whole, rather pointless, but the bridge does its main job: it provides a route across the stream.
Now, my post isn’t simply an attack on the little bridge, but rather its purpose beyond its mere utility as providing passage. In the study of history we discuss the meaning and interpretation of events, but these events usually have a standard of significance. For example, we don’t analyse and evaluate the insignificant events throughout history, such as Mr Smith making a cup of tea (this is an area of discussion I commented on in a previous post: Introducing History). All of this makes sense, as we wouldn’t want to trudge ourselves through dozens upon dozens of books about insignificant people making insignificant cups of teas: we need to be selective in order to exert energy on the things that matter, rather than the trivial.
So, in this vein of thought, I turn my attention to the little bridge: what is its value in the study of history? I have not been able to obtain anything concerning its own history, but I wouldn’t want to place money on the bridge having played any significant role in history: nobody significant travelled on it, and nor was it the scene of anything much. But yet, to be of some value in the study of history doesn’t mean that the bridge itself had to have done anything spectacular; perhaps the study itself of such a small, rather insignificant sample could be of value.
Some historians have focused on the insignificant in order to determine a greater understanding of ourselves. For example, the Duke of Marlborough may be a worthwhile subject for study, but not everyone achieved feats on the level of Marlborough; therefore, he is the exception, rather than the norm. Perhaps, then, historians need to focus more on the norm. Therefore, the bridge itself – being entirely unexceptional and insignificant – could tell us something about ourselves, our society, and our history. This is the preserve of historians who investigate the micro, rather than the macro. It is a theme I enjoy to read more into, especially with those who have undertaken one-place studies or the square-mile approach (utilised so effectively by John Hanson Mitchell in Ceremonial Time).
Of course, a solid, worthwhile historical investigation rests on the quality of questions that the historian can ask. As it stands for the little bridge, my questions remain rather stunted: how did it get there, who built it, why did they build it, when did they build it? All of these wouldn’t necessarily help me develop the bridge as a worthwhile subject of study. But my walks will continue, and with each time I cross this lonely and rather pointless little bridge I will continue to develop the questions further.