"The rolling English road..." By Stuart Millson - Daphne Du Maurier Literary Festival
by The Editor
“The rolling English road…”, a talk given by Stuart Millson at Fowey Town Hall as part of the 2007 Daphne Du Maurier Literary Festival. The landscapes of the British Isles, the British character, or indeed the variety of British characters which you will find if you travel from Cornwall to Caledonia, have provided endless material for novelists, essayists, poets and observers of the social scene, from – most notably in the 1930s, Sir John Betjeman and H.V. Morton, to an altogether different view of England in the form of George Orwell’s accounts of urban grime and squalor, and the North Country sketches of J.B. Priestley’s English Journey.
The landscapes of the British Isles, the British character, or indeed the variety of British characters which you will find if you travel from Cornwall to Caledonia, have provided endless material for novelists, essayists, poets and observers of the social scene, from – most notably in the 1930s, Sir John Betjeman and H.V. Morton, to an altogether different view of England in the form of George Orwell’s accounts of urban grime and squalor, and the North Country sketches of J.B. Priestley’s English Journey. And we should not forget the quirky, accurate, penetrating recollections and impressions of England by outside observers, such as the Czech Republic’s – Karel Capek, a man more respectful of the traditions and values of the country than many natives, a common characteristic amongst those who look in upon “this other Eden and demi-paradise”.
Capek – just like John Betjeman – was no stranger to the BBC microphone, and some of his liveliest humoresques were in the form of radio talks. Dylan Thomas, the Carmarthenshire poet who described the “heron-priested” shoreline of Laugharne, and who, when on holiday in Elba, was more interested in tuning in his wireless for the latest cricket scores from London, provided us with lyrical film-scripts for such wartime films, as Our Country, as well as the cornucopia of Welsh village archetypes in Under Milk Wood. And in our own time, freelance journalist and dedicated bus-traveller, Roy Kerridge, unearths many fascinating facets of Britain and Ireland – in his latest book, for example, we find a West Indian East End lady who plays the stock market with unnerving ability; the Americans who watch City traders as they jump up and down, describing them as “monkeys”; and a curious Midlands couple who exist in what can only be described as a real-life dolls’ house! The difficulty concerning any tour of this nature is really knowing where to start – and which writers to take with you!
However, I would like to begin my personal and free-wheeling literary tour of Britain in the company of that tweed-suited English giant, G.K. Chesterton, and we leave from the imaginary seaside town of Pebbleswick, in the 1914 novel, The Flying Inn – a fantastic story of an England in which an Islamophile government has outlawed the traditional activity of ale-drinking! Pebbleswick is the idealised, quiet seaside town – a symbol of so many provincial coastal places in Britain, and the heroes of the story – publican Humphrey Pump and the Irish captain and adventurer, Patrick Dalroy – set off across country in the spirit of rebellion, with their mobile pub, defying the authorities and staying one step ahead of them. Great versifier as he was, Chesterton loves to include various drinking songs in The Flying Inn, and so our journey begins in bibulous mood:
‘Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.’
Later in the rhyme, the wandering rebels recall “the night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands”! And by the time we get to the last verse, and I will save this for the conclusion of the talk, the geographical distances embarked upon by our travellers have taken on a truly spiritual dimension! The imaginary seaside town of Pebbleswick, though, brings out some fine descriptive writing from Chesterton:
“The sea was a pale elfin green and the afternoon had already felt the fairy touch of evening, as a young woman with dark hair, dressed in a crinkly copper-coloured sort of dress of the artistic order, was walking rather listlessly along the parade of Pebbleswick-on-Sea, trailing a parasol and looking out upon the sea’s horizon.”
“That delicate ruby light which is one of the rarest but one of the most exquisite of the evening effects warmed the land, sky, and seas as if the whole world were washed in wine: and dyed almost scarlet the strong red head of Patrick Dalroy as he stood on the waste of furze and bracken… Dalroy himself was idle and ruminant, with his hands in his pockets and his eye on the horizon. Landwards the hills, plains and woods lay bathed in the rose-red light; but it changed somewhat to purple, to cloud and something like storm over the violet strip of sea.”
