A taste of every county

Extracts from Engel's England

Bedfordshire (Chapter 2)

Do you know how the shower works, Jesus?

“… Whipsnade has something far more surprising than the view and the zoo. For Bedfordshire does, after all, have a cathedral: an imitation more touching than anything made of stone – a tree cathedral, created by a local grandee, Edmund Kell Blyth, to commemorate his First World War comrades. Not a memorial, he said, but a symbol of ‘faith, hope and reconciliation’. It was not immediately successful: as soon as he finished planting it, the next war began. But it has survived all the horrors. It has the shape and scale of the real thing: a porch of oaks; a nave of limes; a chancel of silver birches; transepts of tulip trees and chestnuts. It is a quiet, numinous place. The South-East being gripped by drought that spring, I thought it politic not to light a candle.”

Berkshire (Chapter 32)

The horse has bolted

“… The White Horse stands above the village of Uffington – home of Thomas Hughes and John Betjeman – on the edge of White Horse Hill, overlooking the Vale of the White Horse. Unlike other chalk figures, the horse’s 3,000-year-old antiquity is not in doubt. But it is oddly stylised and anatomically bizarre, as though designed as a logo by some Bronze Age whizz kids. That may be somewhere near the truth: one explanation is that it was cut by the Atrebates, the tribe whose territory evolved into Berkshire, as a standard to rally their forces against their enemies. It is thought that the Atrebates were the allies of the Romans against the recalcitrants north of the river. Later the Thames would be the frontier between Wessex and Mercia. It was probably always a boundary. It still is, in London (‘Sarf of the river, guv!? At this time of night!?’). And the horse served as a symbol, the symbol, of Berkshire until the 1970s. Its limbs being oddly shaped and disconnected, the horse never looked as though it was going anywhere — not even along the brow of the hill towards the long barrow known as Wayland’s Smithy, where, so the legend goes, the god of smiths will reshoe any horse for a groat. Then it was decided that the Thames no longer constituted a proper boundary, and the horse was captured by Oxfordshire.”

Buckinghamshire (Chapter 21)

The commuter homeward plods his weary way

“… This was ever a county of class distinction and great country houses, many of them built by the Rothschilds, and a good few famous for their goings-on. There is West Wycombe Park, once home of Sir Francis Dashwood, leading light of the Hellfire Club; there is Mentmore Towers, home of the prime minister Lord Rosebery and later the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who briefly turned it into another outré Buckinghamshire educational establishment, the Maharishi University of Natural Law; there is Cliveden, where before the war the Astors entertained prominent Nazis, and after it Christine Keeler entertained John Profumo; and then of course Chequers, country home of British prime ministers since 1921 and where, during the reign of Mrs Thatcher (1979–90), the PM bused in strippergram hunks and women police constables from Princes Risborough to entertain voyeuristic visiting heads of government with acts of sexual depravity (note to editor: please check this one).”

Cambridgeshire (Chapter 37)

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?

“… Historically the Fens were remote, sickly and, to outsiders, primeval. The inhabitants, clustered on whatever slightly higher ground was going, made a patchy living catching wildfowl and summer-grazing cattle on the flood plain; they never starved because they could always live on eels. Everything changed in the seventeenth century when Charles I asked the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden to work out how to drain the Fens. The locals hated him. Capital took a different view: what emerged was a vast new area of fertile, if still vulnerable, agricultural land, with the inestimable advantage for the new owners that you could make money without having to live in the bloody place. They were, in effect, inland colonists. ‘The Fen people,’ as Allan Brigham put it, ‘were the Red Indians.’”

Cheshire (Chapter 15)

And no knickers

“… On the first day of the May meeting at Chester, where racing dates back at least to the early sixteenth century, the horse that attracted most attention was an unraced two-year-old colt in the opening race, the Lily Agnes Stakes. This was mainly because of the identity of his owners. This was the first-ever runner in the pink-and-white colours of Mr and Mrs W. Rooney, Mr Rooney being Wayne Rooney, a Manchester United and England footballer who had become rather famous. The second point of discussion was the horse’s name, Pippy, for reasons expressed rather elegantly in the following day’s Racing Post: ‘Racecourse rumour was rife … not so much with reports of sparkling workouts as with the information that the origins of the horse’s name were rooted in, shall we say, the gynaecological.’”

