UK mysteries solved

Our landscape is peppered with historic puzzles. A new TV series aims to unravel them, says Ian White
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The Independent Travel

Daytime television is about to get more interesting. The idea for History Mysteries, a 10-part series for the Open University, is to find the truth behind local legends or puzzling historical details. For example, why does William Canynges, a merchant of medieval Bristol, have not one but two tombs in the Parish Church of St Mary Redcliffe - especially since he was not buried in either of them?

Trying to find the answers to such local anomalies (after the groundwork has been done by a small team of researchers) are three expert presenters, Jonathan Foyle, Miranda Krestovnikoff and Nick Barratt, using resources that are available to all of us.

Series director Samantha Bakhurst says: "As a child, I was taken to many stately homes and castles and I'd do the little quiz that you were given to take you round. This is an adult version of that. It was conceived as day-trip history and it's about looking for the unexpected in the ordinary, whether in your own locality or on holiday."

"If you start with the local detail, a surprising picture of the past can emerge," says Foyle, who specialises in architectural history. "This isn't re-creating the steps of research already done or an illustrated lecture where the audience is talked at by a figure of authority. In every case, we follow a trail once we arrive and try to keep that process of discovery as alive and genuine as we can."

Which brings us back to the man with two tombs. How did the team solve the mystery of why such a seemingly excessive honour was bestowed upon Canynges?

"In this particular case, Nick, who is our documents man, found that someone had written a book about John Cabot's Bristol which contains an account of Canynges as a major trader in the city," answers Foyle. In fact, William Canynges the younger (1399-1474) was one of the wealthiest merchants in England and, by 1461, had a fleet of nine ships, which sailed to places as far flung as Iceland, "Finmark", Bordeaux and Spain. In 1448, he is recorded as trading with Prussia and Danzig. "He was a Richard Branson-like figure and his crews were the astronauts of their day," says Bakhurst.

"Nick went to the local archives and found extraordinary things such as a book on the mayors of Bristol during the 15th century. Canynges was mayor five times," continues Foyle. He was also, at different periods, the sheriff, the bailiff, constable of the staple and three times MP for Bristol. At one point he employed 8 per cent of the city's population. In 1461, he had King Edward IV round for tea at his house in Redcliffe Street. From the merchant's magnificent tower with four bay windows, the king would have seen the newly completed church of St Mary, paid for in no small part by the Canynges dynasty.

"You can still see a fragment of the north stone wall of the house," says Foyle. "Amazingly, the building survived until the 1930s when its great hall was turned into a car showroom. Now it's part of a modern block of luxury flats." Just as remarkable is the way in which the story of this one small piece of wall can say so much (and almost comment upon) Bristol's history.

And that's the big point this programme is trying to make. This is history tourism and it can be applied to anywhere in the country, not just the obvious landmarks. In the course of their investigations, the presenters travel to Devizes in Wiltshire in search of the story behind a monumental stone commemorating the highway robbery of a local farmer in 1839.

"That was fascinating because you can follow the escape route that the robbers took (unsuccessfully), find the place where one of them dropped dead and track down the prison where some of them ended up," says Foyle. "It was one of the most modern jails in Europe at the time - the cells were in a circle with the governor's house in the middle. It's a housing estate now with a green in the middle." Is history trying to tell us something here?

For more information on 'History Mysteries' visit open2.net. The series begins on BBC2 tomorrow at 3pm

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