13 May 2021

Round and round the old-fashioned slide carousel turns

Ben Cowell HeadshotBen Cowell OBE is the Director General of Historic Houses, a not-for-profit organisation that represents more than 1,650 privately owned historic properties. He was awarded on OBE for services to cultural heritage in the 2021 New Year Honours list. Ben studied BA History at UEA from 1990-1993.

My chosen subject at UEA was History, yet my experience was nothing like The History Man.

Although I rarely visit Norwich these days, my memories of it are abiding. Each click of my mental View-Master brings forward a familiar image, a rotating Kodacolor slideshow of the city and its architecture. The trip up Prince of Wales Road from the railway station to the Castle. The multicoloured market awnings. The cathedral and its precinct. The Cow Tower. The pubs of the Golden Triangle.

My chosen subject at UEA was History, yet my experience was nothing like The History Man. (I enjoyed speculating as to which of my lecturers might have been an inspiration for the protagonist of Malcolm Bradbury’s novel.) The campus library soon became my second home, especially in that homesick first year. From here, on golden summer evenings, I would watch hot-air balloons glide across the vista when I should have been nose-deep in a book about the English civil war.

I read and I read. In my second year, I took one of Tom Williamson’s courses in Landscape Archaeology. I was hooked. Through a combination of maps, field trips and his sheer personal enthusiasm, Tom taught me how to read the landscape as if it were another book in the library: a multi-volume, multi-authored account of communities and their relationship with place.

Ben Cowell UEA
Ben during his time at UEA

It was Tom who encouraged me to consider taking a research degree. Four years in Nottingham followed, studying for a PhD in historical geography. After that I spent a year working as an archivist for the National Trust, before managing to inveigle my way onto the civil service fast stream, working at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Ten years in the civil service was like taking another degree, this time in modern British politics. I left for a job back at the National Trust, initially as their head of policy, then as regional director for the East of England (for which my time at UEA was the perfect preparation).

After seven years I moved on to become Director General of Historic Houses. I now find myself promoting the interests of some of the Norfolk country houses that I first got to know during Tom’s seminars: Holkham, Houghton, Raynham Hall.

Round and round the old-fashioned slide carousel turns, bringing up image after image. Meanwhile the metaphorical set of View-Master goggles that my UEA degree gave me have never once stopped working.

Ben studied BA History at UEA from 1990-1993