County Records Office boasts a new website to aid historians and family tree hunters, writes CHRIS KOENIG

Our surnames, even our forenames, proclaim it; so do the names of the streets, towns and villages in which we live. The past is always present, in the architecture of our houses as much as in the very features of our faces: traces of those who went before are everywhere, like references to forgotten historical incidents in nursery rhymes.

In Oxfordshire, we are lucky in having a lively archivist, Carl Boardman - who once described himself as Aardvark the Archivist - employed at Oxfordshire County Council's Record Office.

He is tireless in making the past, in so far as it is contained in thousands of Oxfordshire records and documents collected over the last 70 years, accessible to all. Most recently he and his staff have made a website called the Dark Archivist in a bid to tempt surfers to whirl about the county's history in a virtual time machine.

Mr Boardman told me: "The most popular thing that people want to research is their own family history, then comes the history of their homes, then villages, then particular things like, say, Lucy's Ironworks, or Morrells Brewery."

Since 2000 the county archives have been stored in St Luke's Church, Cowley, where Mr Boardman "perches" (his word) in the old organ loft.

Successive generations inherit each other's buildings much as the guests at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland inherited each other's crumbs as they shuffled round the table. St Luke's is a case in point.

It was built exactly 70 years ago by William Morris, later Viscount Nuffield, as a place of worship for the thousands of workers at his nearby car factory. But when brawn turned to brain and most of that factory site turned into a business park, leaving only a small area producing cars and employing far fewer people, the church became redundant.

Mr Boardman says that its construction and design fit perfectly with its new purpose. Its solid walls are well-insulated and its tall, basilica-style nave provides a perfect lodging for three floors of archives and a top-floor workroom.

Winner of an architectural award, it was built of the best materials: hard, buff Colville bricks, Clipsham and Doulting stone. It has York stone and oak block floors, with bespoke wrought-iron lamps and door fittings.

The Internet with all the opportunities it offers for research has been a boon for local historians. With this in mind, the Dark Archivist has listed on line some of the weirder happenings in the county's history. For instance, he asks: which gaol you would choose if convicted of a crime in Oxfordshire in the 1720s.

The answer is Thame House of Correction. Giles Wiggins, the gaoler, disliked the feeling of being locked in his own prison so much that he took the gates off their hinges and anyone could walk in and out as they pleased.

Wrong answers included Oxford Castle, where the gaoler demanded a bribe to let you out even when you had finished your sentence, and Abingdon, because it was in Berkshire until 1974. You would therefore never have been sent there in the first place if you had committed your crime in Oxfordshire.

The past may be another country where they do things differently (to paraphrase L.P. Hartley), but there is no escaping it: we are its product.