Seascapes, ocean views, weather conditions appear again and again in our literature, and Peter Ackroyd in his book Albion – a vast examination of English history and culture, and what shaped our culture – notes how so much of our heritage of writing, painting and music exhibits a peculiar melancholia, as if – as in a Turner painting – our world is soaked through with rain and wind.
For H.G. Wells, reassuringly sunny days along the Devon and Cornish coast concealed a lurking menace. One of the characteristics of Wells is the way in which so many of his short stories set in our, or rather his “real” present, juxtapose the familiarity of everyday places and things with the sudden and shocking appearance of strange, undiscovered worlds or species. In his 1896 story, The Sea-Raiders, the appearance at Sidmouth, Torquay and Newlyn of giant octopus-like sea creatures with “intelligent eyes”, which capture and feed on bathers and boat-trippers makes for terrifying reading. Here, a Mr. Fison spots something unusual among the rock pools …
“As he had nothing better to do than amuse himself, he decided to make this object, whatever it was the goal of his afternoon walk, instead of Ladram Bay, conceiving it might be a great fish of some sort, stranded by some chance, and flapping about in distress… Mr. Fison, torn by curiosity, began picking his way across the wave-worn rocks… but it was only when he surmounted the skerry of boulders that he realised the horrible nature of his discovery. The rounded bodies fell apart as he came into sight over the ridge, and displayed the pinkish object to be the partially devoured body of a human being. And the rounded bodies were new and ghastly-looking creatures in shape somewhat resembling an octopus… They were the size of fair-sized swine about the body, and the tentacles seemed to be many feet in length… Twenty yards beyond them, amid the surf of the now turning tide, two others were emerging from the sea.”
Literary pilgrims, eager to see the places which inspired our authors, are nowhere more frequently found than at Fowey in May – the secret inlets of the Helford River in Frenchman’s Creek, the tide turning at Polridmouth Bay in Rebecca, the Fowey river and harbour, the district of Par in The House on the Strand, these are the vivid and living backdrops to some of the most exciting and engrossing novels to be penned by a 20th-century writer, Daphne Du Maurier. As in the H.G. Wells story – a science fiction horror unfolding in a real place – so the coast and country of Cornwall provides the scene for the unsettling short story The Birds, another tale of a quirk or perversion of Nature. For Du Maurier, the inspiration of landscape, love of a place and living in that particular place were indissolubly attached to the act of typing words onto a page.
This was also very much the case with Dylan Thomas who famously lived at the Boat House, Laugharne. In Paul Ferris’s brilliant biography of the poet, the estuary at Laugharne, the spring tides, the reflection of the lapping waves on the side of the house, the herons motionless on the sandbanks, the sound of a fog-horn far off in the Bristol Channel, the poet walking home after a morning of talk, gossip and beer at Brown’s Hotel to one of his wife’s “rich fatty stews” – all are included to show Thomas firmly placed in his world. We see post-war Britain, Carmarthenshire in the 1940s, people attending the weekly market at Carmarthen town (all dressed in their Sunday best!), and a land of small family farms, of people who have scarcely ventured further than Cardiff. Thomas’s line – “Oh may my heart’s truth still be sung from this high hill in a year’s turning” is so suggestive of the modern-day bard – a man romantically declaiming his lines in the open air.
Yet Thomas sought escape from Wales and “misty bogs”, embarking upon lengthy tours of the United States, behaving outrageously in front of dull academics at American universities, and writing to his wife in full-blown optimism at the sunlit scene of San Francisco harbour, where seafood is cheap, Chinese food cheaper, and a carefree life in which Mrs. Thomas “would never be tired again”. The planned-for permanent escape did not happen, and Dylan’s body – he died at the age of 39 in a New York hospital – was brought back to Laugharne. Curiously, weeks after Thomas’s burial, the poet’s mother told people that the herons would come to his writing shed, wondering why the man who sat at a desk writing was no longer there to feed them. Of all the epitaphs or memories of this Welshman, the story of the herons is, for me, the most affecting. Apparently, Dylan was fond of throwing scraps out for birds, and carried crusts of bread in his pocket just in case. “Death shall have no dominion” wrote Thomas, but in death, Wales remained his dominion – and the visitors come in their hundreds through the summer months to visit the Boat House.
