In Search of England – H.V.Morton (Methuen 1927/Reprinted by Folio Society 2002)

This is the oldest book I have reviewed but it is certainly one of the most beautiful. The cover, binding and paper are all top quality and feel lovely to hold.

H.V.Morton was a journalist and writer and produced a number of travel books that were bestsellers in their day. Many, such as this one, are still in print.

In the author’s introduction he lists his modus operandi, “I have gone round England like a magpie, picking up any bright thing that pleased me.” He continues with “It was a moody holiday and I followed the roads; some of them led me aright and some astray.”

He starts off at ‘The Place Where London Ends’. I thought this may have been a pub, but I believe it refers to the Weald of Sussex. If you know better, I’m happy to be corrected. Before long he meets a treen, that is, a person who makes wooden bowls.

The book is nostalgic and tries to make sense of the changing face of England whilst identifying some of the fundamental aspects that H.V. Morton thinks are meaningful to the essential nature of the country.

He pays a visit to Buckler’s Hard where ships of the line that fought at the Battle of Trafalgar were built. That industry was long gone in 1927.

I had to keep reminding myself of when this book was written, many of the characters Morton talks to are Victorians. He is fond of churches and cathedrals, vergers abound. These are not so numerous as American tourists who Morton seems to end up chatting with at many of his stops.

Certainly, it seems that Morton sees Christianity as a bedrock of England. He visits Stonehenge and is almost dismissive of it, calling it a ‘gloomy temple.’ He says, “One feels that horrible rites were performed there…” and “Stonehenge is like a symbol of all the dark beliefs at the root of ancient theology.”

A visit to the Isle of Portland reveals the excavation site for the stone used to build St Paul’s Cathedral as well as many other buildings and monuments. Morton talks to the man who selected the stone for the Cenotaph. I found this to be extraordinary. I felt a real link to history, like stepping into a room that someone has just left.

Morton’s writing is just charming, but not ossified or quaint. He sits down to listen to the wireless in a small country village and recounts how his hosts discuss politics, talking about Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill under portraits of Queen Victoria and Lord Kitchener. It made me think that events are sometimes not as distant as they seem.

At a visit to an almshouse in Bristol, Morton gets talking to a sailor who says he went to see in ’59. That is, of course 1859. This sailor started his career in the year Oregon became the 33rd state of the USA, Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities and General Robert E Lee overpowered John Brown in the Harpers Ferry Raid. Just astounding.

I did imagine Morton to talk with the clipped accent of an old BBC radio announcer. His writing is lyrical, the places he describes seem almost mythical, bathed in a golden glow. This is timeless England.

Morton is not so fond of industrial England and his grand tour largely avoids large industrial areas. Birmingham is described as ‘that monster’. Morton went to school in Birmingham and it would be interesting to know whether it was his experience at school that coloured his view or whether he just though the city gloomy.

Morton notes that the distinctive smell of Lancashire is of fried fish and chips. I thought it somewhat unfair, if amusing, to dismiss a whole county in this way. His broad-brush and stereotypical description continues “On Sundays, in all the grey villages of Lancashire the miners sit on their haunches against walls, their hands between their knees. In the centre of nearly every group is a white whippet on a lead.”

H.V.Morton was obviously a keen scholar of church architecture and can wax lyrical at length about the various cathedrals he visits.

Despite its age, this is a lovely book that fully deserves to continue to be read by successive generations. It made me feel nostalgic for an England I have never known and on many occasions I was filled with a wistful rosy glow.

This is the best book I have read so far this year and I would heartily recommend it you.