In this book Matthew Green charts the decline and eventual abandonment of eight British settlements; a diverse selection ranging from the Stone Age settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys, through several Medieval villages and cities and up to the twentieth century, to an area emptied of its inhabitants during the Second World War and a village that was abandoned when the valley it inhabited was flooded to create a reservoir – although in that case ‘abandoned’ is the wrong word, since that particular story is a harrowing tale of folk driven from their homes at the diktat of decision makers far away, not even of their own country.
In each chapter he tells the story of the decline of the settlement drawing upon written records for all but the oldest, Skara Brae, for which he relies upon archaeological evidence, and some of the more recent, for which he uses a mixture of eye-witness accounts and the testimonies of those who had heard their stories at first hand. Of all the stories here, that of Dunwich is probably the most famous, with its myths of bells from long-drowned churches being heard far out under the waves, although the popular description of Dunwich as a ‘drowned city’ is inaccurate, as it fell away into the sea as the cliffs beneath it were eroded away. But much is known of Dunwich, with many extant records and maps of the city, enabling Matthew to chart its decline and eventual end in some detail.
Hirta is the biggest island of the St Kilda archipelago and was occupied for at least two thousand years until 1930, when the final thirty six islanders voted to leave. By then, most of the families and younger residents had left for the mainland, and their traditional way of life had become unsustainable. Until a couple of hundred years ago the islanders were virtually cut off from the rest of Scotland, due to the distance and the difficulty of making a landing at the island. Existing almost exclusively on a diet of seabirds (remarkably, they were apparently lousy fishermen!), the islanders lived a remarkably difficult life and it is no surprise that as they were exposed more and more to the outside world, more and more of the islanders opted to leave for a better life.
I found I was drawn deep into these stories not just because I found them so fascinating, but also because of Matthew’s skilful and easy style. A very well researched and beautifully presented book, I’d definitely give it five stars out of five.
Well, my favourite twelve, anyway. One a month, if you like, although that wasn’t how I read them. Or perhaps the twelve book reviews of Christmas – oops, no. Missed that one. Anyway…these are some of the books I read in 2022, not books that were first published this year. But I seem to have read so many good books in 2022, it’s difficult to make a choice and this has ended up being a little arbitrary.
Stranger in the Mask of a Deer by Richard Skelton. It has been a long time since I last read something new and immediately put it into my top ten reads, but this remarkable work is straight in there. A few weeks later I had to re-read it, captivated by its dream-like quality.
It is essentially a poetic narrative ranging between the present day and Palaeolithic Britain, told by humans both ancient and modern, and by non-human voices. Its essence is life and ritual, the connection between humans and animals, between humans and the land they occupy, and the elements surrounding them.
The remains of deer skulls complete with antlers, but with eye holes punched into the skull so they might be worn as masks, have been found at Star Carr in Yorkshire, dating to approximately eleven thousand years ago. It is presumed these masks would have been used in rituals…
Millstone Grit by Glyn Hughes. This very readable book was originally published in 1975, describing a fifty mile walk the author took through East Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire; an exploration of the moorlands and villages alongside the industrial towns, all of them suffering in their own ways from the effects of the loss of traditional industries in that area. It is about Hughes’ attachment to this area he came to live in, the clash between human and non-human landscapes, and about working class history in these places, but above all else about some most remarkable people he meets along the way.
I re-read The Old Weird Albion by Justin Hopper. This is a book about tracing a mystery in his family’s past, beginning with a woman preparing to throw herself off Beachy Head, a notorious spot for suicides, but also about the effects the landscape of the South Downs has had upon people.
This is a book I reviewed on this blog when I first read it three years ago – the link is here – and I’ll just put an extract of that review here: ‘He has a gift for sifting and selecting the weird in these relationships, not just at sites that might be naturally expected to encourage the weird, such as Chanctonbury Ring, high on the Downs above Steyning or in old ruined buildings, but also in humdrum blocks of flats in modern developments. He references modern phenomena like crop circles and throughout there is the presence of ‘magic’, in the sense of a natural force. Many of the people he meets are an eccentric mix of the weird, too, although I choose this description carefully, largely in the old, original meaning of the word of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.’