Cornwall (Chapter 11)

Between the old way and the Ooh-arr A

“… Dick Cole is an archaeologist by training, but he has celebrated both his thirtieth and fortieth birthdays as leader of Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish Nationalists. He has a natural politician’s easy manner, as yet unspoiled by the compromises and defensiveness of power. In late 2011, after nearly fifteen years of his leadership, his party managed to achieve its fifth seat on Cornwall Council. Loveday Jenkin from Praze-an-Beeble won the Wendron by-election – which, I would modestly claim, are the most euphonious eight words ever written about local government … MK has now marginalised two other separatist organisations: the Stannary Parliament, which claims a line of legitimacy dating back to Edward I but has not actually been elected by anyone in at least 250 years; and the Cornish Republican Army (christened by some clever London tabloid subeditor the Ooh-arr A). A while ago this shadowy and probably barely existent organisation made oblique threats against a couple of celebrity chefs, set fire to a derelict brewery, plastered a wall with graffiti and issued a defiant statement: ‘We are NOT responsible for the damage in Redruth when an ornamental dog had its head removed.’”

Cumberland (Chapter 28)

The ascent of Mount Toebang

“… The most impressive and distinctive inhabitants of Cumberland have four legs not two, and that is not a mutation caused by nuclear fallout. These are the 50,000 Herdwick sheep which graze the very summits of all the fells, avoiding Scafell Pike only because it grows rocks instead of grass … They look smarter than the average sheep, so much so that one senses they could open information booths and point lost climbers in the right direction. At their mother’s knee the lambs get to know their ‘heaf ’, their own area of the fell. Only rarely do they stray to the far side of the mountain. It is an astonishing, mystical branch of agriculture, its continuation largely made possible by Beatrix Potter, who put her Peter Rabbit earnings into buying up farms threatened by development or the Forestry Commission.”

Derbyshire (Chapter 17)

Good morning, Your Grace

“… George Brown, deputy prime minister in the 1960s, an unforgettable yet seemingly forgotten politician who was MP for Belper, once expressed bemusement about the county: ‘I can’t make head nor tail of Derbyshire. Every time I think I’ve got it pinned, I find another bit where everybody’s totally different.’ It is full of surprises, full of quirkiness, full of eccentricity. There is, for instance, Matlock Bath, the only inland seaside resort I have ever encountered. It has an esplanade complete with amusement arcades, aquarium (the old Victorian baths, now handed over to the carp), chip shops, a sort of beach pavilion, and pubs and cafés where you can sit outside and admire the view. Which is the traffic on the A6. There is the river behind that, but it is inaccessible and almost invisible. There is even a kind of Sunday afternoon passeggiata, which comprises the motorcyclists strolling up anddown admiring each other’s machines. In the autumn there are illuminations, just like Blackpool.

Devon (Chapter 5)

Watch the wall, my darling

“… All over the South Hams, locals and visitors were taking part in the traditional holiday-time motorised folk dance to get by without bashing into banks, buttresses and garden walls. It is like a sideways limbo mixed with a Maori haka. The inhabitants are able to execute the steps with practised elegance, if not much grace: the trick is to use a show of aggression, then make the visitors do the reversing – especially if the opposition comprises a nerve-wracked woman from north London with a Range Rover full of infants. In places, especially on the overgrown tracks leading to the beaches or where the spring tide in the creeks laps across the tarmac, it is hard enough even for one car to get by. In Dartmouth, I watched a 30,000-ton cruise liner trying to escape the harbour on what looked to me like an iffily low tide. But that was nothing compared to the terrifying sight of the double-decker 93 bus to Kingsbridge trying to barrel its way through Stoke Fleming.”

Dorset (Chapter 27)

Land of the rising sap

“… Everybody knows the giant of Cerne Abbas, trilled Arthur Mee in his 1939 guide to Dorset: ‘He equals thirty tall men standing one on the other, each of his fingers measures seven feet, and the club in his hand is forty feet long.’ All of which may be true, but it is not his fingers or his club that anyone notices. In Sussex, not an especially demure county, the hillside chalk figure of the Long Man of Wilmington is almost well enough clad to pass at a garden party arranged by the Hove Conservative Association. His Dorset rival would be wholly unacceptable even on Brighton’s nudist beach. The Cerne Abbas giant is in possession of Britain’s biggest, most famous and longest-lasting erection. Estimates of its size range from twenty feet, which looks like an underestimate, to forty. But perhaps it is so realistic it varies according to the quality of the company.”

