Heritage & Culture

The History Man

If there’s a ‘face’ of local heritage, then it belongs to Stuart Orme, Vivacity’s Interpretation Manager. RICHARD GUNN meets the man behind the many costumes to chat about what the city’s past has to offer the present and future

Who is Stuart Orme? Actually, you probably already know him; even if the name isn’t familiar, the face might well be. If you’ve ever taken part in something involving the history of Peterborough – from visiting the museum, to watching the English Civil War being refought amid the cathedral precincts during the annual Heritage Weekend, through to going on one of the guided walks through the city – then the chances are, you’ve come across Stuart. As the Historic Interpretation Manager of Vivacity – the not-for-profit organisation that runs many of Peterborough’s cultural and leisure facilities – he’s become something of an ambassador for Peterborough’s past. Although he’s keen to point out that he’s just one of an enthusiastic and dedicated team, Stuart’s staggering knowledge of the city through the ages, coupled with a naturally warm and friendly, larger-than-life persona, has perhaps pushed him to the fore as one of the most recognisable custodians of Peterborough’s rich and long history. Delve into the centuries in this part of the world, and alongside Romans, Boudicca, Hereward-the-Wake, Anglo-Saxons, Mary, Queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell and even Clark Gable (yes, really – read on), you’ll no doubt find Stuart popping up as well.

Among his other Vivacity and museum duties, Stuart is perhaps best-known as the man behind the immensely-popular Peterborough ghost walk. He created this spooky tour of the city’s supernatural side back in 2001 and, a decade later on, still takes visitors on the 90-minute tour of terror. He also regularly participates in other guided walks, gives talks and lectures, broadcasts on history on BBC local radio, and has a hand in most events relating to the past that take place in the city. And he’s absolutely committed to the promotion of Peterborough as one of the UK’s most significant historical cities, a champion it perhaps needs, despite its origins stretching back many thousands of years and such important landmarks as the beautiful cathedral and Flag Fen archaeological site, which recently came under Vivacity’s management, being located here.

Surprisingly, given Stuart’s passion for Peterborough, he’s not originally from the city. Born and brought up in Derby, he moved here from Stoke-on-Trent back in 2001, after an education that included a degree in history from York and work as a secondary school teacher, adult education lecturer, costumed interpreter and freelance event organiser. All of this stood him in good stead when, shortly after his relocation, a job as an assistant at the museum, with responsibility for organising events, was advertised two weeks later. “I applied for it and, shall we say, the rest was history,” he laughs. Part of his pitch was the idea of exposing Peterborough’s ghostly going-ons with guided walks. Even though, at the time, he didn’t actually know if there were any tales of ghosts in Peterborough, he reasoned that, given how old the place was, there must be. “I was slightly surprised when, later that afternoon, I got a telephone call to say “Yes, we’d like you to take the role on.” So, it was very much a case of “Congratulations Mr Orme, you’ve got the job, now go out and organise something.”

Before Stuart came to the museum, there wasn’t much of an events programme. “And now about a third of our visitors tend to come at weekends and school holidays; there’s a whole team of people involved in developing and creating events and holiday activities, and they’re a great way of both bringing in different audiences and bringing people back multiple times. If you’ve brought them once and given them a good time, then it’s the easiest way to get more visitors. The education team delivers both in the museum and also goes out to schools regularly to bring the museum to life in the classroom, and that’s an ideal way of getting children interested in history and heritage from a young age.”

Within a couple of years, the role developed into a marketing and events post, with Stuart also finding time to do a part-time masters degree in museum studies at Leicester, as well as organise some crowd-pleasing and eclectic events at the museum. “We did a chocolate-themed weekend which was, unsurprisingly, quite popular,” he remembers. “But the nice thing about working in a museum that covers a whole host of subjects is that you can find yourself encompassing all sorts of things that peak people’s interest.” Probably the most successful during Stuart’s time was a Dr Who exhibition, to coincide with the re-launch of the BBC sci-fi show a few years back. “We originally did a weekend event, where we got a Dalek and a TARDIS in from a collector. We were rather astonished to have queues of people outside the museum, coming in to see them. So we did another one the following year and we were gobsmacked. We had 22,000 in 3 weeks!” And, if you’re wondering what the connection between Peterborough and the Doctor is, well, there isn’t that much of one, aside from a 1980s’ episode of the series being filmed just to the north of Peterborough at Wothorpe Towers. But, Dr Who is now a part of history itself, browsing through a museum is like a slightly less dramatic way of time-travelling with no need for a sonic screwdriver, and Stuart is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a bit of a fan of the programme. “What we actually did was take Dr Who stories and link them to objects in the collections. There was a wonderful blog on the internet from a fan saying that he’d brought his two daughters to the exhibition because they all loved the TV series, but they came away not just enthused with Dr Who, but with everything else they’d seen too. And they could now identify a flint hand axe, or tell you what a Roman shield pattern looked like. When things like that happen, you realise how it was really worthwhile doing, because these people came in for one reason, but came away having learnt a lot more.”