Thomas’s great friend and fellow poet, Vernon Watkins – a man who, during an acute personal crisis and breakdown at the end of the 1920s tried to hurl himself from a window, believing that angels would catch him – also came close to finding a distinctive Welsh local spirit in his poem, The Collier. In this poem, the “tall black hills” look on as the young man carves his name in the desk at the county school – “Di, for dynamite”, and catches trout in the local stream. But his life is to be cut short in the black of the underworld, when a mining accident occurs, and “the picks would not break through”. The period of Watkins’s breakdown was eventually overcome, and despite achieving some distinction as a poet, this interesting and sensitive figure – who seems to me to be half the conventional, provincial gentleman, and half the intense, visionary artist, ended his career working quietly away in a Welsh branch of a leading high street bank.
An altogether less lyrical view of British life and places can be found in the work of George Orwell. Whether on the Road to Wigan Pier, or Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell paints a stark, black-and-white picture of the grimness of urban England in the years of Depression. The living conditions of the unemployed, the industrial working class, or of tramps fascinated him, and throughout his work – including Nineteen Eighty-Four, and A Clergyman’s Daughter – Orwell, I have noticed, pays particular, careful and even shocking attention to descriptions of dirt and squalor. As he tramps through South East London, hoping to find a cup of tea and bed for the night in Bromley (Cromley as it is in “Down and Out”), a degrading hopelessness is laid bare. Yet rural poverty is also in Orwell’s mind, and we discover it as we follow Dorothy, the Clergyman’s Daughter (a young lady who has lost her memory and has slipped into a state of destitution) as she attaches herself to the bands of hop-pickers which were once a regular feature of Kent life. In this passage, Orwell shows that it is not just the North or the modern city which harbours poverty. He also describes the rural Kent of yesteryear:
“Looking back, afterwards, upon her interlude of hop-picking, it was always the afternoons that Dorothy remembered. Those long, laborious hours in the strong sunlight, in the sound of forty voices singing, in the smell of hops and wood smoke, had a quality peculiar and unforgettable… It was stupid work, mechanical, exhausting, and every day more painful to the hands, and yet you never wearied of it… it gave you a physical joy, a warm satisfied feeling inside you, to stand there hour after hour, tearing off the heavy clusters and watching the pale green pile grow higher and higher in your bin, every bushel another twopence in your pocket.”
Henry Williamson, too, gives us a glimpse of South East London and Kent in the years following the First World War. Lewisham, once a village – now part of the urban sprawl of Greater London – appears in a short story about the last native rat to live in the poor River Ravensbourne, once a living stream of the River Thames, but its banks today now encased on either side in concrete, or simply buried altogether beneath the crowded, featureless suburbia which has swallowed and made unrecognisable both Lewisham, and the old Kent market town of Bromley. It is fascinating through literature to see how things once were, and for an absorbing trip back in time, discovering how places came into being, and how the land itself was completely different to anything we might recognise today, the writings and illustrations of Gordon Maxwell are certainly worth tracking down. First published in 1929, Maxwell’s A Detective in Kent uncovers for the reader the mysteries and “spirit of place” of that county.
