Lost Landmarks of Britain

Article excerpt


From bloody battlefields to the laboratory that unlocked the key to life itself, Britain's rich past is all around us, says CLIVE ASLET - if you know where to look

The glory of Britain is our long history of which we can be mostly proud. It made us, and goes on making us. Shared history roots people in a sense of belonging.

At a time when Britishness is under debate, we should celebrate our nation, rich in achievement and stories.

The history is all about us, in the bricks of our buildings and the ground under our feet.

The places where great events have occurred still seem to reverberate with memory and association. When the poet John Betjeman visited the Civil War battlefield of Naseby, he heard the ghosts of Prince Rupert's Royalist cavalry thundering through the mist. And it's impossible to visit Glenfinnan, where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard of revolt, in 1745, without the flesh tingling with excitement. Alexander Fleming's laboratory in St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, is still just as he left it. The thrill he must have felt when he first discovered the healing power of penicillin mould here is almost palpable.

A couple of landmarks have become shrines, such as Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratfordupon-Avon or Sir Winston Churchill's country home, Chartwell, in Kent. On the whole, though, we don't do shrines. Few know that the bloodiest battle ever fought in Britain took place at Towton in Yorkshire. The armies of the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York clashed here in March 1461 in a blinding snowstorm, and literally hacked each other to pieces; more than 20,000 were killed. Only an ancient, weathered, illegible stone cross survives to commemorate the slaughter.

The official calendar is mostly a historical blank. Trafalgar Day on October 21 has never been a public holiday. Royal Oak Day, on May 29, is similarly forgotten. But if the government does not take the trouble to remember significant dates, we can make up the deficiency by visiting the sites where extraordinary events occurred. After losing the battle of Worcester to Cromwell, Charles II spent a day wedged in an oak tree at Boscobel, as the Roundheads hunted him through the woods. When I visited Boscobel, I had the place to myself.

Battlefields may seem strange, politically incorrect tourist sites. But epic deeds were also done in Brook Street in London's Mayfair; Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire; and Gadshill in Kent - where, respectively, Handel's Messiah, Milton's Paradise Lost and Dickens' Our Mutual Friend were written.

Country doctor Edward Jenner started to rid the world of the scourge of smallpox when he discovered vaccination in a Gloucestershire village. A mile away, an unpopular king, Edward II, was horribly murdered at Berkeley Castle, though his tomb in Gloucester Cathedral soon became a popular shrine. Six centuries later, radar, which helped Britain win the Battle of Britain in World War II, was developed in great secrecy at a Suffolk manor house. What stories are attached to these places! Art, science, literature, invention, industry, leisure and pleasure, warfare, high and low politics - Britain has been rich in them all.

I have been criss-crossing the entire country looking for 500 of Britain's most important historical landscapes. They all form pieces of a jigsaw which, when put together, make a complete panorama of our history, from Cheddar Man (the earliest complete skeleton ever found in this country - a descendant, according to DNA tests, still lives in the area), to the new Scottish parliament. …