Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past by John Higgs

Review published on October 29, 2017.

It is easy to be complacent about the amount of history we have on this little island of ours. The layers are draped over our landscapes and towns and if you know where to look, the past is startlingly visible. Some of our roads go back to before Roman times, and these have become historical sites in their own right. These include Ermine Street and Icknield Way, the Ridgeway and of course one of Britain’s oldest roads, Watling Street. This trackway can be still travelled along in its modern incarnations as motorways and A roads and it reaches in a huge logarithmic arc from Dover to Anglesey.

As the path became a trackway, the name of the land it passed through changed names. Invaders came and turned it into a road whilst making it straighter and at some point in the distant past, it gained a name: Watling Street. It has seen a lot of history in its time, it is the place that spelt the end to Boudicca, it has heard the chatter of machines decoding secrets and seen the landscape surrounding it change as people have sculpted it to their needs. It has seen myths and legends created and destroyed, and had the lowest in the land to the Royal bloodline travel along its route.

Nowadays, it is the same as every other road, with its grey asphalt, pale lines and unnecessary amounts of road furniture, but it still carries people to places that they need to go to. As Higgs travels along it, he peels back the layers that have made us who we are, goes to the significant milestones of history along the route and contemplates how this one road can be a metaphor for who we are and who we may become in this post-Brexit age. It is a difficult book to pigeonhole too, partly history book, partly polemical, a smattering of personal memoir and a draught of nostalgia is probably the best way of describing it. He writes with enthusiasm about the places and people that he encounters on his journey, with the odd funny anecdote and sharp wit. However, there is more to this book than that, it is an insightful guide to the current state of the nation and our present psyche. Higgs doesn’t have all the answers, but it is a whimsical look at our country.

Paul Cheney 4/3

Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past by John Higgs
W&N 9781474603478 hbk Jul 2017

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