Durham (Chapter 4)

Oh, my name it means nothing

“… The day of the 127th Durham Miners’ Gala dawned bright, with a hint of threat. As the crowds gathered good-naturedly on the streets leading into Durham city, clouds gathered more menacingly on the horizon. There was what felt like a conscious decision to ignore them. This may be a metaphor for the fate of the coal industry. The first thing outsiders learn about the Gala is that it’s pronounced ‘Gayla’. The second thing is that it isn’t necessarily. Most of the locals say ‘Garla’. I think this is a lesson in advanced Englishism, not just an unexpected pronunciation like Leominster/Lemster but something more complex. Maybe in Durham there are multiple layers of initiation and in some inner sanctum it really is called ‘the Gayla’.”

Essex (Chapter 35)

A va-whatle?

“… Like Essex Man, Essex Girl was a phenomenon of the 1980s who was not widely identified until the 1990s, by which time she was probably safe-ish behind a pushchair. By then everyone knew what she looked like: ‘big blonde hair with tasteful black roots, their layers of make-up, tottering along in micro-mini and white stilettos for a Malibu at the wine bar, en route to the night club’, as the Mail on Sunday put it. However, the social historian Pam Cox of the University of Essex (where else?) places her in a wider context, allied to the Valley Girls of California and also in a long line of historical equivalents: ‘the Lancashire mill girls of the 1840s, the so-called “girl of the period” in the 1860s, munitions girls in the First World War, the “Docklands degenerates” of the 1930s and the “good-time girls” of the 1950s. All were attacked for their immorality, for their vulgarity, for their sexual laxity, and for their frivolous spending.’

Gloucestershire (Chapter 6)

Here be bores, and boars

“… Most fairs of this size and antiquity send the local tourist information office into spasms of delight. Here the office (‘Go-Stow’) closes down. The pubs don’t just shut their doors, they slam them … Groups of Gypsy teenagers stood around the square, oblivious to their effect on the locals. I have been here before, in May time, and seen the girls come dressed for clubbing, wearing heels half the height of the smaller cottages and somewhat shorter shorts, in lime greens and flamingo pinks. On a coolish October day, they were a touch more demure: the same heels but stretching up towards tight jeans or jodhpurs, even tighter tops and long, flowing hair. They are not oblivious to their effect on the Gypsy boys, all with gelled hair, big forearms and popping eyes, and all rendered seemingly speechless. About a hundred police stood around, staring intently even at my notebook, but they could find no infringement to engage them other than a breach of the back-seat seat-belt laws.”

Hampshire (Chapter 19)

Bowled by a floater

“… There is another sport in Hampshire, more baffling and impenetrable than even cricket or sailing. Strangers are normally welcome to watch a cricket match or a yacht race even if they haven’t the faintest idea what’s happening. Try turning up at the Houghton Club in Stockbridge and asking where you can see the action. This is an institution that makes the Royal Yacht Squadron look as picky as the Tesco Club. There are just twenty-five members and it has exclusive fishing rights to thirteen miles of the River Test, the most famous trout stream in the world. For a non-angler, simply setting foot in the shops of Stockbridge is like entering an alien world: Greenwells Glory; Tups Indispensable; Lunns Particular; Iron Blue Dun. Apples? Potatoes? Implements favoured by sadomasochists? Dry flies.”

Herefordshire (Chapter 40)

From the Black Hill

“… Everywhere too are hidden valleys, lush hillsides, sudden breathtaking views and remote homesteads any Briton genetically imprinted with the urge to buy houses wants instantly, even those who are lucky enough to have one of their own already. The pornography of this quasi-sexual urge can be found in the property supplement of the Hereford Times. These urges are related to those found in Surrey and Cheshire too, but they represent a different kind of kink. Herefordshire houses do not habitually include swimming pools and are not guarded by electronic gates. They tend to be scruffy, often draughty and damp, but divinely positioned. These days they are often inhabited by liberal, unstuffy, well-travelled baby-boomers who have made enough money elsewhere, thank you, but not all that much. But there is a price to be paid. And it is paid, as ever, by the young.”

Hertfordshire (Chapter 23)

Loosen your corset and stay

“… I had heard of the Great Bed of Ware but, to be honest, had no idea what it was. For all I knew, it might be a geographical feature lightly disguised as an item of household furniture, like the Great Artesian Basin or the Bog of Allen. It turned out to a bed: a four-poster, lovingly carved, dating back to the late sixteenth century, which was used by a succession of Ware coaching inns as a selling point, being somewhat warmer than the banks of the Lea for a twosome and not out of the question for an orgy. Both Shakespeare and Ben Jonson gave it a mention, in what one takes to be examples of the mucky topical jokes now confined to panto. Allegedly it’s ten feet long and eleven feet wide, and has variously played host to six butchers and their wives, and whole platoons of soldiers. I am not convinced: it does not look that much bigger than the beds provided in up-market American motel rooms. The V&A, boringly, no longer permit the bed to be used for any of its proper purposes. And if the museum ever does decide to unleash this potentially lucrative revenue stream, the bed might be hard put to bear the weight of two modern middle-aged Americans.”