Stuart has also been part of the Vivacity team that has successfully developed the museum over the past 5 years taking visitor numbers from 35,000 to to around 75-85,000 per year over the last few years. This success culminated in a successful £1 million heritage lottery Bid which will be part of a £3.2 million redevelopment of the museum, thanks to funding from Vivacity, Peterborough City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. “I’m often seen as the public face, because I give a lot of talks and tours and am very recognisable, so there tends to be that association, that I am the museum. It’s nice, but in reality it’s not just me, it’s a whole team of very hard-working people, who are passionate and committed about bringing Peterborough’s heritage to as wide an audience as possible and are not so recognisable.”

In that time, the types of visitors have changed – or at least evolved – as well. “Ten to 15 years ago, people would have seen museums as very much dusty places with old things in glass cases. And museums across the country have worked hard to change that perception. They’ve become much more family-friendly places. But 10 years ago, the majority of our visitors would have been over 50, your traditional museum audience, if you like, and those people still come. And by no means would we want to put them off, they are our bread and butter. But now our biggest audience is families with their children. And, what’s also nice, is that our traditional over-50s are now bringing in their grandchildren.”

The museum is, of course, a main focus of Stuart’s attention, but, “it’s not just about the bricks and mortar.” That’s been especially true this year, with the place itself closed for extensive renovation. It hasn’t meant his job has been any less busy, in fact probably the opposite, as there have been extra efforts by the museum team to take the city’s history out into the community and schools through a Museum on Tour programme of events and activities, as there are no permanent displays to visit. “It’s about establishing a much wider interest in Peterborough’s history, and that it’s not just about the building and the collections, as vital as those are. We want to say to people that there’s all this history on your own doorstep, and that’s one of the reasons we do the guided walks and we go out and do talks.”

Asked to talk about the significant moments in Peterborough’s history, Stuart becomes passionate about his adopted city and how crucial a role it has played in helping shape Britain itself. He reels off quick-fire details that might surprise even the most knowledgeable Peterborian. “One of the things that frustrates me is that people write Peterborough off as a new town, or it’s somewhere they go through on a train, or come to collect their passports from. And there is a hugely rich story here that people aren’t necessarily aware of.”

He highlights just a few. “We had Roman soldiers here, 2000 years ago, in an incredible fortress under what is now Longthorpe Golf Course. There’s been a lot of stuff in the media recently about the lost Ninth Legion (massacred by Boudicca, the Queen of the Iceni while attempting to relieve besieged Camulodunum – modern day Colchester – in AD61). Well, we were the first place in Britain to have them based here.” Then he points out Hereward the Wake as well as the Anglo-Saxons Chronicles, significant sections of which were written by local monks at the abbey, which is now the city’s cathedral. “The first use of the word ‘castle’ in English was written down here, in Peterborough, a thousand years ago.” That happened in 1051, 19 years before Hereward the Wake, a resistance leader to the Norman Conquest, with his base on the Isle of Ely, turned up and sacked the place. “He came with an army of Viking mercenaries; depending on your viewpoint, either to stop the gold of the abbey falling into the hands of the nasty Normans or because he was a thieving so-and-so who came to help himself. He completely torched the town, leaving only the abbey standing, and so we named a radio station and a shopping centre after him. That’s Peterborough logic for you!”

Other noteworthy local milestones are Flag Fen which Stuart cites as “effectively the Stonehenge of the fens, built at the same time as Tutankhamen, an incredible engineering achievement about twice the size as Wembley Stadium.” It’s also the location where the earliest wheel in England was found, suggesting Peterborough may well have been ahead of the rest of the country with local transport even in prehistoric times. Then there was the peasant’s revolt of June 1381, which saw protesters against a new poll tax massacred in Cathedral Square by soldiers sent by the Bishop of Norwich. Between 300 to 400 people were killed. “There’s a wonderful quote in a medieval chronicle of the time, written by one of the monks at Leicester Abbey describing what happened,” recalls Stuart. “He wrote, ‘There was the Bishop himself, delivering absolution with his sword.” The Tudor period saw King Henry VIII’s first wife, Katharine of Aragon and, 40 years later, Mary, Queen of Scots laid to rest in the cathedral, during a period of economic depression for the city brought about by the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Both were buried by Peterborough’s famous gravedigger, Robert Scarlett, who died in 1594 at the then extraordinary age of 98. Rumour has it that he was the template for the gravedigger in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as John Fletcher, a noted playwright, contemporary of and collaborator with Shakespeare was the son of the Dean of Peterborough and may have talked about Scarlett with his colleague. “In actual fact, there’s no evidence that Shakespeare actually met Fletcher until two years after Hamlet was written,” admits Stuart. “But you never know, it’s a good story.”

