Images of Britain in a thousand and one stories

How do places make you feel?  Which ones would you really fight to preserve? And how many of those feelings come as much from the stories you have read throughout your life as from the places themselves?  Last week I went along to the British Library’s summer exhibition – “Writing Britain – Wastelands to Wonderlands”, with its manuscripts, recordings and first editions of everything from Chaucer on the Pilgrims Way to Iain Sinclair on the M25, to try and find out.

Of course storytelling is as old as humanity itself.  The difference between Australian aboriginals sitting round the campfire hearing about the Dreamtime and today’s commuters strap-hanging on the Central Line buried in their Kindles is one of technology not concept.  The first part of the Writing Britain exhibition looks at Rural Dreams, and for me, growing up as a townie, rural England was a place I visited in stories as much as a personal experience.

At a time when my only hands-on taste of Cornwall had been a week in a holiday camp in St Austell – which I remember more for the astonishing northern soul dance moves than the sea-pinks on the cliff edge – I became enchanted by the coastline of the county from writing like this extract from John Betjeman’s verse autobiography Summoned By Bells:

On Wadebridge station what a breath of sea

Scented the Camel valley!  Cornish air,

Soft Cornish rains, and silence after steam…

As out of Derry’s stable came the brake

To drag us up those long familiar hills,

Past haunted woods and oil-lit farms and on

To far Trebetherick by the sounding sea.


Of course Cornwall isn’t really like that now.  But alone on the South-West coast path I can still be carried in my imagination to Betjeman’s comfortable pre-war childhood holidays.  Similarly I had ascended every Lake District peak and admired every crag, gully and beck in my mind in the company of Alfred Wainwright and his Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, while my practical experience was still limited to a few days wondering what the view might be like if the cloud base wasn’t 1000 feet and why my waterproof was apparently anything but.

The most evocative writing creates in us a love for places far beyond their original source.  Try these opening lines from Thomas Gray’s 18th century poem Elegy Written in A Country Churchyard:

The curfew tolls the knell of passing day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Those who love this poem as I do may have a stronger emotional reaction than the rest of the nation to a housing estate, wind farm or High Speed rail line being built next to any country churchyard, not just the one at Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire which inspired the poem.

But of course this is all nostalgic, feel-good stuff.  A lot of writing about rural England is much darker.   After his initial success with the bucolic celebration Under the Greenwood Tree, the rest of Thomas Hardy’s novels are a mixture of death, despair and failed relationships.  It doesn’t seem to make us value his landscapes any less.  The same applies to Waterland, Graham Swift’s highly evocative 1980’s novel of isolation and murder in the Fens.

And this darker side is even more apparent in the literature of our industrial areas, towns and cities, to which the exhibition devotes just as much space.  If Hardy’s imagined Wessex is today a byword for the picturesque, then the work of Charles Dickens, the author associated above any other with London, is somewhat different.  The industrial and social squalor about which he wrote so vividly is simply “Dickensian”.  So he would probably be pleased that today we search in vain for any more than a glimpse of his city.   A few individual Dickensian buildings – pubs mainly – are all you will find. The broad sweep of the townscape, with its debtors’ prisons and insanitary slums is gone.

Dickens surely influenced not just 19th century public health legislation but also the mass slum clearance programmes of the 1950’s.  Indeed he may still be with us today in debates about the future of places like the Welsh Streets area of Liverpool.  And writers like Irvine Welsh now affect public opinion on what to do about sink estates, particularly (I suspect) among those who have never lived on one.

Of course writing about cities isn’t all dystopian visions of hell.  And I don’t mean simply John Betjeman’s suburbs or Wordsworth’s Westminster Bridge.  London as a series of villages each with its own character (albeit not exactly agricultural) is a much visited literary theme.  The detail of the novel may be hard to find today, but Colin MacInnes’ Notting Hill of the 1950’s in Absolute Beginners still evokes the local within the metropolitan which is the essence of our capital city.

More than anything what Writing Britain proves is that pretty much every land- and city-scape has been written about in the most evocative terms at some point, and will still be influencing somebody’s point of view somewhere.  For all the Sustainability Appraisals, Design & Access Statements and Flood Risk Assessments which accompany today’s town planning decisions, how creative writers have fuelled the imagination of our decision makers will influence their approach to these “facts”.  Storytelling has always been important, and our rational 21st century world cannot extinguish it.  So perhaps every Town Planner’s CV should have to include a list of their favourite books?

