Visiting UK Archives

Visiting UK Archives

If like me you are a fan of hyper-local history, and especially the kind-of subjects which most people wouldn't bother venturing into, you're going to find yourself undertaking some original research in the UK's archives. If this second-person description of myself still matches you, you will love it.

One warning I will give you is that if you don't know where to begin, you will feel a bit bewildered. For this reason I've created a guide as to exactly how you go about using these facilities, by reviewing the few I have used.

The National Archives, Kew

As you'd expect from its title, the National Archives is the ultimate fount of information. It is best for looking for documents which would have been handled by a government office in England. For anything of extremely local interest, you are better off heading to a county archive - although the staff here may be able to point you the right way. Personal photography and a very good wifi connection are both free, which is a real bonus.

It is a ten-minute walk from Kew Gardens station (District/Overground) and has free on-site car parking, although the trade-off for that is that you will have to use part of London's South Circular Road, and as the Archives are usually open 09:00-17:00, if you want to make the most of the day, you'll spend a lot of time in traffic.

Full details on what they have and when they're open are available from the National Archives website. Before you visit, you are urged to search for documents using their online catalogue, to see what's available. If you've already registered, you can also order them (strongly recommended).

Once you arrive, you need to walk past the fountains and through the awkward revolving door that usually stops every other second. Don't worry about the reception desk, I don't know what it's there for, you can turn left and let yourself in. Sometimes there will be a friendly bag search here.

On your left is the cafe, straight ahead are the toilets and stairs, and in the right-corner are the lockers, where you will need to leave anything non-essential. For some reason, despite having used all those facilities, I really struggle with the layout here. Whenever I use the lockers, I then find it impossible to find the toilets. Whenever I use the toilets, I find it impossible to find the stairs. They are all there though, in that corner, and they don't move. You may just have to walk around a bit if you're an idiot like me.

If this is your first visit, you will need a Readers Card. You can get one from the second floor, by following the instructions on the self-serve computers. You will need proof of address and proof of name, and a photo will be taken. It takes about 20 minutes.

Next you can head down to the first floor. Staff will be keen to take you through their "start here" research centre which is a great library, but chances are you've already done all research you can - you just want to access the documents.

Document reading is on the first floor. You need to walk into the "start here" centre and turn left before the desks. You will need to scan your card and show that you're not hiding anything in your laptop (who does that?).

About 40 minutes after ordering, your documents will be available in a cabinet on the left, with your seat number written on it. If you don't know your seat number, you can scan your card against one of the "check my order status" terminals. You then need to carry your documents through to the main seating area opposite, and take a seat on your numbered table. Large sheets are best taken up to the table by the sliding doors. Let the reading begin!

When you're done, you can take your documents to the returns desk, and then move on to your next one. Although the staff here are well-dressed and keen to ensure order, they are also very friendly, and happy to help with enquiries. The research space and facilities here really are brilliant, indeed the only let-down is that in my experience the back-room and catalogue are extremely disorganised. This certainly isn't their fault as it's a historical failing, but it means what turns up is rarely what you were expecting. That is part of the fun, or at least what makes finding what you needed so spectacular.

Hampshire County Archives

Statistically, not many people reading this page are going to be interested in how to go about using Hampshire's archives. However, it doesn't warrant its own page, but may well help a few people - so here's my experience.

Hampshire's Archives are located in Winchester, on Sussex Street, by the Discovery Centre. As before, full details and the library can be found on Hampshire's website. I understand you can only order online if you're using the archive's own computers (?!). There is no on-site parking, the railway station is about 5 minutes away and two hours free parking is available on St Pauls Hill (10 minutes away).

It has documents relating to decisions made by Hampshire and its borough councils, as well as correspondence and photos taken by them.

You will need a CARN ticket to use the archives. These are available from the reception desk, if you bring two forms of ID. Even if you have one, you will need to sign in at the desk. You will then be able to walk through to the archives.

A TV screen displays all the names which have documents ready for collection. These are generally available 30 minutes after ordering. You just need to take your card to the reception desk to collect the first one. It is very easy.

Last time I checked, photography was £12.50 a day. You get given a sheet with lengthy conditions and space for you to note every photo you have taken. But every time I've been, nobody has asked me for the completed sheet on my way out!

Gloucestershire County Archives

As a visitor to Gloucestershire, I found their archives difficult to find. It is just north-east of the railway station (a 10 minute walk), signposted down a small side-street called Clarence Row. Parking costs £3 and must be purchased from the reception desk. Otherwise you will think that you are stuck in the car park forever, like I did.

As a regional archive, it again holds decisions and correspondence made by councils in Gloucestershire, as well as past area surveys. Its website is available here.

When I said I was new the staff kindly provided me with a map and detailed directions. All you really need to know is that the entrance is by the car park barrier, and once you've shown your CARN card to reception (or registered - as per Hampshire) you turn right and scan your way through the double-doors. The order and collection desk is then on your left. It's quite small here, but spacious enough.

A photography permit is £7.50.

On another note, archives are generally visited by older people, and as someone who isn't in that bracket it can be quite intimidating. I would like to see more younger people discovering information in them, so wrote these guides so you can walk in and look like you know what you're doing. Please do let me know how your experience goes.

Tedious about the author bit

I write about media, exploring, heavy machinery and lists. I produce radio with an attitude accurately described as "amusingly surly".

I can't tell you how many terrible ideas I have had. But it's a lot of terrible ideas.

PS. I am not a travel blogger. But I do travel and I do blog.

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© 2020 Johnathan Randall.