Monday, September 29, 2014

In Search of England

In Search of England. H.V. Morton. 1927/2007. Da Capo Press. 304 pages. [Source: Bought]

I enjoyed reading H.V. Morton's travel book In Search of England. If you enjoy reading leisurely, sometimes amusing, travel books with observations and stories you should consider reading it. I liked the casual, often-charming style of Morton's travel writing.

The premise of this book is simple: the author returns home to England from Palestine with one simple goal to go "in search of England." His homesickness has given him the desire to have an adventure, "I will see what lies off the beaten track. I will, as the mood takes me, go into famous towns and unknown hamlets. I will shake up the dust of kings and abbots; I will bring the knights and the cavaliers back to the roads, and once in a while, I will hear the thunder of old quarrels at earthwork and church door. If I become weary of dream and legend I will just sit and watch the ducks on a village pond, or take the horses to water: I will talk with lords and cottagers, tramps, gipsies, and dogs; I will, in fact, do anything that comes into my head as suddenly and light-heartedly as I will accept anything, and everything, that comes my way in rain or sun along the road."

In Search of England is best read with leisure and patience. Don't expect the book to be a thrilling fast-paced adventure. Expect to take your time, to read it in between other books you're reading. I enjoyed what I read. But I never enjoyed it so much that I felt the need to read the whole book in one sitting. It's not that kind of book. It's a book that you don't lose momentum on by taking a break.

(I've also read and reviewed H.V. Morton's In the Steps of the Master.)

Favorite quotes:
How often in London rain weighs on the spirit and soaks itself into the very soul; but in the country it seldom saddens you - in fact, there is a kind of country rain that exhilarates and causes you to sing aloud.
Whenever I see a small boy sail a boat I long to join in. I can never see him without wondering whether boys still have the heavenly time with boats that I have had.
I once heard a bright young man say at a party that living in Bath was rather like sitting in the lap of a dear old lady. Nobody laughed, because it is true. Bath is the dear old lady of Somerset: grey-haired, mittened, smelling faintly of lavender; one of those old ladies who have outlived a much-discussed past, and are now as obviously respectable as only old ladies with crowded pasts can be. She nurses you with a shrewd twinkle in which you detect experience mellowed by age. You look at her lovingly, wondering how she could ever have been wicked; wishing that she could grow young again for one wild evening and show you! That might wake you up!
I have been reading with avidity the medical pamphlets provided free in Bath, and I feel that my arteries become harder and harder every minute. I wonder whether the ache in my left eye is paraplegia. I have no idea what this is, but when I whisper the word something ominous seems in mid-air with bared claws. It is hardly possible that I shall escape from oxularia. (Obesity does not worry me.) Intestinal stasis? Well, perhaps! Chronic vesical catarrh? I wonder? As I glance down the long list of diseases cured at Bath - feeling a sharp twinge of fibrocitis, a swift jab of lithiasis, and an alarming touch of rhinitis - it is perfectly clear to me that the average human being's chance of seeing Bath more than once is about a hundred to one.
This story has no right in this book, and I apologize for writing it. It happened like this. I was finding my way out of Carlisle with the intention of crossing the Roman Wall that runs across England from Solway Firth to the Tyne, when I saw a signpost: `To Gretna Green io miles.' I pulled up sharply: `This,' I said, `is where I go right off the rails. I must see Gretna Green! I'll take a holiday and - go to Scotland!' How could I neglect to visit the scene of so much folly? In a few minutes I had left England behind me and was spinning along in a country which looked exactly like it, but was not. I had crossed the Border! Scotland does not begin to get `bonny' just here, but it was stimulating to realize that we were in the land of red whiskers and freckled maids, of brown trout streams, of purple moors, of great mountains, which, even in fair weather, wear white caps of cloud. At the cottage doors clustered brawny sandy-haired boys (who some day, of course, go south) and little girls who will grow up and speak the most delicious English in the world. The road runs straight from Carlisle to Gretna, as if anxious to cut off all the corners and give a sporting finish to the race. At the end of this road - and in the heart of a great crowd - I found Gretna Green. 
How much romance, beauty and drama can be skipped over by a guide-book! As I was standing behind the high altar of Durham Cathedral earlier in the day I saw a large platform with one word carved in the stone: `Cuthbertus.' The guide-book says: `In the place of honour behind the high altar is the tomb of St Cuthbert, who died A.D. 687. The body still rests below....' Now as I read this bald truth my imagination went on a long journey. At the end of a tunnel of time, 1,239 years long, I saw a strange England, and I saw the hill of Durham before its great Norman church was built, before the stone Saxon church was built, before the first little reed chapel was built: just a woody hill of red sandstone, with perhaps a speckled.fawn standing in the fern. The roots of Durham go back into an England difficult to see: an England wild, bloody, savage; an England which prayed to Wotan and Thor in the ruins of Roman temples; an England beautiful at this time beyond words, because, caring nothing for the clash of kingdom on kingdom, the sound of swords and the trail of fire, Christ was walking through English meadows humbly as He walked through Galilee. The legions of Rome had returned with shaven heads bearing not a sword, but a message. Men have done deeds in the name of God which would have made Christ weep, but the story of the conversion of England to Christianity, with which Durham is so marvellously linked, is, I believe, one of the loveliest stories since the New Testament.
York is the lovely queen - as London is the powerful king - of English cities.
Men didn't just arrive with cartloads of stones and start to build a church. There is a story of faith and struggle behind every English cathedral.
I am the only person I have ever known who has been to Rutland. I admit that I have known men who have passed through Rutland in search of a fox, but I have never met a man who has deliberately set out to go to Rutland; and I do not suppose you have. Rutland - which I believe most people think is in Wales - is the smallest county in England, and the most remarkable. It is only seventeen miles long and seventeen miles wide, and it contains only two towns, Oakham and Uppingham, neither large enough to be a municipal borough. The county of Rutland, nestling like a baby in arms between Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, and Northamptonshire, is included in `The Shires'. Rutland is the only shire carved out of old Saxon Mercia not named after its county town, otherwise we would know it as Oakhamshire. On the other hand, no one would dream of calling it Rutlandshire! Tiny Rutland is the only example of an ancient Mercian division which has survived the West Saxon shire-ing of the district.
Norfolk is the most suspicious county in England. In Devon and Somerset men hit you on the back cordially; in Norfolk they look as though they would like to hit you over the head - till they size you up. You see, for centuries the north folk of East Anglia were accustomed to meet stray Vikings on lonely roads who had just waded ashore from the long boats...`Good morning, 'bor!' said the Vikings. `Which is the way to the church?' `What d'ye want to know for?' was the Norfolk retort. `Well, we thought about setting fire to it!' You will gather that Norfolk's suspicion of strangers, which is an ancient complex bitten into the East Anglian through centuries of bitter experience, is well grounded, and should never annoy the traveller... They mean well. Once they bring themselves to call you "bor' (which, I conclude, is the short for `neighbour' or, perhaps, `boy'), you can consider yourself highly complimented. In East Anglia men are either neighbours or Vikings.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Sherry 11:12 AM  

This book sounds delightful. The only thing better would be to go on my own English adventure.

hopeinbrazil 7:29 PM  

I really enjoyed his "I Saw Two Englands." Thanks for putting Morton back on my radar.

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