Block 3 at Bedales, when he arrived there, represented something of a new world to Edward Impey. The Dragon School in Oxford, Edward’s previous alma mater, whilst a civilised and progressive place by the standards of the 1970s, was a different beast: “The Dragon was obsessed with scholarships and sport,” he recalls. “Academically, it was a bit of a hot-house. I was completely hopeless at sport (‘Sir, Sir we had Impey last time’ etc), and not much good at anything else, and always in the soup. I was once beaten for being offside and I’ve still no idea what it means.”
The comparatively gentle nursery slopes of Bedales accordingly came as a refreshing surprise. “My mother had been at Dunhurst after the war, but I had no idea that you’d be left quite so much to your own devices,” Edward reflects. “I rather revelled in it; in the early afternoons, for example, you were expected to go off and read somewhere, which suited me perfectly. Or you were allowed to wander the very beautiful country round Steep, usually with some dubious accomplices, and generally without a watch. At the Dragon, we’d have been herded onto a freezing hockey pitch. Sport was easy enough to escape at Bedales – you just claimed you’d got the wrong day, didn’t see the notice – feeble but effective. When I left the school, my gym kit was pristine and a perfect fit for 12-year old. You were only allowed £8 a term in pocket money, a rule which I think was only obeyed by David Linley’s parents and mine. There were restrictions on being away at weekends – a good thing on the whole. Otherwise, you could get on with things much as you liked.”
The relative rigours of prep school and trying to understand the Optative had also been replaced by a generally far less demanding pace of study. In keeping with family tradition, Edward’s own particular sphere of interest was history; at Bedales, there lurked one teacher with as rigorous an approach to her subject as any that Edward had ever encountered. “Ruth Whiting scared the pants off me – still does,” he chuckles. “Some years later, after she had retired, I asked her to help me with some research, which she did brilliantly. At one stage I got Edward VI’s mother wrong and was sent straight back to D-Block in 1977. John Batstone stands out too – very funny and very good at Macbeth, and Jessie Sheeler.
The relaxed atmosphere at Bedales may have contributed to Edward’s own attitude to his academic studies, which was far from Stakhanovite. “I was lazy,” he admits. “I enjoyed spending time in the carpentry workshop with David Butcher, and lazy there too, but I absorbed stuff that’s been amazingly useful since. I also enjoyed Outdoor Work, at least as an idea.” Rather worse than this were the results of Edward’s O-Levels. “Well, I did pretty badly, which didn’t much please my parents, both of whom were academics,” he says. “Nor Patrick Nobes, who would gladly have given me the boot.”
The resulting upbraiding scarcely had the desired effect, as Edward barely scraped to matriculation in his A-Levels two years later. “At that stage, I did know that I wanted to be an archaeologist, probably, but there was the minor issue of qualifications. In fact I was rescued by the chance to do seventh-term Oxbridge. I lived in a house in Steep and worked like a maniac – arguably harder than for any exams before or since – in order to get into Oxford. Amazingly, I was accepted by Oriel to read Modern History.
The transformation from lotus-eater into academic dynamo had begun. Edward’s association with Oxford would last for nearly fifteen years and lead firstly to a doctorate and subsequently to a coveted Junior Research Fellowship at Oriel. After extensive fieldwork in Normandy and Touraine, Edward had, by his early 30s, become both a prolific author and an acknowledged expert on the study and conservation of castles. It was in the mid-1990s that he opted to accept a post at Hampton Court Palace, and in 1997, he became Curator of Historic Royal Palaces. “My predecessor was a genius, which made things much easier’, he says. “At the time it felt like a massive task, but in reality it was a matter of looking after five palaces, keeping them in one piece, working on research and conservation projects and ensuring that the general public had a nice time. A perfect job, really.” It was during this period that Edward co-authored (with Dr Geoffrey Parnell) the Official Illustrated History of the Tower of London, widely recognised as the most useful current work on England’s most famous castle.
In 2002, however, Edward’s move to English Heritage, initially as Director of Research and Standards, brought him face to face with the omnipresent political element of culture and heritage in modern Britain. “Life at English Heritage became more political the longer that I was there,” he observes. “To start with, I was responsible for managing the archive, conserving studying, presenting and explaining the properties and doing research on heritage more generally. But Listing and Scheduling got added to the roster of responsibilities a few years later, and then, in 2010, we had our funding cut by about 40%, a really savage blow. As part of the fallout I shed some stuff but found myself managing the teams dealing with heritage and the planning system and spending a lot of time dealing with political issues, both local and national.
Edward’s view of the role of government in culture and heritage is a trenchant one. “A good Department of Culture is essential,” he begins, “and all the better if it’s full of people who care about it. The Blair and Brown years posed problems because the government didn’t like heritage. Ironically, the change to a government that instinctively did care saw the biggest cuts of all – the money had just run out.”
Successively Director of Conservation and Protection and Director of Heritage Protection and Planning at English Heritage, Edward’s managerial responsibilities became enormous. “I can’t say that I noticed the difference,” he says. “Someone has to be in charge and you rely enormously on all the far brainer people around you. I tried to be that person, but always to welcome a better idea if it was offered!”
In July 2013, it was announced that Edward would become the new Director General and Master of the Royal Armouries. The job was widely viewed as a tricky one, with the Royal Armouries having experienced some problems in the preceding decade. “Yes, I was given dire warnings, and I thought hard about it,” Edward agrees. “But I’ve always been fascinated by the subject, was very impressed by the new chairman, Wes Paul, and felt that the place could have a really brilliant future. There’s a lot to be done, as there always is, but there’s no doubt that the Armouries will be where it should be in a few years.”
Logistically, the Royal Armouries present a formidable challenge for its Director General. The museum is spread across three sites: Fort Nelson in Hampshire houses the artillery collection; the Tower of London still maintains part of the original collection that was moved north in 1996 and the purpose-built museum in Leeds is the centre of gravity of the entire operation. The original move to Yorkshire caused considerable controversy at the time. “A lot of it was silly snobbery,” Edward Impey explains. “The collection simply had to be moved from the Tower because the storage and display spaces were quite inadequate for the task. Moving to Leeds was then undoubtedly a brave move, but the zeitgeist has changed. Why shouldn’t such a place be in Leeds? We get 330,000 visitors each year, which is a figure that might be larger in London but is still pretty respectable. For me, the different locations mean that I’m haring around on a train the whole time, but I shall eventually move up to Yorkshire.”
It’s hard to imagine how Edward finds the time to add to his past literary output, which has also included publications on the history of Kensington Palace, Guidebooks and numerous articles. However, he views it as an indispensable element of his professional life: “I would go bonkers if I couldn’t write things, however trivial” he says. “There are a couple of books about castles in general that are occupying my time at the moment. After that, there is a serious book for the general reader that I would really like to get my teeth into, which would deal with the history of mediaeval houses.”
A mighty subject, one would concede. However, for the man who helped to keep England’s heritage intact and now strives to breathe life into the Royal Armouries, not a task that should prove insuperable.
Edward Impey was interviewed by James Fairweather in April 2014.