Moving to pastures…old, by Ally McConnell

I started organising the blog rota back in April this year, keen to re-introduce some form of consistency for the blogs that would re-invigorate the blog site and also encourage as many staff as possible to contribute to what is a key way of letting people know the sorts of things we get up to as the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub. As part of this, whenever someone left I asked them to do a “round-up” blog detailing the sort of work they’d been doing. We heard from Sally Middleton on her retirement, and we heard more recently from Laura Cassidy, our graduate trainee, as she went off to do her postgraduate course to be an archivist. I knew Sally was retiring when I set up the blog, so got her in quickly for a round-up. I knew when Laura was leaving her fixed term contract, so I pencilled her in for when she left in August. Little did I know that I’d be writing my own for November! Still, this is what has happened, so here goes – what have I done since September 2017?

Maybe I should really look further back, when in July 2011 aged 23, I nervously journeyed to Gloucester from Exeter, stayed with a (since sadly departed) cousin before a 9am interview, gave some answers to some questions asked of me by that well-known harsh interviewer (jokes) Kate Maisey, and was offered the chance to be one of two graduate trainees at Gloucestershire Archives that year. I had a sprinkling of distant family members in the area, as well as some family connections – more on that later – but didn’t know it at all. I moved myself into a lovely little flat overlooking the Severn in Gloucester, and decided that I might as well throw myself into making this new city home for the next twelve months, as I was only here for a year. And during that year I met so many wonderful people, and had so much fun, that it was almost impossible not to call Gloucester home. I had joined a choir thanks to our former colleague Becky (now Gloucester Cathedral Archivist, and my very greatest friend), joined a wind band (the first rehearsal of which, in walked Kate Maisey too, which was a complete surprise but was the beginning of another great friendship), attended pub quizzes (must name-drop Paul Evans here as well as Sarah Aitken, another now former colleague), and was generally encouraged to be as sociable and welcomed as I wished to be. That is and has always been the essence of Gloucestershire Archives for me: friendly, welcoming, supportive.

After a year away in London doing my postgraduate degree in Archives and Records Management, I was still with the partner I had met during those twelve months in Gloucester, so I moved back. I looked for an archives job within commuting distance, and ended up almost as far away as I wanted to be, in Chippenham working for the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre as a project archivist. Whilst I travelled to Chippenham almost every day – working from home was virtually impossible as an archivist working constantly on original documents and supervising volunteers every day – living in Gloucester made me rejoin the band, rejoin the choir, re-attend the quizzes, go to the birthday and Christmas meals. I basically had the best of both worlds – due to the location of the Wiltshire office, more people commuted and so were less likely to want to get together after work, so there was no FOMO [fear of missing out]. In 2015 we moved to within sight of Gloucestershire Archives and I watched over the next two years – with two feline security guards from 2016 – as it made the initial preparations to become the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub. I was only meant to be in Chippenham for eighteen months, but a permanent contract became available and everyone in heritage knows not to pass those over! But then in 2017, a role was advertised back at Gloucestershire Archives. Project Archivist for the Dowty project? Let’s go for it. A 2.5 year contract was long enough to justify leaving a permanent post, and the commute would be severed to about 1% of the time it took to drive to Chippenham. I got the job, returned to some much treasured old colleagues and quite a few now-much-treasured new ones, and settled in to what became 5 years (not full-time) of trying to work out aerospace engineering jargon.

The Dowty project was in many ways quite out of my comfort zone, because of the nature of the archive, but I always say that as an archivist you don’t HAVE to understand everything in the records, just enough to be able to make sense of them and arrange them. It was exciting to be involved in something that was quite to close to the hearts of practically everyone in Gloucestershire. There is a fantastic community of ex-colleagues, one of whom set up a Facebook group and some of whom helped Paul and I set up a community heritage website. There is still so much chat and momentum around the Dowty community, aided in many ways by the accessibility of the now-catalogued archive. I even ended up editing a book of Sir George Dowty’s memoirs – editing is something I’ve always wanted to try, and getting involved in this was a privilege. I was doing countless talks, which after the start of the pandemic became online and then ended up reaching people internationally. Promoting and taking pride in the project was never difficult to do, and I enjoyed watching the momentum continue.

But the Dowty project, whilst it was all I was employed to work on after my first six months of helping the Collections Management team with their backlog, ended up being only part of what took up my time in my second incarnation at Gloucestershire Archives. I am a bit of a “yes” person, and have been fortunate to be allowed to try my hand at various things that are more than accessioning and cataloguing. I was also fortunate to be made a permanent member of staff, so I was able to become more involved with other things, such as leading the social media team, maintaining and developing the Heritage Hub website and later helping overhaul the Gloucestershire Archives website, co-leading fundraising and decision making for the Heritage Hub community garden, becoming more involved with marketing and outreach, becoming the membership secretary of the Friends of Gloucestershire Archives, getting involved with our professional association (the ARA) and latterly, being seconded to work at the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum. All this meant that I had a wonderfully busy but balanced work life, enabling me to confidently achieve my ARA Registered membership.

Two things stand out from my time here, although there have been so many wonderful moments. Firstly, in October 2017 I treated myself to a tattoo of a bee on my hand, for my 30th birthday. In the pub a day or so later with a few colleagues, and a couple of ales down, I showed everyone my tattoo and Heather, our wonderful head of service who has provided me with so many of the opportunities mentioned above, suggested I might like to voluntarily keep bees in the community garden that we were in the process of planning the fundraising for. Obviously I jumped at the chance – I always wanted to keep bees, but saw it very much as a retirement hobby due to time and cost. Now we have three Heritage Hub beehives (at the time of writing!) and make Heritage Hub honey. I have a wonderful team of fellow beekeepers, all volunteers, gathered over the years. I also appreciate gardens and gardening much more than I did, and it is so wonderful to have seen our garden take shape since 2019.

The other thing I wanted to mention is rather niche and personal. A few months after I arrived at the Hub, my colleague Andrew was responding to an enquiry about a possible gravestone at a church in Gloucester. It just so happened that he was living in the former vicarage at the time, and had already found that this vicarage was where my grandfather lived when he was a priest in Gloucester – family connections to the area are mostly based around my grandfather who I never met, and the fact that his eldest son, my father, grew up in the various vicarages he was given, played the organ at the parish church in Slad, and fondly remembered Gloucestershire as home. The people enquiring shared my surname, so he alerted me to their enquiry. They were staying in a flat near Ross on Wye and were coming in to the archives to pursue this. Within 90 minutes I had two new family members. Complicated cousins of my father, they were distant enough geographically (living in Yorkshire) to not have been much on my parents’ radar whilst I was growing up. Occasionally they come back to the area and we always meet. Sometimes they bring another distant relative from his home near Cheltenham. One of the times we met, we found the gravestone they had been looking for. I would never have become close to that part of my family were it not for my time at Gloucestershire Archives.

It has been five interesting, challenging, busy years. I have worked with some amazing people – staff, volunteers, people from the community. I’ve always wanted a job where I want to go to work when I wake up, and it has always been so here.

I am to get the best of both worlds again. Still living round the corner, still seeing colleagues as much as possible, but returning to Chippenham, a place I still hold so dear. It is time to bounce back to Wiltshire and see what I can do there as their Principal Archivist. And the opportunity to do that is solely down to opportunities and encouragement from the team at Gloucester.

1 thought on “Moving to pastures…old, by Ally McConnell

  1. Sorry you’rre leaving Ally but you leave behind a valuable contribution to Gloucestershire’s history. My father Edward Connolly – was Industrial Civil Defence Officer for Dowty’s.

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