Bringing the past to life

Show notes (summary)

Sharing old stories can often create a sense of belonging for those who live in small rural villages. Stuart Plant, Chairman of Middleton & Aislaby Village Hall, joins us to talk about a new book and a digital memory bank designed to preserve their past for residents and future generations…

Transcript: Season 3 / Episode 1

Johnny Thomson 00:01
Sharing old stories can often create a sense of belonging for those who live in small rural communities, but how can you go about bringing the past to life? Hi everyone, I’m Johnny Thomson and welcome to The Village Halls Podcast sponsored by Allied Westminster. The UK’s largest specialist provider of village hall insurance and the home of VillageGuard. Now, before I introduce my first guest of 2023, let me just say how great it is to be back with the podcast. And many, many thanks to all of you out there who listen in. To begin Season 3, today I’m going to be talking to Stuart Plant who is chairman of Middleton and Aislaby Village Hall. Stuart has spent more than five years gathering all kinds of information and stories about his village in North Yorkshire, which has not only led to a very thick book, but also to the idea of a vast digital memory bank to preserve the past for future generations. Hi, Stuart, thanks for taking time out to join me today.

Stuart Plant 01:07
Hi, Johnny, it’s good to be with you.

Johnny Thomson 01:10
Thanks for coming on. Now Stuart, before we go on and talk about your amazing local project, tell me a little bit about Middleton and Aislaby, how you came to live there, and also how you well volunteered… is that the right word… to be Chairman of the hall there?

Stuart Plant 01:31
Yes well I retired here after finishing work in York and I came to Middleton basically because it’s flat. I’d had a problem with my with my heart and needed somewhere flat to live so that I could walk about and cycle about and do the things that I needed to do and here was Middleton in the flattest part of North Yorkshire. So here I am. And my association with the village hall was I guess, like many, many people who take a passing interest in these things, go to a meeting, and then find that they’ve got some kind of role within the organisation very quickly. Because they’re always looking for volunteers to help and support what they’re doing and quite rightly too.

Johnny Thomson 02:24
Brilliant, yeah it’s amazing how many times I hear that to be honest with you. Now, people everywhere seem to have a fascination for the past don’t they Sturat. We see this with popular TV shows like ‘Who do you think you are?’ and all kinds of historical films and books. And people seem to have a passion as well for compiling family trees and so on. Why do you think so many of us are interested in the past?

Stuart Plant 02:53
Well, it is a difficult one, because I think it’s different for so many people. There are different reasons why people do it. But I think that in the main there is this real fascination with change. And I think at our age, the older ones that of us in the community can actually measure the speed of change. We’ve seen it happen, we have press cuttings and photographs and things of how things used to be. And now we’re in an age where those things almost don’t matter anymore, because photographs are on your telephone and the speed of change is digital and so quick you almost don’t recognise it.

Johnny Thomson 03:33
Yeah, it’s very true.

Stuart Plant 03:34
So I think that there’s this hankering, this nostalgia for us to look back and recapture and re embrace the kinds of things that we knew about when we were children and our parents when they were children, to try and hold on to something that actually means something. It had a value, it had some kind of connection.

Johnny Thomson 03:59
It’s almost like a sense of belonging that you’re talking about, isn’t it?

Stuart Plant 04:03
Yes, I think it is. And when when you live in a, in a small community, things are remembered for a long, long time. And people do have these kinds of connections with the past, which are very, very important.

Johnny Thomson 04:20
Yeah and the longer you can kind of look back and reflect on that past, then the more you feel you’re part of something.

Stuart Plant 04:27
That’s right. That’s right. But it does need people to tell the stories, that’s the thing. People who are in those communities who are prepared to tell the tales and keep telling the tales even though they get exaggerated and changed over time, there’s a kernel of truth in all of the stories that you hear from way, way, way, way past.

Johnny Thomson 04:48
That’s true, and stories strangely are in some way very calming, they’re very reassuring and as well as been entertaining and informative as well, of course.

Stuart Plant 04:59
I think so and I think they’re a kind of a therapy also for people, particularly now when you get, you get so many people suffering from dementia and associated diseases, that they’re, they’re kind of coat hooks that they kind of pin memories on. And they’re needed by those people so that they can connect with their lives as they are now.

Johnny Thomson 05:25
Yeah and that fits nicely. You have a quote in the book don’t you at the beginning of it from Oliver Sacks?

Stuart Plant 05:33
That’s right.

