The blue plaque scheme in the UK is one of my favourite historical initiatives. It began in London, launched in 1867 by the Royal Society of Arts, as a means of connecting sites with people of historical interest. The first plaque was unveiled at 24 Holles Street, Cavendish Square, the birthplace of Lord Byron. Since then, some 900 plaques have been established in London alone – and plenty more in the wider country – to mark the places that mattered to all kinds of people: from statesmen to soldiers, architects to inventors. But the ones that have always most captured my imagination are those relating to people in the arts. To stand before a house in which an admired author wrote is moving. You realise that the person who in your mind has become legendary was once a real person, once stood right here. The connection is powerful. Inspirational.
When it comes to literary heritage, a precedent has been set for not only marking the residences of writers but preserving them too. Many are looked after by the National Trust, and open to the public: you can visit, for example, Beatrice Potter’s 17th-century farmhouse, Hill Top, and Agatha Christie’s holiday place with a view, Greenway. Other homes have been made into museums: Jane Austen’s, for instance, and Wordsworth’s.
Now, The Blake Society is calling for donations to help it save the home of William Blake. A little cottage on the Sussex coast in Felpham, it is a place of huge historical import.It’s where the write penned the seminal poem ‘Jerusalem’, which became the lyrics for the English hymn so loved it’s a permanent and proud element of the programme at every Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall:
The Blake Society wants to buy the cottage and preserve it as a place of inspiration for writers and ‘anyone who shares with Blake a belief that imagination is Britain’s gift and duty to the world’. But the price tag is £520,000, and the charity has to raise all that money by the end of today! In the UK, you can support the cause by texting FEET11 followed by a number from 1 to 9 (which will determine how much money is taken, from £1–9) to 70070.
What struck me most about The Blake Society’s plea for support this week were these words in a statement from Tim Heath, chair of society: ‘Blake is unusual in our culture in that he’s everywhere and nowhere – he’s had great lasting influence but has no home here.’ We have a duty, surely, to commemorate those who contributed to our modern lives, through all aspects. I’d love to see more plaques. I’d love to imagine a future in which one can walk around a town or city for an hour, looking up at buildings and learning, and feeling connected to the late and great.