This time last year I was planning 12 monthly articles under the theme of ‘Hidden Royston’ for the Listing – our local lifestyle-and-community magazine. We agreed that 250 words and a photo would appear in print (delivered to 17,000 homes in and around Royston) and 1,000 words with photos would be published online.
I’d lived in Royston for 25 years but I felt I knew little about the past and present of our wonderful market town. So I wasn’t setting myself up as any sort of local expert – my first task was to talk to others who were. I wanted to uncover interesting (and probably trivial) facts that might get a ‘well, I never knew that!’ response from readers and leave me and others better informed.
Naively I imagined I could plan out a month-by-month writing schedule neatly fitting topics into three sub-themes – underground, after dark, and behind closed doors. Of course, it didn’t turn out like that; on one or two occasions pieces unravelled as copy deadlines loomed, ideas that I thought were rock solid didn’t develop, and some stories I’d love to have followed didn’t happen for reasons beyond my control. The series is now complete – 11 blog posts (and a Christmas quiz) are online for all to read (see links below) so I thought this was a good time to reflect on what I’ve learnt over the past year that might help others thinking of doing something similar.
Older and wiser – lessons learnt: So-called facts can be closer to speculation and need triangulation to establish some sort of truth. My research skills are limited and conversations with different local information sources often told divergent stories about the town. One line I pursued early on was that there was a tunnel from a High Street shop to the local church. A couple of local traders confirmed it; one even said they knew someone who’d been down the tunnel. An ‘authority’ later scotched the theory and said it was untrue with no evidence to back up the assertion. Information about another underground tunnel from a local hotel – Banyers House – to the same church proved to be more accurate and I was shown what was said to be the blocked end of it.
Another lesson learnt was that other people’s timetables aren’t your own. I spent literally months pursuing an ‘after dark’ piece, being reassured it would happen, only to give up after being passed from one contact to another. My last piece in the series – an after-dark-behind-closed-doors piece about the biggest local employer Johnson Matthey took a long time to set up, because of security and other considerations, but the visit went head smoothly in the end.
A tip for anyone researching and writing a series – have an article ‘in your back pocket’ just in case a planned piece falls through at the last minute. I wrote one about reducing waste in Royston and was pleased to have it ready-written to meet a tight deadline.
Early on I discovered an easy way to add interest to a piece is to conduct a ‘straw poll’ to gather the views of local people. This applied to two pieces; one when finding out which High Street traders had cellars and how they used them. The other piece was on CCTV cameras in public places. I had expected it to be a controversial subject but after talking to a random selection of local shoppers I found that few of them were bothered about being filmed!
Most interesting discoveries: Some of my research didn’t result in a published piece, but intriguing conversations with knowledgeable locals gave me great pleasure. I met a local former furniture upholsterer who knew my father’s family firm – Arthur H Lee and Sons wove fabrics for domestic and commercial use – that closed back in 1970. I had a long conversation with a former neighbour who is an authority on the Royston Cave. We agreed that the cave was famous enough not to merit further coverage, but that same source shared a story about forged bank notes being printed in a local hotel cellar that was later confirmed by hotel staff.
Surprises: I wanted to find out what goes on behind closed doors at the local police station (it’s been closed to the public since 2013) and to investigate the use of use of CCTV cameras in public places. I expected to be told the information was confidential. While one or two answers to interview questions were ‘not for publication’, I’m pleased to report I was welcomed with straight answers to my questions.
For me, one of the most intriguing pieces focused on the origins of different road names around Royston . Much of the work had already been done by local historians – thank you F John Smith in particular – so the piece could be drafted in the comfort of our local library.
Ones that got away: I had a theme going around in my head along the lines of… lines. Something about Royston being on the Meridian Line, being the centre of important transport routes (the town is at the crossroads of two ancient trading routes) and talk about ley lines in the town centre. But sometimes you start a piece in your head and find it simply doesn’t work out on paper.
Another topic that never materialised was ‘dogs after dark’. A friend who is both a dog owner and an insomniac talked about the community of dog-walkers who meet at all times of day and night on the Heath with dogs in tow. When dark, they recognise each other by the coloured LED lights on the dog collars! My plan had been to join dogs and owners in the dark – sniff them out if you like – but I decided such an approach might be misinterpreted.
In conclusion, I’m very grateful to all the people who gave me their time to suggest stories and advise me on places and people to look for further information. I have always sought to get approval for pre-publication drafts and feedback suggest that subjects have been happy with what I’ve written. I’ve also been particularly pleased when my writing stimulates positive exchanges on local social media platforms – not least from the Facebook fan club of my interviewee at Royston Fire Station! Finally, special thanks to David Waters – photographer for some of the articles – his pictures considerably upped the quality of those pieces.
Read the Hidden Royston series of articles here https://www.thelistingmagazine.co.uk/category/community-news/hiddenroyston