Examples of November highlights in the awareness calendar include the Veg Pledge Challenge and National Novel Writing Month, during which participants are challenged to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel. Will this global effort produce the next Balzac or Dickens? I doubt it. Did it ruin my morning bath? Certainly.
But I am now going to admit I’ve spent the morning at my home, Upton Cressett putting up posters to celebrate Disability History Month, which launched last Friday and runs until Dec 18th.
Historically, people with disabilities were supported by the Church, which operated a network of monasteries, almshouses and charitable foundations
Ever since the mid 1970s, Upton Cressett has been proud of being a community hub welcoming the public. Our family members have always enjoyed giving owner-led tours – I began myself giving them aged around fourteen. Nobody can claim, however, that the medieval house has ever been an inclusive tour experience. Our gatehouse is a good case in point. The Grade 1 building, built by Richard Cressett in 1580 is one of the few 16th century gatehouses that still has its original solid oak spiral staircase. No runner. Just a steep spiral of solid polished oak steps. With only a loose hanging rope acting as a bannister, accessibility to the Prince Rupert Bedroom on the top floor – where the Royalist Commander slept with a troop of Cavaliers in the Civil War – bears similarities with climbing the steps of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Whilst this twisting staircase is a wonderful feature to enjoy for many visitors, for some, it renders a tour of the upper floors impossible. Thanks to a modest Culture Recovery Fund heritage grant, which will enable us to offer digital and virtual tours, that exclusion will be mitigated.
The new digital tour – using tablet devices – will allow anyone to enjoy the full house tour sitting comfortably downstairs. Instead of having to climb the staircase in the main house to see the splendid murals by Adam Dant, all of our visitors will be able to enjoy them through a screen. Ditto the upstairs 15th century Great Hall, which hosted the eldest Prince in the Tower in April 1483. All of our visitors will even be able to peek inside the bedrooms where Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson once slept (at least where he was meant to stay).
Historically, people with disabilities were supported by the Church, which operated a network of monasteries, almshouses and charitable foundations run by religious military orders such as the Knights Hospitaller.
The Hospital of St Cross in Winchester, for example, was founded in the 12th century as an Almshouse of Noble Poverty by Henry Blois (Bishop of Winchester and grandson of William I), and operates today much as it did then.
The Holy Cross Hospital is conveniently located on the banks of Winchester’s River Itchen at the start of the Pilgrims’ Way. Its existence provides evidence that medieval society was more inclusive than we might think.
As such, I have come to see embracing improved facilities at Upton Cressett as being part of a long tradition of ancient houses and their owners supporting the local community. In the Middle Ages, when our hamlet – until the Black Death – was a thriving medieval manorial community, with a Norman church, such community caring was based on the charitable teaching of the Seven Comfortable Works. “Adherence to these works, especially if accompanied by the prayers of the disabled themselves, could speed a person’s journey through purgatory to paradise”, notes Historic England.
The roots of Visit Britain’s inclusive tourism scheme lie in medieval Britain’s nationwide network of pilgrim stopping points, including monastic hospitals, nunneries and friaries, designed to cater for pilgrims in search of cures.
One of the best things about Disabled History Month is that it has drawn attention to the success of the National Accessible Scheme (NAS), run by Visit Britain. This noble venture has created a national network of holiday accommodation that can welcome all people.
The roots of Visit Britain’s inclusive tourism scheme lie in medieval Britain’s nationwide network of pilgrim stopping points, including monastic hospitals, nunneries and friaries, designed to cater for pilgrims in search of cures. Formed from the Christian duty of shelter to pilgrims and strangers, this network of care became the nation’s way of improving quality of life for those most in need.
In the Norman church at Upton Cressett there is a rare upside down Tau cross carved into the 12th century stone, almost certainly a coded reference to it being a Knights Templar church. I like to hope that our embracing of Disability History Month is not a departure but rather a return to our medieval hamlet’s old values.
William Cash is the chairman of the Catholic Herald.
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