Another re-read, this time of a book I first read some forty years ago. The Spire by William Golding is a novel set in medieval England, in an unspecified city somewhere in the south. It is a story essentially about pride and hubris, about the Dean of a church determined to have built a great spire on his church, despite warnings that the foundations will not be able to support such a colossal structure. The ending seems predictable and yet that is not really where the story is going, being more concerned with the characters inhabiting that space.
The setting is the church and environs, and it evokes the feel of the ecclesiastic medieval as successfully as The Name of the Rose does. One test of how good a novel set in historical times is, is whether it transports the reader easily to that setting. I certainly found it did.
I bought Hemisphere by Pete Green at an event where poets read excerpts from their work. It is effectively a poetic journey around the northern hemisphere, beginning in Scotland, the journey approximating to the latitude of the arctic circle. The writing conveys a tremendous sense of place and feels very right for the cold edgelands described.
Holloway by Robert MacFarlane and Dan Richards, with illustrations by Stanley Donwood is a short book, describing a journey MacFarlane, Donwood, and Richards made in Dorset, essentially a revisit of a trip MacFarlane made previously with Roger Deakin for an earlier book, exploring holloways. Holloways, often known as sunken tracks or paths, are old – frequently very old – paths made over the centuries by the passage of feet, both human and animal, and perhaps by the wheels of wagons and carts. It is a short journey – perhaps ‘experience’ would be a better word – describing wild camps and walking, cycling and visiting old buildings; in some ways, perhaps it is really no more than a short camping trip, undertaken by a group of men acting out a boyhood adventure. The writing, though, by both MacFarlane and Richards is exquisitely poetic and Donwood’s illustrations never less than beautiful.
Notes on the Sonnets by Luke Kennard.
‘Luke Kennard recasts Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets as a series of anarchic prose poems set in the same joyless house party.
A physicist explains dark matter in the kitchen. A crying man is consoled by a Sigmund Freud action figure. An out-of-hours doctor sells phials of dark red liquid from a briefcase. Someone takes out a guitar.
Wry, insolent and self-eviscerating, Notes on the Sonnets riddles the Bard with the anxieties of the modern age, bringing Kennard’s affectionate critique to subjects as various as love, marriage, God, metaphysics and a sad horse.’
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald had been on my ‘to-read’ list for a long time, but I finally got around to picking up a copy this year. On one level, this is a walking journey taken by the author along the Suffolk coast in the early 1990’s, describing both places and people he comes across, but really, it is much deeper than that and is a psychogeographical work par excellence. Throughout the journey, we are never quite certain whether events are happening to the author, or have happened in the past, or perhaps to someone else at some other time. He goes off in unexpected directions, literary, historical, and physical, exploring a wide and eclectic range of subjects yet throughout there is a cohesion to the narrative.
The Birthday Letters are a not-quite-series of poems Ted Hughes wrote to his wife the American poet Sylvia Plath after her death. Personally, I find them to be probably his most accessible poems and wonder whether that says something about me, although this isn’t the time to go into that. Theirs was a difficult relationship, and her suicide (as well as that of a later lover of his) frequently colours people’s opinions of Hughes. Inevitably, these are often extremely personal poems, so much so that at times I feel a slight discomfort reading them, as if I’d opened someone’s private correspondence by accident, but Hughes wrote them as an attempt to restore her to him, and published them almost for the public to read as his own account of her life and death.
Sadly, Roger Deakin only wrote three books, of which Notes From Walnut Tree Farm is compiled from diary entries he kept during the last six years of his life. In these notes, he recorded his day to day life on the farm, walks on nearby Mellis Common, the yearly cycle of the natural world all around him, and his thoughts on literature, the importance of nature, and musings on the past.
Our Place by Mark Cocker is an exploration of the history of environmental thought and politics in Great Britain and, especially, the way forward. It asks pertinent questions like who owns the land and why? And who benefits from green policies? Not afraid to be radical in its suggestions, it asks why there is such a disconnect between the British public’s sympathy for and championing of the countryside and the reality of its current condition.
Digging up Britain by Mike Pitts tells the story of Britain’s history and prehistory in ten astonishing excavations. As someone who has always had an interest in history and pre-history, I found this book a timely reminder of the huge strides taken forward in our understanding of the past over the last ten years or so, due to such important tools as DNA analysis as well as the painstaking work of those who excavate and interpret these sites. There are some remarkable tales in this book.