Fast-forward a few hundred years – past the attack on the city by Oliver Cromwell and his men during the English Civil War, the scars of which can still be seen on some carvings in the cathedral – and you’ll arrive in the mid-19th century. The Victorian era saw massive industrial expansion as a result of the coming of the railways to Peterborough, with it soon growing into a major junction and maintenance facility. One of the apprentices who learnt his engineering trade within the Great Northern Railway’s workshops was a certain Henry Royce, the son of a local mill owner. In collaboration with Charles Rolls, he’d later go on to build ‘the best cars in the world’ under the name Rolls-Royce. The following century, during the Second World War, Peterborough geared up for the conflict, with many airfields springing up around the area. One of the American serviceman based here was screen idol Clark Gable, who became a common sight around the city when off-duty from his role as a gunnery instructor. Imagine Brad Pitt regularly popping into the Queensgate Centre today or Johnny Depp frequenting some of the local pubs, and you perhaps have some idea of what it must have been like for the wartime residents, often seeing the moustachioed celluloid star around the place.

Many of these stories are explored more fully in Vivacity’s programme of walking tours around the city, which have been continuing despite the museum being closed. Stuart has a team of eight guides and the range of themes covered has developed in recent years, from focussing on medieval life through to the Victorian era and wartime. There are even ones covering Peterborough’s pubs and how its streets got their names (as well as what happened to those that have now disappeared from the map). Stuart still leads several of them himself, and can be most often seen on the ghost and crime and punishment walks, dressed in an outfit to suit the subject matter. “The nice thing about that is that I get to play a lot of different roles, and there’s an element of theatre to what I have to do when I’m doing the costumed interpretations, in addition to the normal managerial roles and backroom stuff. I get to play with the whole dressing up box, so to speak. People have said I have the ability to look comfortable in most forms of period costume, I can fit in with most periods prior to the 20th century. I was probably born in the wrong time!”

Stuart’s costumes run from the Bronze Age right the way to late-Victorian era, although he doesn’t have a particular favourite period. And he admits to usually being rather quiet and private on the whole. “But there is the public persona Stuart, the one who goes out there and presents and actually quite enjoys doing that sort of thing.”

There’s a sense that it’s the ghost walk that remains closest to Stuart’s heart; it was, after all, the idea that helped get him his job at the museum. And, since they started, he’s done around 300–odd tours for 30,000 people. Peterborough is packed with tales of the supernatural. “A lot of the people who come do so because they’re interested in the ghost stories, or a good evening’s entertainment, or they want to have a bit of a scare. But the nice, gratifying thing about it is that the stories we talk about are wrapped up in local history. So you are imparting local knowledge, almost through the back door. People are surprised by how interesting Peterborough actually is. I hear that a lot.”

The ghost tours operate all year round, but are at their busiest – and darkest and spookiest – in the days surrounding Halloween, although Stuart says that the walks have their own special atmosphere whenever they are held or whatever the size of the group (which can go up as high as 70). “But the Halloween week is the only time we have costumed ‘ghosts’ on the route; people don’t actually jump out on you, but they sort of glide past in the background. One last year, my colleague Brian was just finishing off and I went back into the museum and put on a monk’s costume and a white children’s mask, which was completely blank. I went and leaned over a wall and looked at this lady over her shoulder. I’ve never seen anybody move so fast when she spotted me. She literally went, in one leap, from one side of the road to the other.”

Stuart has never seen anything genuinely paranormal on the main city ghost walk – although some of those attending have claimed weird experiences – but at the museum, reputedly the most haunted structure in Peterborough, is a very different matter. “The candlelit tours around the building that we do when it’s open, we’ve had things occur then that are very strange. I’ve no doubt that there is something odd about the place. I’ve had things happen to me there before that I can’t explain. The last thing that happened to me was just before Christmas; I was sat in my office when somebody walked down the stairs past my door. Which wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem except it was half past nine at night and I knew damn well I was the only person there.” He’s also heard strange thumpings on doors and tape recordings during tours have picked up the sound of a child’s laughter in a area supposed to be haunted by a little girl.

After 10 years studying, supporting and publicising the heritage side of Peterborough, Stuart is still as enthusiastic as ever about what he does. In fact, with the city’s history now playing a more important role than ever in its promotion to visitors – “tourism is worth £27 million a year to Peterborough, so what we do does have an economic benefit” – the sense is that he’s delighted and proud that the city is now being taken more seriously as a historic location. “Somebody asked me once what gets me out of bed in the mornings. I’m passionate about history. I love my job. I love getting people enthusiastic about the past, hopefully as enthused about it as I am. And if, at the end of the day, people enjoy themselves and have learnt something, then my job is done.”

For more information about the guided walks and Vivacity’s overall heritage programme at the Museum and Flag Fen,
please visit www.vivacity-peterborough.com

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