Back in 2010 the National Trust were restoring Gelli Iago, a 17th-century farmhouse in the Nant Gwynant Valley, Snowdonia National Park, when they made a fascinating discovery. Beneath the fireplace was a vast cache of shoes that would give Clarks shoe-shop a run for their money. Last week I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take a look at these shoes, and this post just details some preliminary observations and thoughts.
The first thing that struck me was the sheer quantity. The shoes are currently stored in crates and, opening them up, I was awestruck by the amount contained within, layers upon layers of shoes lying unceremoniously on top of each other. Taking them out one at a time, it felt as if I’d never reach the bottom.
My first task was to catalogue them, so I photographed each one separately and recorded their details (such as measurements, materials, conditions, etc.) in a spreadsheet. Doing this, I realised how poor their conditions were. For most of them, ‘well-worn’ is an understatement; torn, frayed, misshapen, with missing heels and toes, few of them would have been serviceable as footwear. In fact, quite a lot of them weren’t even recognisable as footwear anymore; they were merely fragments of leather, with only the eyelets hinting at their former uses.
And they were very, very dirty, encrusted with so much mud that the bottom of the crates looked like they’d been hit by a dust storm – as did I, after a few hours of handling them.
In total I catalogued 58 shoes, 189 medium-sized shoe fragments, and two bags of leather scraps.
My next job now is to put this catalogue to use by trying to interpret the cache as a whole. I’ve got more questions now than when I started, but here are the ones I’m particularly keen to answer. How many of the shoes are men’s, women’s, and children’s? Do any of them match up as pairs? How many were worn on the left foot and how many on the right? When are they from? Are they all roughly the same date or do they represent a long-running custom? Were they working class labourers’ boots or more upper-class shoes?
Then there are the other questions that only archival research will answer. Who lived in this farmhouse? Was it occupied during the period the shoes were made? Who would have had access to the fireplace? And how would they have accessed that many shoes? We don’t think there was a history of shoe-making in Gelli Iago, but we can’t know for certain just yet.
And then there are the questions that no amount of research will definitively answer. Accidental loss can’t account for that many shoes beneath a fireplace, so they had to have been deliberately concealed – but why? What were the concealers hoping to achieve? Were the shoes intended as protective devices, to ward off malevolent forces; mementoes, commemorating the dead; time capsules, providing a snapshot of life in the local area; or simply a joke? Proffering more questions than answers, the Gelli Iago cache typifies my research into the Concealed Revealed: frustrating and fascinating in equal measure.