Here is an interesting, well-written book, full of people, locations and history that give us a snapshot of southern England today. Personal coincidences abound, so Hugh was off to a winner for me from the off. I started reading this a week after walking with Hilary and the dogs on Chesil beach at Abbotsbury, after Mike Rufus’ 75th birthday hog roast at his thatched cottage Tilly Whim in the countryside outside Dorchester, Dorset. The walk described in the book starts at the chapel by Abbotsbury above the beach! The walk is along the ancient Icknield Way, taking in the Ridgeway in Wiltshire, part of which I walked as a boy, through the Chilterns, ending at Holme-next-the -Sea in Norfolk. Halfway house is Hugh’s home near the Thames, where he learns he has to move out. Not everything has gone smoothly for Hugh’s personal life, but I like his take on things and people.
As an ancient trackway, it is fitting that history, archaeology and landscape are recurring themes. There are fascinating places described, including the many hill forts, barrows and henges along the way. The associated history of these comes easily and the writing provides new information and insights into our perspectives of English history. The impact of agriculture on the landscape is a subject close to my heart and part of my professional life. Thomson has a good eye and an insightful understanding of past influences and current pressures on farming and our social structures. His telling of the Bronze Age is fascinating. I’m not sure why I thought that there was more of the Green Wood in Saxon times – probably because of the history of hedges, via Oliver Rackham, one of a number of Cambridge dons that feature. I’m on familiar territory from Dorset to Cambridgeshire, but the archaeological finds outside Peterborough including Flag Fen and the famous “Seahenge” at the end of the journey are just so exciting that we will have to get East and explore.
There is something about the coherence of making the walk that is appealing. I guess many readers will have crossed the route, but somehow knowing some of the places and even some of the people in the book, adds to the read. Having worked near Oxford, I know Wittenham Clumps and the Goring Gap. I have met Robin Buxton many times, but cannot claim to have climbed Kilimanjaro with him! My father did climb it, as a young Agricultural Officer from the Uganda Protectorate. Heading East, I was pleased to read of the Baldock Tesco’s with its amazing façade. This was an occasional stopping point for me, stocking up for a week away at the Boxworth experimental farm outside Cambridge.
What hasn’t come across, is that this book is also a store of literary interludes, with a bit of music thrown in. I loved George Orwell’s house. Thomson read English Lit at Cambridge and we slowly learn of his life through the book, including his career of film-making. His knowledge of travel and ancient cultures, particularly in South America, pops up now and then, always interesting and enthused. So there is a lot here – enjoy.
Chesil Beach at Abbotsbury, Dorset