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The most obvious gap in the brochures inverness records of the vast majority of English towns is the town brochures inverness chronicle. The absence of the chronicler is a characteristic of our history which contrasts unfavourably with that of almost any continental country and is one of the strongest indications of the rural idealism that informs English society. In France, Germany, the Low Countries, and above all, in brochures inverness Italy, most towns could point to a citizen – usually a merchant – who, inspired by no other reason than local patriotism, kept a form of diary recording the current activities of his town. The chronicles might vary immensely from bald entries made at irregular intervals to copious running narratives; their compliers might be barely able to write or could possess a superb literary skill. Whatever their defects or pretensions they provided a framework of the history of their town denied to the majority of their English equivalents. The lack of the town chronicle is at once cause and symbol of the long English indifference to urban history: the official records might be present, but the enlivening mind of the contemporary commenting, questioning, judging, is absent. When, from the eighteenth century onwards, attention was directed towards local history, it was overwhelmingly weighted in favour of ecclesiastical architecture and nineteenth-century t0own ‘history’ would combine the two factors, painstakingly transcribing the epitaphs of the gentry in the parish churchy, while listing their possessions and endowments to the town.
But if we do not possess the chronicler, we do, from the earliest days of print, possess the traveller. And he, in du e course, developed into that superbly English figure, the antiquary. Eccentrics though they may be, finding Druids under every stone and Romans under every arch, for all their frequent absurdities they lay the foundations of local history much as the alchemist, for all his absurdity, laid the foundations of modern chemistry.
The father of English topography was undoubtedly William of Worcester. He was born in Bristol in 1415, entered the service of Sir John Fastolf at Caister Castle in Norfolk, and retired to his home town when Sir John died in 1459. He made a major tour from Norfolk to Cornwall which formed the basis of his description, but it was in pottering round Bristol that he collected information which, though disregarded by those whose horizons were occupied by Romans and Druids, are of immense value today. His description and measurements of the streets and lanes of Bristol form one of the earliest factual descriptions of a town.
Worcester might be the first, but it is to the pages of John Leland’s Itinerary that the enquirer turns again and again, not only in the quest of facts, but for the equally valuable subjective impressions, which bring the facts to life. Leland was thirty years old when, in 1533, he received permission from Henry VIII to investigate the monastic libraries of the country and began the work which would occupy him for the remaining twenty years of his life.
Ten years later, in a letter to the king, he claimed that there was no other cape or pay, haven, creek or pier, river or confluence of rivers, breches, waschis, lakes, meres, forests, fenny waters, mountains, balleis, moors, heaths, woods, cities, burghs, castles, principle manor places, monasteries or colleges that he had not already seen, and noted, and stated that in doing so he was doing a whole world of things very memorable. They should have made an immense and permanent impact about the townscape, but the truly remarkable thing about them is how little effect they have had.