Huntingdonshire (Chapter 10)

Buckethead and Puddingface

“… Very flat, Huntingdonshire: itsy-bitsy hills, big arable fields, hardly any hedgerows. It was probably the most invisible county — Rutland at least having a reputation — even in the days when it was officially a county. In the north it shades into Fenland and there is a village called Ramsey Heights, which must be some kind of joke, like the little Don Estelle character in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum being known as Lofty. … The county probably has Britain’s lowest point, amid the birches at Holme Fen, about nine feet below sea level. Holme Fen Posts, which measure how the peat has shrunk since the Fens were drained, is usually cited as the spot. But there is no marker, no flags, no one taking selfies to celebrate the achievement of their descent. Huntingdonshire doesn’t make a fuss. Also, one deep winter pothole and there would probably be a new lowest point.”

Kent (Chapter 16)

Location, location

“… There are Kentishmen, born west of the River Medway, and men of Kent, born to the east. The division hardly ranks alongside Sunnis and Shias and is not a staple of conversation, even on the cricket grounds, though I heard a story of two missionaries bickering about the subject in the Solomon Islands, to the bemusement of the locals. It is somewhat confusing, since the Medway wanders around more than most rivers and in the upper reaches flows south-north, north-south and all sorts. In Tonbridge it flows in several channels at once. The Medway is a practical modern division too, since to the east commuting to London becomes a decidedly optimistic enterprise: the railways of Kent have always been notorious, a situation only marginally alleviated by the new fast trains into St Pancras. And man of Kent is more emphatic, implying someone truly belonging to the county. Kentish sounds altogether more half-hearted. There is an Association of Kentish Men and Men of Kent, with eighteen branches that do good works and are open also to Fair Maids of Kent and Kentish Maids, and no doubt Unfair Maids, Fair Unmaids and indeed anyone else with the slightest Kent connection.”

Lancashire (Chapter 20)

Oh Ena, where art thou?

“… I arrived as a student in Manchester in the autumn of 1969. In pole position on Market Street, right next to Piccadilly, there was a UCP restaurant, then ubiquitous in Lancashire. It stood for United Cattle Products, which meant it sold tripe and the like. Mancunian kids’ joke of that era: If UCP on it, don’t eat the tripe. My advice, after a single visit: don’t eat the tripe. The centre of Manchester still had a coal mine, the Bradford pit. There were backstreets that could not have changed much since Victoria’s reign, like Tib Street, which was full of little pet shops … Manchester was no longer particularly smoky but it was grubby and, outside a few oases like the Guardian office and the Portico Library, rough. The only twenty-four-hour scene was at the Kardomah Café in Albert Square. There was no Chinatown; gay activity was very covert. And it rained; it really did. It hardly ever poured. It was something more than drizzle. It rained with a soft relentlessness. Imagine a toddler drumming their fingers playfully on your head for three years.”

Leicestershire (Chapter 22)

Tally-ho, isn’t it?

“… In contrast to Blackpool, Leicester’s Golden Mile stretches less than half a mile but the golden bit is no exaggeration. The shops concentrate on three things: Indian sweeties, saris and jewellery. And the jewellers don’t mess about: the focus is on gold. It suits the local taste: Leicester’s Indians are mainly Gujaratis, well known in India for their business acumen and also their love of bling. But there may be another reason. Gold has always been the luxury of choice for communities whose roots are shallow ones. It is portable, hideable and famously gains value in difficult times. And this is a community still not wholly certain it might never have to uproot itself again.”

Lincolnshire (Chapter 31)

Very good in Parts

“… At 7 next morning the bell rang and business began at the Grimsby Fish Market, as it has done every Monday to Friday, bank holidays excepted, since shortly after our own ancestors crawled out of the freezing waters. There is a sense of departed glory.
The market is a long, low, cold building and it was far from full, either of people or fish. About 100 merchants stood around and followed the three auctioneers in a game of follow-my-leader round three separate stashes: cod, haddock and mixed, which meant everything else. In the way of business between professionals, the details were barely comprehensible. The auctioneer pointed to a box, mentioned a seemingly random number, went up or down – usually down – and, without any response being audible or visible to me, announced the name of the successful bidder. Then a handful of tickets were strewn on to the box to indicate the deceased fish’s new owners. Only the cod appeared to register any emotion whatever: a wild-eyed surmise about the sudden turn of fate that brought them to captivity and this indignity.”

