(Written with Alanna Rudzik)
Visitors to the town of Yarm, situated along the Tees River in the United Kingdom, will find a quaint and aesthetically striking High Street, enclosed by a loop in the river, lined on either side with historic-looking buildings, and paved from one end to the other with large cobblestones. Last month, construction work began replacing some of the cobbles around the town hall with smoother paving stone and walkways designed to ease access to the Town Hall and adjacent war memorial. This work has been met with protests from a number of residents and business owners, who say that the removal of the cobbles will destroy the aesthetic character of the town. In particular, residents concerned about the paving highlight the changes to the "look and feel" of the High Street, and that the cobbles represent an "historic" centerpiece of the town.
Residents have some justification for seeing the cobblestones as historic artifacts. The paving of busy streets in England dates to the 14th-16th century (Jorgenson 2008: 553-554). It is unclear when Yarm's cobbles were installed, but the town was given a market charter in 1207, and its impressive stone bridge, spanning the Tees river between County Durham and North Yorkshire, originally dates to the late 14th century. It is therefore quite possible that the cobbles were installed by the local town authority in the 15th century, when Yarm was a thriving market town seeing frequent foot-traffic from merchants, farmers, and other visitors. But of course, cobble streets with heavy traffic need frequent upkeep to prevent unevenness or sagging, and it is unlikely that the individual cobbles on Yarm's High Street are dateable to the Middle Ages. Likewise, photographs from the 19th century suggest a coarser High Street, perhaps one even paved with portions of inlaid gravel. Indeed, it may be possible that the cobbles on the High Street today are of a much more recent vintage than the 15th century.
The rest of Yarm's built environment certainly mixes historic and modern. Some of the buildings on the High Street date to the 17th-18th century, such as the square town hall (pictured above), but many others are deceptively modern. Unlike nearby Stockton-on-Tees, under whose authority Yarm is managed, Yarm's High Street is relatively unified around a Georgian aesthetic, such that even its modern buildings keep the square symmetry that typifies Georgian architecture (Deetz 1996: 158-160). This 18th century aesthetic is of course belied by the asphalt road that runs the length of the High Street, the hundreds of cars that park along the street every day, and the visible presence of Costa Coffee and Sainsbury's groceries, not by any means ancient amenities. But residents and visitors subsume these anachronistic consumer conveniences underneath Yarm's historical "look and feel". The town's aesthetic, mixing historical referents, upscale consumer spaces, and the idyllic naturalism of the loop of the Tees River has led to the town being voted "Best High Street in Britain" by BBC Breakfast viewers.
Protesting residents see the recent repaving as yet another heavy-handed intervention by the Borough Council of Stockton-on-Tees, of which Yarm is a part. The recent imposition of parking charges on the High Street has likewise inspired the ire of residents, as have rather arcane but important debates about new build housing developments in the area. This conflict reached a fever pitch last month, with local residents holding a referend for whether Yarm should leave Stockton and be put under the authority of the County of North Yorkshire, though it is unlikely that the municipal services that Stockton provides to Yarm would be replicated in full under North Yorkshire's watch. The referendum saw a very low turnout, though it passed overwhelmingly, pointing to a core of residents passionately invested in a certain vision for the town amidst a more general uncertainty or disinterest. If comments on news stories are to be believed, there is also more than a hint of political resentment between the largely Conservative business and resident community of Yarm and the Labour party stronghold of the Stockton Borough Council.
The great irony, of course, is that what the Stockton Borough Council is doing today is identical to what the Yarm burghers were doing when they first installed cobblestones on the High Street hundreds of years ago--trying to solve a problem of access and heavy traffic. The attention Yarm is receiving from Stockton is a signal of Yarm's importance, even if the process of decision making and the actual changes have been clumsily enacted. From the Council's point of view, improvements and new revenue streams will provide aid to the ailing Borough, bereft of its manufacturing base and economically depressed, particularly since the current Conservative government has cut off funding for many previously funded services. From their perspective, it is likely that improved access to the Yarm High Street is vital for such a goal and the removal of some of the cobblestones is a small price to pay. Conversely, residents fixated upon the cobblestone removal are making a point about larger issues of political and economic control.
Claims of historical authenticity are, of course, never about the specific age of an artifact or space. Scholars of historic preservation have long noted the ambiguity inherent in trying to reconstruct historic spaces as they were--issues of of modern comfort and convenience often clash with historic building forms. Indeed, there is often great tension over exactly what makes a space, a building, or an object historically authentic. As Jones and Yarrow (2013) note, the authenticity of historic structures can be rooted in their material fabric, a historical aesthetic using new materials, or even the traditional nature of the architectural practices used by restorers. For the cobbles of the Yarm High Street, their physical and material authenticity rests underneath a more general affective quality that links ideas about English village life, historical reference, and middle class consumerism. Rather than being an accurate accounting of age, claims of authenticity are about the extent to which objects, spaces, or buildings from the past can be used to intervene in the present, and point to larger social, political, and economic contexts. The debate over Yarm's cobbles is a case in point.
Deetz, James F (1996) In Small Things forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Anchor Press.
Jones, S. & Yarrow, T. (2013). Crafting authenticity: An ethnography of conservation practice. Journal of Material Culture 18(1): 3-26.
Jorgenson, Dolly (2008) "Cooperative Sanitation: Managing Streets and Gutters in Late Medieval England and Scandinavia" Technology and Culture. 49: 3, pp. 547-567.