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 …

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