As a start, and in the only reference this blog will be making to June’s royal milestone, here are my top ten place-based British books of the last 60 years.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell 1955 (first unedited publication).  A roller-coaster ride through the trials and tribulations of a group of Hastings housepainters

Absolute Beginners – Colin MacInnes  1959.  Notting Hill at the dawn of the concept of Teenager

Summoned by Bells – John Betjeman  1960.  Beautiful, nostalgic, timeless verse autobiography

A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells  Book 4 – The Southern Fells – Alfred Wainwright 1960.  The ultimate walker’s companion

Watership Down – Richard Adams 1972.  OK a kids’ book, but an evocative town planning parable.

Waterland – Graham Swift 1983. Murder and isolation in the Fens

High Fidelity – Nick Hornby 1995.  The life and loves of a north London record shop owner in more innocent pre-iTunes days.

Maribou Stork Nightmares – Irvine Welsh 1995.  The deranged fantasies of a hospitalised and drug-addled Edinburgh schemie.

The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane 2007.  Psycho-geographer’s trip to the outer edges of Britain.

The Good Beer Guide – CAMRA 2012.  Without which no exploration of our landscape is complete.

What do you think?  There is an inexhaustible amount of room for you to add your suggestions in the comments section.  And don’t forget the Writing Britain exhibition.  It’s on until 25th September.

  • Chris Cousins

    Good blog as always. Some other candidates for inclusion:

    Akenfield by Ronald Blythe
    A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (not strictly about a specific place)

    And probably also Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch as well as/instead of High Fidelity?

  • Mary Elkington

    GRIDLOCK by Ben Elton
    In part because after a day of reading Sustainability and Viability appraisals, etc you need something that flows lightly and entertains. The book features a fun view of the inhabited city and the life and death that is traffic and transport.

    And – it contains one of my favourite planning-relevant passages in fiction – next to “beware the leopard” of course:

    “The architectural model is like the sluggish, hairy caterpillar that turns into a beautiful butterfly. Unfortunately it happens in reverse. Take a stroll round something large and concrete in any neighbourhood, and then, with the image still in mind, rush round to the planning department of the local council and demand to see the original model and drawings. It will be a strange experience. For, although … the model you are shown, will be the same and the colours will be similar … the two images will bear no resemblance to each other whatsoever.
    It is not always the fault of the architect, planners given them impossible briefs and inadequate budges, but they might make their failures more easy to bear if on the original models, instead of pretty little trees and a tiny motor car, they placed models of hundreds of cars, three dead trees, a little discarded supermarket trolley, some model dog turds and plenty of damp.”

    Yes, we know its councillors or corporate boards that give them impossible briefs, but this is a lay-persons fair and amusing indictment of the world in which we work.

  • Tim Stansfeld

    Here are a couple of other suggestions which readers have emailed me:

    A E Housman’s beautiful poem “Loveliest of Trees the Cherry Now” – guaranteed to fire up any campaign against destruction of ancient woodland. Follow this link:,%20the%20cherry%20now.htm

    and The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley – although as my correspondent points out this may not count, as the novel begins with the famous lines “The past is a foreign country”…

    Do keep ’em coming. I’m certainly getting some new books to add to my reading list!

  • John Shippen

    A light-hearted selection from a social geographer:
    Anthony Burgess ‘Any Old Iron’ (1988) A huge, imaginative story of a modern Excalibur, including a powerful picture of pre-war Manchester and the birth of Israel, from the Mancunian word-wizard himself. I would also include Howard Spring’s ‘Fame is the Spur’ but that was written well before the Accession.

    ‘The Hills is Lonely’ (1959) (and six sequels) by Lillian Beckwith: partly autobiographical tale of a worn-out teacher convalescing on the Isle of Skye. Intimate account of island crofting life, before the influx of the laptop brigade.

    ’44 Scotland Street’ (2004 and six sequels) by Alexander McCall Smith. Hilarious diary (originally written daily for ‘The Scotsman’) of a permanent cast of OTT characters in the central part of ‘Aird-inburgh’ Real places and some real people including Ian Rankin.

    ‘A Week in December’ by Sebastian Forbes (2009 – about December 2007). A frantically paced account of several strands, destined to become entwined, of modern urbanites in a crystal clear drawing of central London. The portrayal of the hedge fund man is terrifying and (I fear) accurate.

    What planning conclusions you draw from these is up to you!

    • John Shippen

      For Forbes – read Faulks! Sebastian Forbes is a composer! Sorry.

  • Notwithstanding (2009) by Louis de Bernieres – such a precise and humorous piece on the Surrey Hills villages (and one in particular as the keen reader shall discover); you may say it’s just about English people rather than a place but what shapes our landscape, urban and rural environments if not its very own characters where a lady might dress as a man shooting squirrels with a twelve bore or the geriatric general who might give up wearing clothes altogether.