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Gilsland: A Guide to the Village and a History of the Barony

S. J. Hodgkinson, Popping Stone Publications, 2007

Review

Thanks to the miracle of desktop publishing, we have been blessed with another “Guide to Gilsland”. In the past, production of a book required the services of editors, proofreaders, designers, compilers, printers, binders, distributors, and many other specialists. What the home-publisher must realise, and what this book graphically illustrates, is that all those specialisms have not been abolished by DTP, it has merely become possible to have a go at each of them at home, and the amateur author must master, or at least acknowledge, all of them.

Despite the author’s claim to have visited Gilsland “over the years”, it seems to have made very little impression and the text is strewn with errors, some of which arise from detail invented to explain erroneous assumptions. The sulphur well, for instance, is (as usual) mistakenly located at the foot of the path down from the hotel, and the absence of shops, paved area, baths etc there is attributed to a landslide. Another “landslide” explains Mrs Hodgkinson’s inability to find the remains of the iron well. We are told that Mumps’ Ha’ (which suffers from a single, jumping apostrophe) has been demolished and replaced with a “Georgian style villa”. Without going into the possibilities of what this might mean with a hyphen (something Mrs H’s keyboard seems to lack), ten seconds standing outside the building would reveal its obvious antiquity. This particular error has been inserted to complement the inclusion of a curiously garbled antique newspaper cutting – presumably evidence of “Research”. Further examples of data pasted in to give an impression of original research are a whole page of census returns and a sudden gush of Baronial ancestors. This is raw data from which the historian must derive some meaning or insight, otherwise there is no excuse for using it to fill up space in a popular booklet with no explanation or link to the surrounding text.

It’s always fun finding errors by someone unfamiliar with your area, and if this was all that was wrong with the book, some allowance could be made. What is really galling is its sheer inadequacy, the inability of the author to decide what to make of the small amount of detail uncovered by her research, and hence another missed opportunity for progress in understanding or at least better popularising Gilsland’s history.

There is blank space equivalent to over 4 pages distributed through this 24-page booklet, yet margins are kept disproportionately narrow, the centre spread is dedicated to an extremely amateurish map and entries are sometimes truncated to the point of distortion. In the chapter on The Railway (?) we read “Orchard House Temperance Hotel, built in 1655 for visitors”. Well, there is apparently evidence that a building existed on the site that far back, but whether it was called Orchard House, whether it was a hotel, whether the style of the present building could conceivably be 17th century, whether the Temperance Movement was even a twinkle missing from someone’s eye at that time and why it isn't a hotel now are questions Mrs H hasn’t time to address.

Yours truly is acknowledged as helping with research. What the author does not go on to explain is that my advice was to forget about the mysterious Mendham and the demolition of Mumps’ Ha’ until some supporting evidence could be found, and to withdraw the booklet from publication until it could at least be edited and proofread. This is a very bad example of a much-maligned genre; Gilsland doesn’t need another half-baked guidebook.

Will Higgs, March 2007