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A Great Place to Visit

The Intelligent Traveller’s Guide to Historic Britain: England, Wales, the Crown Dependencies

by Philip A. Crowl, foreword by John Julius Norwich
Congdon and Weed, 814 pp., $19.95 (paper)

This is a monumental work in more than one sense. It catalogues virtually every historic monument in England from neolithic fragments of stone to museums devoted to the Second World War—no doubt when there is a second edition it will include museums devoted to the battle of the Falkland Islands. The book also describes the ways wars were fought, from primitive stone axes to the preliminaries of nuclear warfare. It tells how men and women lived, how they were dressed, what they ate and drank, and their outlook on both religion and politics. The book contains a precise history of England from the Stone Age to the end of the Second World War. Every monarch and every leading politician is accounted for. The first 500 pages combine narrative and guidebook. The remaining 250 pages contain a gazetteer, listing everything that the intelligent traveler in England should see.

I have two reservations. First, the title is wrong. I am surprised that Mr. Crowl, a sound and conscientious historian, should imagine he is writing a history and guide to Britain when in fact he is writing about England. The two areas are clearly distinct. “Britain” is a name for the whole island and specifically for the Roman province that it composed. When the Romans left Britain, the name ceased to exist. Its place was taken after some centuries by two separate countries—England and Scotland.

For many centuries the two were sharply distinct, usually indeed hostile. In 1707 they formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain—an official title that you can use if you do so correctly. But Great Britain is historically distinct from Britain. The two separate kingdoms still exist, often very different even now. Scotland has for instance a different administrative system, a different system of law, a different established church, and a different educational system. It also has a different language, or rather a different way of speaking English. The most curious part of this list of differences is that Mr. Crowl does not acknowledge the existence of Scotland even though he says his book is about historic Britain. In fact his book is exclusively about historic England from the moment England began. I may add that England includes on historical grounds Wales, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man.

My other reservation is practical. The book weighs a great deal. I do not see even the most devoted tourist carrying the book with him very far. Perhaps American tourists have greater stamina than those of other nations. The book will make good reading on a winter evening though there will be some muscular strain. Everything in it is worth reading from start to finish. The narrative even from the earliest times is skillfully interrupted by interludes in social history, religious history, and above all architectural history. One thing I can say with confidence: everyone who reads this book will know more about England than 99 percent of its inhabitants do. Indeed for the reader of this book I can see no future ahead than to become a licensed guide to historic England.

We start with the Stone Age, not my favorite period. I have no clear picture of what Stone Age men did or believed. Were they in constant warfare? Did they have any form of religious belief? In particular did they worship the sun or did they merely want to tell the time by it? These questions can never be answered though conjectures are made every day. Stonehenge is a splendid monument. But now so many people want to see it that nobody can see it. It is surrounded by barbed wire and impossible to approach. I surmise that one night the authorities will remove Stonehenge to some remote hiding place where it can be preserved from prying eyes. Avebury is in some ways more interesting than Stonehenge and less overrun by the crowds. Maybe the outstanding feature of the Stone Age remains is not so much their own merits as that you have to make a long journey each time in order to visit them. I add a conjecture of my own that the West Kennet Chambered Tomb was created by someone who had seen the Pyramids or heard of them. The attractive feature of most Stone Age remains is that they usually do not take long to visit so that you can soon push on to the next.

The Romans do not really fit into English history. They were conquerors who ruled here for some centuries and then went away, leaving only ruins. For instance they brought their Latin tongue with them and presumably imposed it on the conquered Britons. Yet when they departed the native population merely resumed their Celtic tongue and all knowledge of Latin was lost. The Romans took hot baths and must have been the cleanest inhabitants of England until the twentieth century. In the latter days of their rule they built many villas, some of which survive almost intact but which were clearly abandoned with the end of Roman rule. Why did the Britons or even the Saxons never move into these villas when their Roman inhabitants left? We shall never know. Another curiosity is that while they left the remains of many baths, forts, and villas, they left few traces of any church and not a single one has survived intact. Perhaps St. Martin’s at Canterbury—not mentioned by Mr. Crowl—was a Roman church, reconstructed at the time of St. Augustine in 597. But it is surprising that virtually nothing of Roman rule retained any life.

The most attractive feature of Roman rule is Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland and Cumberland. By no means all of it has survived. A great deal was used as the foundation of a military road in the eighteenth century. But there is a fine stretch unbroken in the hill country. The great attraction of this stretch is that most of it cannot be seen from the road. You have to get out and walk for some twenty-five miles, which takes about a day and a half or two days if you take things easy. As most of the things mentioned in this book have to be visited by car, the wall makes a welcome break. I am inclined to say that the wall makes the best short walk in England.

