Magazine article The Spectator

A Corner of Every English Field, Forever Foreign

Magazine article The Spectator

A Corner of Every English Field, Forever Foreign

Article excerpt

The Green Road Into the Trees by Hugh Thomson Preface, £18.99, pp. 309, ISBN 9781848093324 The story of the English countryside is richly exotic. We've always known that foreigners have shaped this land: traders, settlers and, most importantly, invaders. But scratch the surface, and the detail is remarkable. Who'd have guessed that the so-called 'Amesbury Archer' (a 4,000-year-old corpse, found near Stonehenge) actually started life in the Alps? Or that Neolithic England was a hub of European trade? What's more, archaeologists now think that our landscape was formed not by the Romans (as previously thought) but during the Bronze Age. Back then, a huge, mysterious and varied population had deforested the countryside, tamed it, tilled it and made themselves rich. All the Romans did was make it theirs.

Such surprising history has left us with plenty of oddities. Surrey is now England's most densely wooded county, and the Norfolk countryside has - over the last 200 years - emptied of people. As for all those white horses carved into hillsides (some over 3,000 years old), they've only survived thanks to an English fondness for debauchery; the annual 'scouring festival' was always an unmissable rave-up. Meanwhile, we're lucky to have any prehistoric stone monuments at all. In the Middle Ages, they were regarded as unhealthily pagan, and many were smashed to bits.

None of this will come as a great surprise to professional archaeologists, but in The Green Road Into the Trees, the writer and film-maker Hugh Thomson makes it all delightfully accessible. He does so in the form of a travelogue, describing a walk of 400 miles along the ancient Icknield Way (from Abbotsbury, Dorset, to the Wash). It begins impulsively, with Thomson returning from Peru, and just setting off with knapsack and jet lag. But, actually, he knows exactly what he's looking for, and he's soon linking up with experts (including archaeologists, falconers, poets and painters) and clambering knowledgeably over hill-forts.

He even has a tie and clipboard with him, so he can wander unmolested.

Meandering diagonally across the country, Thomson is fascinated by this land, layered in stories. Pretty soon, he forgets the process of walking (time, distance and accommodation are never mentioned), and instead he expounds on what he sees. …

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