The fun part of writing a novel is doing the research. Much my novel is inspired by long walks around London and Kent, and from reading biographies of Christopher Marlowe, the Lords of Cobham Hall, and Charles Dickens. I was thrilled last week to do some first hand research, at the National Archives in Kew. And what an amazing institution it is.
My heroine is an historian and poet, uncovering secrets that date back to the dissolution of the monasteries and the destruction of Thomas Beckett’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral (see the preface here). At one point she has to go to the National Archives, to consult the historical records of the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh for treason, in 1603. (Trust me – it all fits together in the end). I’d read a translation of the trial record online, but what does the actual court document look like? How do you get to see documents at Kew? I thought I’d better find out.
To my astonishment, it’s really easy, not to mention free. I went along with my two pieces of ID and was issued with a reader’s ticket on the spot. I searched for the trial record on one of the banks of computers, swiped my new ticket, typed in the reference number – and that was it. Half an hour later I was being handed a massive cardboard box and left to get on with it.
I lifted the lid in a state of high excitement. All morning I’d expected someone to rush up and demand to see my credentials for viewing such a precious, ancient document. Yet here I was, untying the linen bands and gingerly turning the stiff parchment pages, covered in sepia-tinted ink, close-written lines in Italianate script. My Latin is pretty hopeless and the script is quite hard to read unless you’ve had practice, but I could identify the names of the accused men, and the judge’s signatures, with their wax seals appended. And there, on the final page of the second box, was James I’s massive royal seal. It was truly thrilling.
The staff couldn’t have been more helpful and friendly, especially to a first-time visitor. I was excited to discover I could even photograph the documents (see above and below).
The whole place is astonishing in scale; a vast citadel of information in a brutalist 1960s building beamed down into a pretty London suburb, close to the Thames. And even the miles of shelving at Kew don’t hold everything – there’s a salt mine in Cheshire that takes the overflow. It’s the internet of British history.
I’d absolutely recommend a visit, even if you don’t have a specific historical enquiry. There’s a small but interesting exhibition on the ground floor, a lovely bookshop and a nice cafe. Here are a few tips from a first-timer to help you get the most from your visit:
- Do your research online first. Some documents are digitised, so you can read them without travelling to Kew. It also speeds things up if you know the reference number for the document you want to see.
- You can’t take bags or coats into the reading rooms, or anything sharp, or ink pens. Take a pencil and notebook, or your laptop, and leave everything else in the lockers.
- Get there early. At 9am on a Friday, the place was half-deserted and there were plenty of spaces in the reading rooms. When I left at 11am, it was filling up. Also, it’s closed on Sundays and Mondays.
- Go straight up to the second floor to get your reader’s ticket (if you need one – not all documents require this) and order your documents on the first floor. Then have a coffee on the ground floor while you wait the 40 minutes or so it can take for the documents to be located and brought up for viewing. There’s a monitor in the cafe where you can swipe your card to see whether your documents are ready.
- Take a sandwich to eat in the lovely grounds of the Archives, if you’re on a budget. The cafe ain’t cheap.
- If possible, go down to the riverside walk behind the Archives. The Thames is incredibly pretty here.