Johnny Thomson 05:35
I think it’s the telling of our life stories. I’m reading from the book here, just in case anybody thinks that I actually know this off by heart. I’m just looking at your book here and it says ‘the telling of our life stories is perhaps one of the most therapeutic tools available to mankind.’ And I think, yeah, I think there’s a there’s a strong truth in that.

Stuart Plant 05:55
Yes, I think you’re right, there is yes.

Johnny Thomson 05:58
And so, with all that in mind a few years back you embarked on a… well a major project by gathering all kinds of information…

Stuart Plant 06:06
It all started off Johnny when people kept knocking at my door, asking if I knew, because I live across from the church graveyard, and people kept knocking on my door asking if I had the keys for the church, or did I know where their ancestor was buried. And I could only I can only give them kind of a general direction, really. But then it seemed to me that we all have something in the village, something in the church, or somewhere where people could in fact, reference where their folks were buried, where their ancestors were buried. And people were coming from all over the world. I mean, America and Japan, and people were coming and saying you know, my great uncle, my great grandfather, my great great grandfather is buried somewhere in here. So I set about digitalizing the graveyards, so that in the church now there’s a computer where you can actually go and press buttons and it brings up photographs and locations and things of the graveyard. And to get to that point, obviously we gathered a whole raft of information about the families that were actually in the graveyard and the people that were there, and also some of their stories. And it seemed like a natural extension from that, to look at both of the villages to see what we could do in terms of capturing as much information as we could into some kind of project of some kind or another and a book seemed to be the most obvious thing to do. Although we also had oral histories and we also had film as well. So we did something different with those. But the book was the kind of main focus of the project.

Johnny Thomson 07:52
Yeah, and isn’t it amazing how that curiosity from people just kind of visiting the village has spiralled into., what is… yeah the book is called Bygone Reflections and it’s about 200, well it’s 269 pages long and it’s A4 size so there’s a lot in there to really, as I say it’s spiralled into something, something big hasn’t it?

Stuart Plant 08:18
Yes, the subtitle, the kind of ‘Compendium of memories’ is really what it is, I think it is that. And it’s interesting how it enables people and it did enable people to begin to talk about the past and about that ancestry that you speak of. You know, I went around to see people and had a little microphone with me and they would say, I’ve got nothing to say I’ve got nothing to say. And then three or four hours later, you’re still there listening to them tell and recall all the stories of you know, their childhood and their marriages and their children, and their parents, and so on and so forth. So there’s a great kind of richness of resource that is there still untapped? Because we only used about 20% of what we gathered in the book. So there’s a whole raft of stuff still to be used in some way.

Johnny Thomson 09:11
Yeah, well we’ll get on to maybe how you’re going to be using that in due course. But there’s one, there’s one thing I’d really like to highlight, and it’s a feature of that book that I that I love and it’s very clever, is that as you’re flicking through it you get kind of somewhere in the middle and there’s four, suddenly four blank pages. Tell me about that Stuart and how that works?

Stuart Plant 09:31
Yes, that was… we were actually looking for funding for this project. We didn’t manage to get any so we raised the money locally to fund this project. And the idea is that every village, every house in the village… that’s 203 houses in both villages, received a free or a complimentary copy of the book. And the idea was that the four blank pages have to filled in by the current occupant of the house, where they can tell their story, they can put photographs in, they can do whatever they want to do with it. But the deal is that when they leave, they leave the book behind for the people who come into their property after them. So that as well as the kind of, you know, the instructions for the boiler and everything else, you also have a book which tells the new people who have moved into the house, who have chosen to come and live in the village, about the people who lived in the house before them, and also about the village in the community that they’ve moved into. So that was the deal. And people have really responded to that in a very, very positive way. So that’s been really good.

Johnny Thomson 10:45
Excellent. And the book itself is full of all kinds of tales, isn’t it? There’s missing wedding rings, there’s a bomb, well, is it a bomb in the village? A disrespectful policeman and even I remember there was something about the unearthing of two skeletons back in the 1970s.

Stuart Plant 11:05
That’s never been, that’s ever been resolved that. I mean, there were talks about it being some sort of a Quaker graveyard. But of course, we’ll make it the most interesting story that we possibly can.

Johnny Thomson 11:15
Exactly. What is one of the stand out ones for for you Stuart?

Stuart Plant 11:20
Well, the two the two big ones in the village, of course, the one about the silver chalice that was found in the the loft in the old vicarage, which became a real kind of focal point for a dispute between the churchgoers and the, I don’t know what you’d call then… the purists really, about what should happen to this chalice, which was worth £25,000, maybe a 14th century chalice. And of course, one group wanted to sell it because the church needed a new roof and the other group didn’t want to sell it because they didn’t know who it belonged to. So there was a great kind of dispute.

