Making an ABC

Gathering information

First, decide upon but do not worry about, a definition of your area ­ it could be one street, the parish, neighbourhood or town. Then decide on what kinds of things you will include, and how to make the final selection.

What to include?

We tend to think first about the special landmarks that make our places, but it is the commonplace, the locally typical, locally abundant or the local vernacular which contribute most. The use of local material is important ­ greensand in Shaftesbury, gritstone in Belper, Wealden clay bricks and flint in parts of Sussex, cob and thatch in Devon.

The vegetation plays a part ­ wild daffodils cluster around Dymock, whilst planted pine trees and rhododendrons characterise Victorian Bournemouth. What of the wild life - do buzzards fly above you, when do the fieldfares return?

Then there are things which are widespread, but which vary regionally, such as mills which differ not only in use but in style and building materials (stone in Cornwall, wood in East Anglia, brick in Warwickshire); working boats built to meet specific needs and local conditions ­ from the Portland lerret (a boat pointed at both ends for easy landing and launching on the tempestuous and steep Chesil Beach) to the Fenland barge; cheese, apples, breeds of stock, legends (Jack the Treacle Eater in Somerset), folk songs, dances, festivals and carols.

Landmarks help to define a place ­ from imposing hills or cliffs to trees with a history: such as Symonds Yat, Golden Cap, Mam Tor, Striding Edge, the Wrekin, Roseberry Topping; chalk figures and horses; contemporary sculptures such as Angel of the North or Lewes Snail; London Eye, lighthouses, church steeples or towers, mosques, piers, power stations, cooling towers, wind farms, pit tips, gravel workings, the Martyr's Tree, the Major Oak.

The unique, idiosyncratic or quirky: follies ­ the Horton Tower in Dorset, the Cement Menagerie Garden in Branxton, Northumberland, or the Shark diving into a roof in Headington in Oxford.

Then there are the subtle indicators such as chicory growing on the chalk, family names, street names, language, milestones, smells, gates, gravestones, local beer and cider. Or signifiers carried in coats of arms such as the crocus for Saffron Walden and the black pear for Worcester.

Many calendar events are particular to place: Cooper's Hill Cheese-rolling, Westmorland Damson Festival, the Jarrow lecture (for St Bede), Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, Wimbledon Championships, Beverley Races, Diwali in Leicester, Glastonbury Festival, Aldeburgh Festival of Music, anniversaries of local events.

Some things are specific to one or two places only, such as the Twaite Shad in the rivers Usk, Severn and Wye, the mud-horsemen fishing at the mouth of the River Parrett, Stargazey Pie, the Lampton Worm, deezes (Hastings netsheds).

There may be places notable for the seasons or natural phenomena ­ high/lowest tides, rainbows or lightning, landslides (the Shivering Mountain), bird / fish / butterfly migrations, signs of spring and autumn leaves, holiday places.

Look for detail and authenticity, but remember that it is the assemblage and the overlays that make the picture.

The logistics of collecting information:

Making an ABC can be as simple or as complicated as you wish to make it. Taking the first step is the hardest part. You might simply list the things you know and then extend yourself to the things you've always wondered about. You might put a sheet of paper on the wall and just add things any time you think of them. This can be a private affair, or passing like ships in the night, anyone in the office, school, pub, village hall can add their thoughts at any time.

People notice and know about a wide range of things, people value different aspects of their locality. Working together to make an ABC stimulates everyone. Learning from each other means that stories are remembered, artefacts shown, places visited.

In addition you may decide to spread the net wider by getting in touch with the local radio station and newspaper to ask for suggestions. You could also contact your local history society, field walking association, tourist information centre, civic society, tree group, ramblers, allotment or gardening club, sports club, schools, evening classes to get as wide a range of information as possible.

As a group, or individually, you could go on walks to look and photograph specific things or systematically take different parts of your area at a time.

How to Start
Getting your ABC printed
How to use your ABC
An ABC of Shaftesbury
An ABC of Bicester

Lea Valley Allotments ABC
ABCs from Cumbria
Hampshire ABC