History hunting can sometimes be a fairly arduous task. A combination of the Luftwaffe, the coked up architects of the mid 20th century and the homogenisation of the late 20th/early 21st century has left many of Britain's high streets devoid of personality, let alone historical significance.
This phenomenon is particularly noticeable when you travel for work a much as stand-ups like me. Sometimes during particularly busy periods of gigging I can lose track of where I am as I walk past another Starbucks/Greggs/Codfather. Is this Middlesbrough or Ipswich? Could it maybe be Slough, or am I back in Leicester again? Then I remember that I haven't had to get in a car at any point and I had actually just popped round the corner for milk.
In these instances finding a piece of untouched history is like finding an oasis in the desert. Only it's an oasis populated solely by bearded cardigan wearers who have researched their family history back 8 generations and sing in a sea shanty choir on Thursdays (also the oasis is filled with real Ale and the trees are made from pork scratchings). It's a special thrill when you finally find something with a story worth learning. Then there are places like Walton-on-Thames where there are so many historic buildings that they are frankly taking the piss.
The first clue that I was on to a winner was the name of the gig I was going to perform at, Mock Tudor comedy, but as I quickly found out this was somewhat of a misnomer. Instead of performing inside some hideous approximation of the 16th century, like the kind of carbuncles that litter Suburbia, I found myself in a rather pleasant arts centre built around a renovated 18th century barn.
I asked the organisers if they knew anything about the history of the place and it would appear that a local woman called Susan had simply decided one day that the derelict barn would make for an excellent arts space and had proceeded to bully the local community and council until her idea became a reality.
This Susan lady had done an excellent job in my opinion, the barn is treated sympathetically by the newer sections of the building and is without doubt the centre piece to the complex. That said performing in an 18th century barn comes with it's own peculiarities. The stage was built close to the centre of the room, as such the audience in front of the stage was only around five people deep, but to the left and right they stretched off into the darkness. This meant that the acts on often resembled spectators at the worlds slowest tennis match, getting the most low impact case of whiplash in the process. Despite the slightly odd shape of the room the gig was one of those perfect nights where every act went over well.
One of these acts was the delightful Nick Elleray, a droll man with a magnificently shaped head, who had walked to the venue that night. He told me that within walking distance there was another interesting sight, a 13th/14th century grade 1 listed house that had been used as tenements during the C19th. As he was telling me this the organisers overhear and told us that this too had been a project of the formidable Susan.
Whoever this woman is, she sounds like a bit of a force of nature and probably a bit much at social events. I'm sure she is on every local committee and makes prize winning jam in her spare time, but at the same time I'm glad that people like her exist. Through her work and the work of the people she presumably terrified into helping she has helped a small part of the world keep its character and individualism. Not by maintaining a narrow minded status quo, but by recognising an old building's potential to fulfil a new role in a community.
I look forward to returning to Walton-on-Thames, if only to see what Susan fixes up next.