The Saxons are to my mind much more interesting than the Romans. For one thing they are more original. They arrived in England as barbarians and established a civilization of their own within little more than a century. They early developed their own language as witness Beowulf and the Venerable Bede, the first English historian. By the eighth century Alcuin of York was the most learned man in Europe, acting as Charlemagne’s minister of education and pioneer of culture. What is even more remarkable, the Saxons developed their own style of architecture. Saxon architecture looks back to Byzantium and forward to the architecture of the Middle Ages. But it has its own unique character. One remarkable feature of Saxon architecture is that unlike Norman or Gothic architecture it did not evolve. The Saxons, once having found a satisfactory way of building a church, stuck to it. As a result one Saxon church cannot be dated by analogy with some other Saxon church, a great difficulty for the amateur ecclesiologist.

Unlike the Romans, the Saxons left few domestic relics and many ecclesiastical ones. For some reason, perhaps superstition, the Saxons rarely moved into the Roman towns which had been left derelict when the Romans went. They preferred to create a crude village of their own some miles away. Hence many Roman towns have never been lived in since Roman times though they must have been substantial and attractive when the Saxons arrived. On the other hand Saxon churches were remarkable from the first. All Saints church in Brixworth for instance has been described as the greatest architectural monument of the seventh century north of the Alps.

Usually the more remarkable the Saxon church, the earlier it is. Saxon civilization had just brought England into peace and order when it was ravaged by the Danish invasions that went on throughout most of the ninth century. By the time Alfred the Great had restored some kind of order many of the finest Saxon churches had been sacked and often were not restored. There was some recovery in the eleventh century, which saw the building of the first Westminster Abbey, of which nothing now survives. Winchester Cathedral was just as magnificent but of it too nothing except foundations has survived. For in 1066 England was conquered by William the Norman, perhaps the most important event in English history and certainly the most unfortunate. This was more than an event: it was a change of civilization from which England has never fully recovered.

England lost its cultural and social independence. It was ruled by French-speaking upper classes for some centuries and these classes remained foreigners even when they spoke an English of their own making. England became an appendage of the European continent. The English monarchs spent their time pursuing their ambitions in France from the time of William the Conqueror in the eleventh century to that of Henry VIII in the sixteenth. Indeed as a matter of fact the rulers of England have gone on tinkering with the affairs of Europe to the present day. English politics lost their English character. So did English architecture. It lost its Saxon character and took on that of the European continent. The English cathedrals soon had more in common with those of France and West Germany than they did with their own predecessors.

The Norman period was a great time for building. Durham and other cathedrals were created in full Norman, buildings of great power which are clearly the creations of conquerors. The Normans also built many great castles, partly to hold down the conquered population and partly as security from the neighbouring robber baron. Nor did this chaos and violence last only for a few years after the Norman Conquest. It went on in one form or another for six hundred years, until 1649 when the last king to meet a violent death died on the scaffold.

I give a summary of English history slightly different from Mr. Crowl’s. The violent deaths suffered by English monarchs are as follows: William I, died while on campaign; William II, murdered; Henry I, died of overeating; Henry II, died on campaign; Richard I, died in action; Edward I, died on campaign; Edward II, murdered; Richard II, murdered; Henry IV, died intending to go on campaign; Henry V, died on campaign; Henry VI, murdered; Edward V, murdered; Richard III, killed in battle; Charles I, executed. Since then the kings and queens of England have died in their beds, though two have been compelled to abdicate—James II for constitutional reasons and Edward VIII for wanting to marry the wrong wife.

Altogether quite an alarming record. Indeed it is surprising that civilized and orderly life went on at all. This is little owing to the rulers and their adherents, who were mostly engaged in civil war or invading the Continent. England was brought back to prosperity by the trading and later by the manufacturing classes who kept clear of the aristocracy at any rate until they were rich enough to buy their way into it.

English history since the Norman Conquest falls into two chunks: first, the centuries of violence and aristocratic rule; second, the rule of the traders and capitalists which is now falling to pieces before our eyes. The first period is called the Middle Ages; the second somewhat falteringly as modern times. The Middle Ages had an astonishing record of building despite the fact that there was little mechanical equipment. Castles, cathedrals, monasteries, parish churches—the Middle Ages kept up a prolific record in all of them. In contrast to modern times the Middle Ages have little to show in the way of private houses. It is difficult to envisage where the ordinary inhabitants lived.