Descending into the remoteness of the “fifth continent”, Romney Marsh (the flat expanses and long horizon, incidentally, soon to be interrupted by the huge blades of wind turbines), Maxwell shows how the Isle of Oxney – today, a half-forgotten inland spot – was once a real island at the mouth of the River Rother, the gateway to the proud Cinque Port town of Rye. The quiet village of Appledore, which stands on the Napoleonic era Royal Military Canal, was once a sea-town, and boats could tie up at New Romney, now a couple of miles inland. Place-names, too, fascinated this detective-like explorer of England, as can be seen in his chapter, The Clue of the Fifth Quarter:
“The ancient British word for marsh is ‘ruimne’ (possibly pronounced room). With ‘y’ or ‘ey’ tacked on for island, we at last get ‘ruimney’ and Romney, the marsh island… Judging from the name Midley, between New Romney and Lydd, and a little to the west, there must have been an island in the channel, which would have been called Middle-Ey, hence the name. There is a ruin here which is part of a church. We thus close the first chapter of the evolution of Romney Marsh under the Saxons. The Danes have also come into the picture, for Dungeness has been interpreted ‘Danes’ isle headland.’ “
Other writers to have succumbed to “marsh magic” include Sheila Kaye Smith, author of Joanna Godden, the story of a young woman who inherits a sheep farm in the Romney district – the tale having been taken up by Ealing Studios in 1947 and turned into a film with music by Vaughan Williams, The Loves of Joanna Godden. The prolific children’s author, Malcolm Saville, also set some of his Lone Pine Adventures at Rye and on Romney Marsh, and I can remember reading these stories many, many years ago, and being quite chilled by the appearances of the mysterious bird-watcher at Dungeness, and the “flying saucer” near Rye! The novels of Jocelyn Brooke (Brooke, by the way, was born in Kent in 1908, the family home being at Sandgate, near Folkestone) include The Image of a Drawn Sword and The Goose Cathedral, and also convey something of the brooding atmosphere of this part of the country.
In the Image of a Drawn Sword the reader is drawn into a strange nightmare world of a military cult – the shadows and melancholy of the Kent landscape creating an acute sense of the individual losing touch with all reality and routine. The “Goose Cathedral”, meanwhile, is the nickname given to a (fictional) disused boathouse, built in a strange gothic style, on the Channel coast near Folkestone – and again, the writer creates an atmosphere of shadow and mystery. Brooke captures something of the desolation which can still be found here: Dungeness somewhere out there in “the pale diffused October sunlight”; the coast road to Hythe with its “sea wind, salt and chilly”; and this eternal image of the English seaside out of season –
“Folkestone seemed a curiously dead town that autumn: the threat of war had already touched it, one saw more and more men in uniform. Most of the people I had once known were dead or departed. The weather was warm, with a perpetual ceiling of grey, immobile cloud… nothing had changed, yet the whole landscape seemed dead with a more-than-wintry deadness. The sea lapped gently on the brown shingle; from the Camp, as always, came the far crying of bugles. When we reached the Goose Cathedral, a surprise awaited us: the old boathouse had been transformed into a tea-shop.”
Finally, most readers will instantly know the name of Russell Thorndike, the author of Dr. Syn – the country rector who by night turned into the phantom of the Marsh – the terrifying leader of a smuggling gang. Perhaps not as famous as the North Kent saltings and marshes, as evoked at the opening of Dickens’s Great Expectations, the county’s south-eastern rim, from Rye to Romney, and then to Hythe nevertheless has good literary connections.
The inter-war Czech writer, Karel Capek, celebrated nearly every aspect of English and British life, and admired the ordered liberty, conventions and character of the country. He first visited these shores in 1924, and his “Letters from England” cover so many aspects of what he himself called: “this old, paradoxical, particularist, insular English England, in short, this Great Britain of yours.” Capek was intrigued by London’s famous clubs, our museums and parkland, Hyde Park Corner, Cambridge and Oxford, the “shaggily green” region of Dartmoor, as well as the East End of London, and paid tribute to our literary heroes – he refers to “the heavenly exuberance of G.K. Chesterton” and the farmer-like appearance of H.G. Wells! He also had much time for the far-flung parts of the Kingdom, north of the border (“bear me train, through all the regions of Caledonia, for it is fine here and makes me feel wistful”), and Wales – which wasn’t, as Capek puts it, “at all as strange and fearful as its place-names.”!
As all outsiders do, he noticed everything with a fresh eye, and even made connections between the white stripes on the sleeves of policemen, and the black and white stripes and criss-crossing of timberwork on old-fashioned country houses! I wonder if Capek, when he arrived at Folkestone, ever saw Brooke’s Goose Cathedral?
“I have also drawn you a picture of Folkestone, which is where I landed. In the sunset it looked like a castle with crenellations; later, however, it became clear that these were only chimneys. Once I had set foot on land, I found to my surprise that I didn’t speak or understand a single word of English. So I hid away in the nearest train.”
