Historian Isobel Akerman’s guidebook uncovers ‘secret York’

Isobel Akerman is a first-year PhD student at Newnham, specialising in environmental history and historical geography. Her particular research investigates how British botanic gardens engaged with the global biodiversity crisis from the 60s onwards.  But she’s also a lover of the forgotten aspects of history, the unexpected discoveries that might wait round any corner, and the little tiny details that reveal past stories. A metal pole in the middle of a water meadow, a windmill in a housing estate – these are all things that provoke Isobel’s curiosity.

Isobel’s turned that enthusiasm into a new guidebook: Secret York: the Unusual Guide. And, in turn, writing a guidebook has changed the way she thinks about her research. We interviewed Isobel about her experience.

What’s your favourite site in York, and why?

My favourite site is the one that was the most exciting to find, Holgate Windmill. Nothing can prepare you for walking up a narrow alleyway and suddenly see the most beautiful renovated windmill standing on a tiny roundabout in the middle of a housing estate – especially one that still grinds grain into flour! Also, the roundabout itself has won ‘Best British Roundabout’ from the Roundabout Appreciation Society and has featured on the cover of a calendar, which just makes it so much better.

How did you discover all these intriguing stories about Secret York?

It was difficult to find everything over the lockdown period as there were loads of closures and last minute cancellations. But mostly they were found through a combination of digital archive searching, scouring historic guide books, chatting to people in cafes, bookshops, and pubs, emailing organisations in the hope of a private tour, and good old fashioned trundling around the city with a camera spotting odd, out of place things.

What’s your favourite Cambridge site?

On the way to Granchester meadows there is a field called Skaters’ Meadow which has a metal pole sticking out of it. In winter, this field used to flood and freeze over, and students would come to skate on the ice; the pole acted as the centre of the ice-rink. Skating on the fens and wetlands is rare now (although not unheard of) but it’s a romantic idea to think of the students enjoying a natural ice rink every year when the weather turned colder.

Has your research influenced the guidebook, and vice versa?

My academic background has been incredibly useful for creating the guidebook. Accumulating piles of random information about a particular place or event and squashing it down into 2,400 characters is exactly what a history degree teaches you to do. It gave me the confidence to go into archives and contact experts, and the book is definitely more history-focused than some of the other guides – but that’s also the nature of York, you can’t escape history up there. Writing the book as also made me considerably more confident in my PhD research, especially creating my own writing style. The process has demonstrated how important narrative is for getting historical research to resonate with people, even top academics love a well-told story!  

What are the biggest challenges about presenting history in a guidebook form?

As a historian you’re taught to base your research on source material and to interrogate absolutely everything. But with public history and especially guidebooks you have to present a short, snappy, high level extract without any of the conflicting narratives that might appear in the sources. I loved telling the stories, but I did also notice that some of the things I found fascinating as a historian my editors found incredibly tedious. Changing your writing style and content to talk to your audience is a big challenge at the beginning.

Tell us a bit more about your research.

My thesis looks at how British botanic gardens integrated with ideas of a biodiversity crisis and brought these issues into their research, governance, and public education strategies from the 1960s to 2000. It includes a lot of archival work but also a hands-on appreciation of the landscape and living collections of botanic garden. Environmental history and historical geography are both interdisciplinary fields which explore how the human and non-human worlds have interacted – luckily for me, this means a lot of wondering around botanic gardens looking at plants in order to understanding history in its material and visual form, as well as in the written sources.

Would you ever write a guidebook to hidden Cambridge  and if so, what would you include?

Watch this space – a Cambridge Secret Guide might be on the horizon soon!

Anything else you’d like to tell us?

Newnham library now has a copy available for loan if anyone wants to take it on their trip. And if anyone is visiting York for the York Festival of Ideas in June, I’ll be there leading a walking tour and a book launch event at York Waterstones – I would love to see people from Newnham there!