I love ancient pathways. WATLING STREET: TRAVELS THROUGH BRITAIN AND ITS EVER-PRESENT PAST, to give this book its full title, by John Higgs follows the ancient route of Watling Street from Dover to Angelsey. This has been a road since before the Romans, nobody knows who first walked it or when. It called out to be read.
When I picked up Watling Street I vaguely expected a linear passage through landscape and history and that is what you get, well sort of. Very early on you are introduced to the concept of Noosphere, that is the swirl of human thought and belief. Quite distinct from the, more familiar, Geosphere (rocks and rivers) or Biosphere (plants and animals). By taking a journey along Watling Street we are to delve into what makes us the nation that we are today.
The journey starts in Dover over shadowed by her castle. This has been in constant use from the Romans right up until the Second World War when a network of tunnels was dug into the cliffs. Looking over the shoulder of the book is the fact that John Higgs began his journey on the day of the Brexit referendum, he looks at the present and sees an angry and divided nation. At Canterbury, we see the tomb of Thomas a Becket viewed in the light of rebellion against status quo.
The journey from Canterbury to London is taken with Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, or rather in reverse with pass the pilgrims midway. Once in London the echo of medieval prostitutes (known as Winchester geese) are heard down the centuries. On the other side of London at the base of the A5 it is the ghosts of Tyburn and lack of modern speakers at Speakers Corner that are drawn to our attention.
At St Albans we ponder whether or not St Alban would make a better patron saint for England, given his status as the first English Christian martyr. Onwards to Bletchley and the ingenious women and men who helped crack the German codes hove into view. Richard III lost his crown at Bosworth Field just a stone’s throw from the A5. After that we fast forward to Angelsey the last place of refuge of the Druids.
I enjoyed Watling Street: Travels through Britain and her ever present past, it is not a straight forward look her and you will see this guide. It makes you think about the events that occurred in the past and how they shape how we are today. If you feel that echoes of the past can be felt in the present than this is the book for you, if you prefer a list of castles then maybe look elsewhere.
WATLING STREET: TRAVELS THROUGH BRITAIN AND ITS EVER-PRESENT PAST by John Higgs
Published by W&N
Hardback £18.99, Kindle £8.99