On the face of it there can be few less-enticing places in the country than Leicester City Council’s Social Services Department car park. I even nodded off just typing it. It’s probably pretty dull even if you actually park there.
It is however currently the most famous piece of tarmac in Britain after it was confirmed this morning that the remains found buried beneath it are those of Richard III.
The news that Richard Of York not only Gave Battle In Vain but was almost destined to prop up the Michelins of a social worker called Margaret in perpetuity has excited historians, archaeologists and people like me who write about and have a passion for history.
There will be a great deal written about the implications of the confirmation by historians qualified to do so – and hats off incidentally to the University of Leicester for presenting their findings in such a thorough, accessible way at this morning’s press conference – but for me it’s been great day because we’ve seen just how exciting history can be.
As you’ll know if you’ve read my And Did Those Feet: Walking Through 2000 Years Of British And Irish History (and if you haven’t, well, that link is a short cut to putting that right, that’s all I’ll say), I’m a massive advocate of taking history out of the museums and classrooms and really getting out and amongst it. You don’t have to set off on the kind of odysseys I did, however, because history, fascinating, illuminating history is all out there to be discovered and you don’t have to go far to find it.
From where I write this, for example, if I crane my neck a little bit I can see the birthplace of Elizabeth I and Henry VIII. If I get up and perform an ill-advised – yet daring – leap from window ledge to drainpipe I can see the construction site of Brunel’s Great Eastern. If the drainpipe detaches from the wall and lowers me Harold Lloyd style into the river I’ll end up doggy paddling above roughly where the Golden Hind moored after Drake’s circumnavigation. History is everywhere and it’s all out there to be explored, whether it’s visiting, say, an Historic Royal Palace, standing on a battlefield (I recommend the Battle Of Hastings site for example) or noticing a blue plaque on a building, we can see it, touch it, breathe it.
It’s brilliant news about Richard III, not only because a centuries-old mystery has been solved by top-of-the-shop detective work by historians, archaeologists, genealogists and geneticists, but because it’s once again demonstrated how thrilling and exciting history can be when you take it out of the classroom and museum and put it in a wider context; when the past and the present come together to bring great stories alive and give them a third dimension that dusty tomes and static display cases can’t really provide.
Today has been history in action. Hopefully more people who may have been turned off history by bad and uninspiring teaching at school will have seen the thrilling route of the Richard III story from hunch to confirmation and found their interest piqued.
After all, for heaven’s sake, there are kings under our car parks. THERE ARE KINGS UNDER OUR CAR PARKS! If that doesn’t make you want to get out in the open and explore our history and heritage, well, blimey, you’re missing out. Big time.