Capek’s description of travelling from London to anywhere in the Home Counties will be familiar to every commuter, even today:
“Well then, take a seat on a train and travel off in any direction. And the Streets of Great Number will fly past, the drums of the gasometers, the railway crossings, the factories and cemeteries. Now strips of green break into the endless city; you see the last tram stop, quiet suburbs, green grass and the first little sheep bowed towards the earth in Nature’s eternal ritual of eating. Then another half an hour and you are out of the largest city in the world. You get out at a small station where hospitable people are waiting for you and you are in the English countryside. Where are you going to come by pretty words now to describe the quiet and green charms of the English countryside? I have been down in Surrey and up in Essex; I have rambled along roads serrated with hedges, the same hedges which make England truly England because they demarcate without confining. Half-open gates lead you to ancient lanes in a park deeper than a forest and here there is a little, red house with high chimney, a church steeple among the trees, a meadow with herds of cows, herds of horses which turn their beautiful, serious eyes on you, a pathway which looks as though it has been swept, velvet pools with water lilies and irises, parks, country houses, meadows and meadows… My uncle, Czech peasant farmer, how you would shake your head with indignation looking at the red and black cows on the most beautiful meadows in the world and say, ‘What a waste of such beautiful dung!’”
Yet Capek was not always wistful and humorous about England. The neat parkland could suddenly be swept away by dark, Orwellian moments, as in this passage in which the dehumanised mass of crowds and traffic of the metropolis threaten to destroy sanity itself:
“But not as long as I live will I be reconciled to what is known here as ‘traffic’… I remember with horror the day when they first brought me to London. First, they took me by train, then they ran through some huge glass halls and pushed me into a barred cage which looked like a scales for weighing cattle. This was ‘a lift’… they hauled me out and slid away through serpentine, underground corridors. It was like a horrible dream. Then there was a sort of tunnel or sewer with rails, and a buzzing train flew in… Then I returned from London, broken-hearted, desperate, struck down in spirit and in body. For the first time in my life I felt a blind and furious opposition to modern civilisation. It seemed to me that there is something barbaric and disastrous in this terrible hoarding of people. Yes, I freely admit it, I was scared of getting lost, of my bus not coming, of my being damned, of human life having no worth, of man being a hypertrophied bacterium teeming in the millions on a sort of mildewy potato.”
Capek seems to have glimpsed the England of Nineteen Eighty-Four some 20 years before Mr. Orwell. But I would like to come back in our time machine from this horrible nightmare, to the sort of England which our Czech writer observed from the railway carriage window – the landscapes evoked by Sir John Betjeman in his vast output of talks, essays, books, poems and lyrical television programmes. Published just a year ago, Trains and Buttered Toast (the writings of Betjeman, edited by Stephen Games) provides a wonderful compendium of Sir John’s whole philosophy. One of the chief attractions of the collection for me is the handsome, 1930s’-style, Batsford-type dust-jacket in which it appears – the perfect presentation for these texts. For many people, Betjeman was – and is – England: the great defender of old West Country railway stations (“I know the stations by heart” he wrote, “the slate- and granite-built waiting rooms, the oil lamps”); old churches (both in the City of London and in the rural shires); old eccentrics, and all the things which give character, charm and meaning to life, including the “Victorian heraldry” on a railway engine’s tender. He was the genial but determined Englishman in battered hat and slightly dishevelled suit, guidebook in hand, absorbed by the grand architecture of a Victorian town hall, the iron-work on what survives of a mainline station, or the strange marsh-creatures carved on the pews in a fenland Norfolk church. Every aspect of our life and heritage (a word he probably disliked!) suffuses the work of Betjeman, bringing us closer to the spirit of a place than possibly any other writer of his kind.
In the April of 1950 – a time in which we were beginning to see the arrival of soulless municipal architecture and the cult of bland functionality in all things, especially in housing and housing estates, Betjeman broadcast a talk for the West of England Home Service, in which he fielded a strong defence of the Victorians (and I am sure the editor of Trains and Buttered Toast won’t mind my briefly quoting from his marvellous book!):
“One final word: we are always told it is the Victorians who destroyed England with their ugly buildings. The Victorians did not string the sky with wires and turn old villages into Canadian lumber camps with forests of upright poles. The Victorians did not plant cathedral cities and old county towns with lamp-posts of concrete that look like boa constrictors leaning over with corpse lights in their mouths… The Victorians did not ruin market squares with flashy facades of chain stores – particularly tailoring establishments – whose black glass and glittering vulgarity have no reference to the old brick houses above them. They did not construct huge building estates on the outskirts of towns, far from shops, and with inadequate bus services. No, all this glorious work was done by our own age, not by the Victorians.”