Johnny Thomson 12:02
The very definition of a poisoned chalice yeah?

Stuart Plant 12:04
Yes. It was quite interesting, but anyway, the church people won and they sold it, and it went off down to the, is it now is it Goldsmith’s, I think it is in London, where it’s where it’s kept as a very, very fine example of silversmithing of that period. So that was one. The second one was the couple who had an old cottage that they were, they were refurbishing and invited the antique dealer around, who went around the house and looked at all the brown furniture. And in the bedroom, he noticed that there was a fire screen in the bottom of the fire in the old fireplace. And it turned out to be a painting of The Hare by Hans Hoffman, a 15th century painting, which was valued at £2.5 million. And it’s now in the Paul Getty collection. They didn’t get £2.5 million, it’s enhanced its value since then. But it was worth a tidy sum at the time. So they’re the two kind of big stories that…

Johnny Thomson 12:51
Wow. Fantastic. And as you mentioned, of course, as you’ve been gathering all these stories you have amassed a huge amount of digital audio and film files and all things say that and you’ve got plans for those as well haven’t you?

Stuart Plant 13:21
Well what we would like to do, and this is all about time and resources, really. But what we would love to do is, as I mentioned we’ve got probably 15 hours of film that we’ve collected from various sources. The village was very big on pantomimes, they used to do a village pantomime, which were absolutely hilarious. Anyway, so 15 hours of film, and we reduced it down to one and a half hours. So when we launched the book in September we had a film night and we ran it over two nights and we had a full house on each on each occasion. And we would like to do something with the remainder of the film. And also we’ve we’ve now started taking film of today as well, because there was a great gap when between like 1990 and today there’s been no film made really of anything in the village. Everything’s captured on telephones these days. And so we would like to do something with that. So we’re looking in October to do an exhibition of photographs and do some kind of visual arts project, so that we can bring other aspects of this together. And then in the longer term look at providing some kind of digital memory bank linked to our website, so that people in the village can access all this material, which belongs to them… all these photographs and these stories and all these resources belong to the village. So we’d like to be able to have it accessible to them. But it’s looking at the best way of doing that and how we can make it accessible to people who are tech focused, but also those who are not tech focused.

Johnny Thomson 15:06
Tremendous, it sounds like you’ve started a never ending project Stuart.

Stuart Plant 15:10
Sometimes it feels a bit like that.

Johnny Thomson 15:13
But I guess at the same time, what a fantastic legacy. I mean, springing ahead 100 years from now, this is going to be fascinating material for people in the area to tap into, not just the stuff from your past, but what will become the past?

Stuart Plant 15:30
Absolutely, yeah, yeah. It’s quite a thing, really. I mean, we don’t think about it in those terms, but other people do see it. And we’re just trying to… what we’re trying to do in a sense, is use these things to create opportunities for people in the village to engage with what is happening. You know, it’s a rural area, there’s this whole thing about isolation and loneliness in rural areas and it’s about finding topics and subjects and opportunities for those people to engage and come together to share what they have and support each other through what is turning out to be quite a very difficult time for people.

Johnny Thomson 16:07
It’s a great way of attracting new people as well isn’t it, who have come to the village like you did a few years back. It’s immediately something that you can, you can plug into and you can get curious about to find out what your new home, your new village that you live in is all about and, and some of the stories from its past.

Stuart Plant 16:26
That’s right, that’s right and I think it does work, but it takes time, it takes time.

Johnny Thomson 16:33
Now, hopefully, there’s a few people out there who are thinking that they could do something similar for their village community, what would you what would you say to anyone thinking of embarking on a similar project to yours?

Stuart Plant 16:45
The immediate reaction Johnny is don’t! But in seriousness, I think, I think it’s about the, it’s about the collection of the material. And I think in many ways that the product, the book, at the end of it is, is the least important thing. It’s the journey that… people talk about the journey these days, but it is about the journey. It’s about going to see people, knocking on their door, talking to them. And in that chat in that gathering of information, making connections for people and giving people the opportunity to engage with the project in many, many different ways. So there are some ladies that we’ve been to see in the village who told stories, and now they’re part of a textile group that are making some kind of wall hanging for the village hall and they’re involved in that. Others might be involved in delivering the village meal that we have once a month. And they come and serve or set the tables or do whatever else is. So it’s about interlacing all those things. And this is just a part of it that kind of finds its way through. But it’s an important thread. It’s a connection.