The Middle Ages produced four building styles in succession: Norman, heavy with round arches; Early English, Decorated, Perpendicular, all three of which had pointed arches and windows with increasingly elaborate tracery. The remarkable feature of this is that when one building changed into a new style all other buildings changed at the same time. How was this uniformity achieved? There was no registered profession of architects and no textbooks laying down the fashionable style. Yet within ten years or less the style changed throughout the country and the previous styles were discarded as old-fashioned. This astonishing record has always puzzled me. I have no idea what the answer is and Mr. Crowl sheds no light on it. Whatever the explanation, it means that when you enter a medieval building you can date it or the varied sections of it within a few minutes. There is no exception to the rule. Your self-confidence in dating each building will impress your companions who will have no idea how it is done.

Castles go on throughout the Middle Ages until almost its end. They begin as fortified bases very uncomfortable to live in. They gradually get less military and more inhabitable until by the end of the Middle Ages they have become substantial houses. The castles are interesting as technical military exercises. Few of them are objects of great beauty except in their sites. They also tend to be much of a muchness. In fact there is not a great deal to be said for them except that they were built in the Middle Ages.

The cathedrals are quite different, objects of great beauty throughout the ages. They range through every style from Norman to late Perpendicular and all are successful. I cannot decide which I like best: sometimes I name Salisbury because it is built all in one style, sometimes York for the opposite reason in that it has outstanding features from each of the Gothic styles. The cathedrals take a long time to visit. It is a mistake to try to see too many at once. It is fatal to get two or more mixed in your mind. I took a long time to complete the list. I was seventy-five before I visited Truro, an impressive exercise in nineteenth-century Early English.

There is another thing to bear in mind though few of the cathedrals are the worse for it: no cathedral looks as it did when first completed. Every cathedral has been more or less rebuilt. It is said, for instance, that Westminster Abbey has not a single stone earlier than the nineteenth century. In fact for practical purposes it was entirely rebuilt by Sir George Gilbert Scott. But the alterations carried on through the centuries make the cathedrals all the more interesting.

You can see fine cathedrals in France or some even finer. Certainly there are more of them. The unique possession of England is its parish churches, most of which go back to the Middle Ages. France can boast little like that: most French parish churches were destroyed in either war or revolution. Most English village churches have survived since the Middle Ages. They have been pulled about; modern pieces have been stuck on; styles have been run into one another. Nevertheless it remains true that the village church still has an air of the Middle Ages about it. The ideal rule when traveling is to stop in every village and have a quick look at the church; you will be pleased more often than you are disappointed, and you will discover half a dozen churches each day really worth seeing. I am glad to notice that even Mr. Crowl has not put them all in. For instance he has missed Kempley, which has in its chancel the finest frescoes of the Norman time.

I must also confess that I slightly prefer monasteries to cathedrals. Most of them, especially those in ruins, have an appeal that is more romantic than beautiful, and perhaps their principal fascination is trying to put them together by identifying the various parts—refectory, chapter, infirmary, rere-dorter, and so on. There again it has taken me a long time to visit them all. Some have been turned to other uses, such as colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. Nowadays the two university towns are seeking to eliminate the traces of their past, except for a few cases where the college concerned tries to put its past back again. This is the case of my own college, Magdalen at Oxford, which recently spent £5 million restoring the tower. Contributions, please.

And now I have arrived at modern times. There is so much of it to see and so much of it to avoid that I make no great attempt, merely some random comments. The most interesting single feature is the churches of London that Sir Christopher Wren restored after the Great Fire of London in 1666, or rather not restored but rebuilt in a different fashion. Wren followed no pattern, he followed his fancy. Each church is a different dream. Throw in Nicholas Hawksmoor who came a little later and you have enough to see in London, though the Albert Memorial is of course very funny.

The nineteenth century has much to show if you avoid all the fashionable places. St. George’s Hall in Liverpool is said to be the finest Grecian building in existence and that includes ancient Greece. Railway stations and hotels are of the highest excellence. They are now being pulled down by the dozen. St. Pancras Station is to my mind the finest nineteenth-century building in existence. Mr. Crowl does not like it, the one point where I disagree with him. But even he admires the Royal Station Hotel in York when it was in its prime. Town halls are also very good especially in Lancashire. I would put Manchester Town Hall at the top of the list with its great staircase preeminent.

And now a few words of advice. Do not try to see too much. Ideally choose a single region and spend your entire holiday sightseeing in the same area. For instance try to see everything within easy reach of Lastingham, North Yorkshire, and the following year repeat the process from Hereford.

One year alter your routine and walk a long-distance path. Offa’s Dyke Path is not very long—somewhat over a hundred miles with the dyke running alongside and a further fifty or so miles with the dyke destroyed. A great engineering work all created by King Offa of Mercia in the eighth century. There are longer walks, including the Pennine Way, but none so good. By the way you need a hired car and preferably a hired driver. Of course you also need good legs and good wind. Good hunting.

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