He seemed completely content with English places, and the rhythm of life here, and probably would never understand people who book holidays to Thailand, the Caribbean, or ski trips to fashionable resorts. The only place for Betjeman, I seem to recall, which exceeded England in character and beauty, was Ireland – and even then, that country represented for him a replacement for the England lost to commercialisation and bad manners. Betjeman loved the counties of the West – where “the sky widens to Cornwall”, and we see the poet at home here more than in any other place. In the February of 1949, again for a talk for the Third Programme, he said this of Padstow:
“Some think of the furthest-away places as Spitsbergen or Honolulu. But give me Padstow, though I can reach it any day from Waterloo without crossing the sea. For Padstow is further away in spirit even than Land’s End. It is less touristy than other fishing towns like Polperro and St. Ives; less dramatic than Boscastle or Tintagel… It does not look at the open sea but across the tidal water to the sand dunes of Rock and the famous St. Enodoc golf course.”
During the 1920s and 30s, another prolific writer was at work – H.V. Morton, a charismatic figure and – with his trilby, notebook and general appearance of the Fleet Street hack – everyone’s idea of the fast-working pre-war journalist. Morton travelled throughout the country by car, distilling the essence of each place he visited, and perfecting a new style of approachable romanticism and popular history. His books (which ran into dozens of reprints) are a record of their time – the England before motorways, where one could still find a comfortable wayside inn and observe a local scene which was not part of a National Trust exhibition. With titles such as In Search of England, In Scotland Again, In Search of Wales and The Call of England (this was the companion to In Search of England), Morton conveyed excitement and reverence – almost as if he were discovering and recording a place for the very first time.
In The Call of England, the author found some particularly inspiring vistas in Yorkshire. He has, as you may hear, a great ease of expression, and there is a vivid colour to his work – just as vivid in fact as the bold, travel poster-style artwork on the dust jacket, by artist Gregory Brown. Morton was never dry, dour or scholastic: he was almost like the writer of a screenplay, taking us into a fabulous Art Deco cinema, and dazzling the audience with epic moments. He was also very fond of finding romantic links to the past, almost as if the beauty of his prose could re-awaken old-world spirits. Here he is, in full flow in the ancient city of York:
“It was early in the evening. The sun was going down over the Vale of York and the grey towers of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter rose over the flat lands. There was a wind blowing at my back or I might have heard the minster bells, whose chimes on a still evening, go over the fields for miles. As I went on between the hedges my spirits rose, because York is the loveliest city in all England. She is England’s last real anchor to the Middle Ages. Other cities have cathedrals, one has a wall, many have castles and ancient houses, but York is the supreme unself-conscious queen of them all… As I saw the red roofs draw near, all the Catholic ancestors in me rose and shouted, and all the Protestants leapt up quickly and took them by the throat. It was a marvellous feeling. I was not like one man going to York. I was like the arrival of an army.”
In recent years, Morton’s life and work has been held up to scrutiny, particularly by a biographer called Michael Bartholomew. Whilst accepting his subject’s undoubted talents as a writer, Bartholomew parades a whole host of Morton’s failings and foibles before us – not least the fact that this great celebrant of the English scene eventually left these shores for South Africa, fearing that Britain would become involved in an atomic war, and that she was slowly succumbing to Socialism. Bartholomew also explains how Morton (despite being married) was something of a ladies’ man – surely an accusation which could be made against dozens of journalists, authors, poets, and indeed anyone! Ultimately, especially where Morton’s “political” attitudes are under consideration, the biography tends to fall into the trap of trying to apply late-20th century censoriousness to a somewhat swashbuckling 30s’ man. For me – the truth about H.V. Morton can be found fairly and squarely in passages such as this:
“There are moments when the traveller stops and says to himself: ‘My journey has ended almost before it has begun. There is no point in continuing it. I shall, if I follow the high-road for a hundred years, find nothing more lovely than this.’ Three times have I said these words in one day’s wandering , as I stood before the ruined altars of Fountains, Jervaulx and Rievaulx. These abbeys are the three glories of the North Riding. There should be some charitable fund for the transportation of all spiritually diseased and all unhappy people to these abbeys. Here Peace and Beauty live hand in hand. I have seen Glastonbury lifting its broken arch above the green grass… I have seen Tintern and Tewkesbury… and dozens more in the south and west of England, but never have I seen three abbeys to compare in beauty with Fountains, Rievaulx, and Jervaulx.”
