I started my PhD at the University of Bristol at the end of January 2020, just eight weeks or so before the lockdown measures were introduced. The position is funded by the Brecknock Society, in memory of Sister Bonaventure of the Ursuline Convent in Brecon. Sister Bonaventure was a prolific local theatre historian whose extensive body of research of theatre in Brecon from 1699-1870 remains largely unpublished within theatre academia.
Fortunately, before the lockdown measures came into force, I managed to travel to Bristol from my village just outside of Brecon to register and meet my supervisors and to attend my first research meeting at the Theatre Collection with fellow theatre historians from the universities of Bristol and Exeter. I was also able to gather and sort the large amounts of material from Sister Bonaventure’s archive that was contained in outbuildings of houses in the surrounding villages of Brecon. This involved some very cold mornings in sheds and welcome cups of tea in homes meeting key members of the Brecknock Society.
Laura Engel (2019) has coined the term “archival tourist” to describe the process of a researcher immersing oneself in a foreign environment through archival research. However, I have developed an awareness of my somewhat unique position of being an ‘archival resident’, a researcher living amongst the subject of their investigation. This has been emphasised by the lack of regular tourists to my village. The village car park close to my house, normally full of Taff Trail cyclists, and the road to the bridge over the Usk usually filled with people unloading their kayaks and canoes into the water are now empty and quiet.
But I remain surrounded by materials. Whether that be in our hastily adapted office come spare bedroom filled with Sister Bonaventure’s archive placed on a full to the brim Ikea shelf or in the surrounding countryside dotted by grand houses which are the former homes of the gentry who patronised the play performances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A recent walk from my home revealed I can see a view of Buckland Hall in all its grandeur from the top of the hill. I have the memory of the nearby house at Penpont where we selected and chopped down our Christmas tree on a rainy day and stopped for a hot chocolate. When I drive into Brecon for grocery shopping, I can see the old building which used to house the town’s Theatre Royal which closed its doors in 1870.
Every day I take my sons for a walk along the Brecon and Monmouthshire canal – a toddler sized fishing net in hand – and can imagine barges full of coal and the Brecon Boat Company whose directors were so key to the financial development of the area. Occasionally I’ll see a neighbour on a walk, and we’ll have a socially distanced chat about Sister Bonaventure who taught her in the convent school, or I’ll chat to my neighbour over the fence about the opera singer Adelina Patti at Craig y Nos.
While I cannot gain access to some of the things I need, to collect the last four boxes of Sister Bonaventure’s material from Y Gaer (the local museum) which I am desperate to see, or to check sources with the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, the British Library or indeed the University of Bristol’s own Theatre Collection, being fully immersed in the location of my research helps to focus my thinking, and now increasingly my writing, as I continue my research journey.