Johnny Thomson 17:15
And I guess as well as not underestimating the amount of work involved. It’s also really important not to underestimate the value, I mean unless someone takes a task like this on like you have, then the past can be lost and all those incredible stories that you mentioned, important lessons from history just fade away, don’t they?

Stuart Plant 18:21
Yeah, they do. And it would, I mean I was thinking about this the other day, when people were talking about their, their photographs, people show you photographs of their grandparents or their great grandparents, old photographs from the you know the 1890s 1900s, and so on. And they say to me, what am I going to do with these because my grandchildren don’t want them, my son doesn’t want them. And you kind of feel that all this, all this material is going to become a casualty of the house clearance. You know, it’s gonna disappear. And we’ve got to find a way or, people have to find a way maybe of capturing that. Because when you say to people, oh you should digitalize these, they all raise their eyebrows, you know, and their glasses fall over their eyes and they kind of go into a mist. And it’s, it’s like what can we do to retain all that very valuable resource against what’s going to be a difficult time I think. They’re so heavy aren’t they photographs and people will just get rid of them.

Johnny Thomson 19:26
And that’s the beauty of that word digital isn’t it, the possibilities in terms of storage and being able to access that has opened up so much in in recent years.

Stuart Plant 19:36
That’s right. And I think that comes back again to your very first question wasn’t it about the fact that the technology is here and we can measure it through technology. That’s one of the fascinations we have as well, it’s made it kind of quite accessible and easy for people to do.

Johnny Thomson 19:54
How’s things with the hall by the way, everything going well?

Stuart Plant 19:56
Terrific, yeah, the hall’s going very well. We have something on at the hall almost every day, we’ve got some days where we’ve got three or four different events on. We’re very lucky in that we have two halls. So it’s quite nice to be able to have a small hall and a large hall, which is separate and independent of each other. And it’s, it’s good. Friday’s are difficult when bridge and dementia and the keep fit or turn up at the same time. But other than that Johnny it’s going very well. Financially we’re good and the committee are terrific. We have a terrific committee and the Trustees do their part as well. And we’re now looking forward to doing something with the pond, which sits outside the village hall. So that’s a project for 2023.

Johnny Thomson 20:47
Brilliant. Well, fantastic stuff Stuart. I mean, well done with everything that you’re doing with the hall, but well done with the book and the digital memory bank, I really like the sound of that. And all your ongoing work, it’s just a really good way of contributing to your local community.

Stuart Plant 21:05
Well, thank you very much.

Johnny Thomson 21:07
And if anyone would like to read the book, by the way, how would they get a hold of a copy?

Stuart Plant 21:11
Well, they can’t unfortunately, as we only printed 250 copies of the book, because it was, as you can see it would have been an expensive thing to produce. And we haven’t done anything with it digitally yet, but we may.We’ll see what the reaction is and then if if there’s a response and we can make the make it available digitally, then we’ll have a look at doing that. But at the moment a print printed copies are available to people in the village who want to buy a second copy. But I think we’ve only got four left now. So it won’t be possible for anybody to go and buy one at a shop or anything.

Johnny Thomson 21:53
And if anyone wants to find out more as well about how you’ve gone about things and stuff, there’s bits and bobs on your website, which I’ll put a link to on on the Village Halls Podcast website.

Stuart Plant 22:03
That’s good.

Johnny Thomson 22:05
Yeah, I guess the key message here is… if you’d like the sound of it, why not go out and do one for your own village?

Stuart Plant 22:11
That’s right. We can create a library of Bygone Reflections.

Johnny Thomson 22:15
Yeah, yeah. Perfect. Well, many thanks again, Stuart. It’s been really great finding out all about Middleton and Aislaby, the two villages and the people who live there of course.

Stuart Plant 22:19
That’s very kind of you Johnny, thank you.

Johnny Thomson 22:30
Thanks, Stuart. And thanks everyone for listening in. For anyone out there who’s waiting to hear about our Wonderful Village Awards winners, don’t worry, we’ll be catching up with our Award winners as we move through Season 3. And we’ll also have news for you in the coming months about this year’s Awards. But in the meantime, many thanks to our headline sponsor and specialist insurance provider Allied Westminster for making our podcast possible and whose services you can discover more about at And to online booking system provider Hallmaster who also sponsor our podcast and can be found at You’ve been listening to The Village Halls Podcast, a unique listening community for Britain’s village, church and community halls and anyone interested in the vital community services they provide. We’ll be back again soon with another episode. So for more information, please visit, where you’ll also find links to our social media pages. Thanks again for listening and until next time, goodbye for now.