I am very conscious that in this talk I have hardly mentioned Ireland, so I shall close my glimpse into the world of H.V. Morton as the author takes us into the wilderness of the hills beyond Dublin:
“No such wilderness of the Dublin hills lies at the door of any great city. The Peak District at the backdoor of Sheffield, is tame compared with the miles of melancholy peat bog which never has given, and never will give, food or shelter to man. You could be lost in the hills within an hour of Dublin; you could wander for days without meeting a soul; you could, if injured, lie there and die in the bog because your chance of finding help would be remote. The great hills, more savage even than Dartmoor, lie fold on fold, some long and of gentle outline, others sharp and conical; and in their hollows you come unexpectedly to deep lakes, such as Lough Dan, lying like a patch of fallen sky. Little brown streams trickle through the peat. The whole landscape is a study in various browns… But in the evening the hills turn blue. White mists rise in the hollows and lie there like thin veils hung from hill to hill. And there is no sound but the wind blowing through the tough grass and the thin trickle of water running to the valleys. A man might be among the dead mountains of the moon.”
For a time, perhaps, at least in “official” circles, Nature-worship, romanticism for the past and the countryside, and a longing to restore (or at least, to find and conserve) the old and the old-fashioned were out of vogue. Today, in an increasingly bland world – in which we are faced with the disappearance of green fields and the sacrifice of the corner shop to the out-of-town superstore – the golden era of travel-writing, as represented by Morton or Betjeman – seems to be coming back into fashion. Recently, author Peter Ashley (a collector, photographer and writer who has worked on such titles as the English Heritage Pocket Books) has given us a magnificent miscellany – Unmitigated England. Not only do we join Mr. Ashley on an English journey to overlooked railway stations, pubs, follies, windmills, shops and country churches, we hear his views on the “detergent packet” livery of new trains and share his good memories of Shell Guides, Ladybird Books and the badges of famous British motor manufacturers – as much a part of what we are, surely, as oak woodland, bluebells, or the white cliffs of Dover.
Meanwhile, the freelance journalist Roy Kerridge (many will have seen his name in The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph) has again raised the banner of H.V. Morton, with a carefully-observed, sometimes off-the-beaten-track, but always engrossing and amusing survey of Britain. I have been privileged to meet Mr. Kerridge on many occasions, so I am sure that he (and you, the audience) won’t mind if I refer to him as Roy! Roy has a marvellous way of describing the places he visits: modern Yorkshire is “big and braggardly, the Texas of England”; the ballroom at Blackpool Tower “resembles a gilded gin palace crossed with the Brighton Pavilion”; and the “bare hills of Hoy look like the humps of a sea-monster”! For this writer, every street, stone, lane, woodland, park, castle, bus route and railway station has its own enchantment – a story to be told. As the following Scottish interlude shows, here is a man who loves his country, its quirks and its often strange natural beauty: “Flocks of sheep grazed in pastures bounded by upright slabs of Caithness stone, each stone standing on end, like rows of uneven teeth. Caithness stone is famous, for it has paved Britain.”
Roy Kerridge has the skill of being able to see the most interesting things, the most visionary moments even in the most commonplace of situations. No doubt he is, at this moment, enjoying a vision of a half-hidden Regency building from the top of a London bus! And so I thought it might be appropriate to end this crammed literary journey with the last verse of the Chesterton which I promised at the outset of the talk:
‘My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.’
Stuart Millson, East Malling, December 2006, for Fowey, May 2007
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