London (Chapter 39)

The Great Wen-will-it-implode?

“… In 1971 an organisation called the Houseowners’ Association produced a small volume: Where to Live in London. It gave star ratings to the various districts and suburbs for the benefit of potential buyers; the tone would now be considered politically incorrect, but some of the judgements were pretty astute:

BRIXTON ★: The place most people love to hate.
HACKNEY ★★: Distinctly working-class but not entirely without hope.
LEWISHAM ★★: Very grotty.
GREENWICH ★★★: Clearly coming up in the world. Parts still rough.
HAMMERSMITH ★★★: As Irish as they come. But some parts are beginning to look interesting.

right up to:

ST JOHN’S WOOD ★★★★★: An area where money is the only password. Even small luxury town houses fetch £20,000 … and £70,000 is not unknown.

Oh, it’s very funny indeed (talkin’ about my generation). By 2014 ordinary three-bedroom terraced houses in distinctly ★★ or ★★★ parts of London, which would still have cost four figures in 1971, were nudging ever closer to the million-pound mark.

Middlesex (Chapter 25)

That nice couple at no. 45

“… In 1973 John Betjeman recorded the best-loved of all BBC documentaries: his prose-poem ‘Metro-land’, a journey on the Metropolitan Line’s route out of Baker Street through Middlesex towards Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. The brilliant wheeze of the then-independent Metropolitan Railway was that, like the American railroads, its owners understood that the way to make money was to build the lines and the communities together. Betjeman’s genius was to be completely non-judgemental. There is, to be sure, an elegiac undertone. But the programme was made without even the hint of an intellectual sneer about suburban pretensions. And thus, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, London trampled over Middlesex. Not mindlessly or brutishly: much of Metroland was built in the same agreeable style that lay behind Letchworth. And it was probably true that, as the ditty went,

Hearts are light, eyes are brighter
In Metroland, Metroland.

Norfolk (Chapter 33)

First we take Hunstanton …

“… Professor Peter Trudgill, the acknowledged expert on this subject, has argued that Norfolk dialect was heavily influenced by Dutch migrants fleeing religious persecution during the Inquisition, not just in its vocabulary but also in the S-less verb forms he calls East Anglian zero (‘She look just wholly bee’tiful, she do.’). The old dialect has faded to vanishing point, as it has almost everywhere. The writer D. J. Taylor, who returned to live in his native Norwich after years in London, says he hasn’t heard the old Norfolk male endearment ‘Bor’ in years. But the accent hasn’t gone, nor the zero verbs, nor the complete inability of the acting profession to get it right. It is, quite literally, inimitable. ‘What you do hear all the time are the inflections, the way the sentences are put together,’ says Taylor. ‘I heard a woman in a shop quite recently say to her child, “Wha’ d’ yew want, one o’ them ones then?”’”

Northamptonshire (Chapter 38)

And no one to call me m’duck

“… I had a perfectly nice steak in what I was advised was now Northampton’s best pub, the Wig & Pen, formerly the Black Lion. There was even a kind of cabaret. The woman at the next table was yelling at her husband: ‘That’s it for me now. I’m not fucking coming home. I want a divorce. I’m desperate.’ His replies were discreet and inaudible, which is how marriage break-ups used to be conducted in Northampton. Behind them, two drunken young men intermittently harassed the happy couple before being thrown out. This was the best pub in my home town, just before 9 p.m.”

Northumberland (Chapter 26)

Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline

“… Northumberland is a breathtaking county, full of big, ever-changing skies, and landscapes that normally belong to more spacious nations. At times, it felt to me like the Wild West: Montana or Wyoming, maybe, with more rounded peaks. At others, it might have been Russia: where there are trees, there are trees (150 million in Kielder Forest); where there ain’t, there ain’t. There were even moments when the sun was on the beige land and I fancied, in a fantastical way, that it was Saudi Arabia. I finally decided it was Britain’s Minnesota: a place with one big urban sprawl (Tyneside playing the role of Minneapolis) and not much else; a tough history of mining; and a reputation for being remote, cold and northerly, notwithstanding that in both cases there is another country even further to the north. What Northumberland is not is English-pretty or cosy.”

Nottinghamshire (Chapter 24)

The silence of the trams

“… although the association of Robin with Sherwood Forest and Nottinghamshire is a strong one, the county has found the connection difficult to monetise. There may be a Robin Hood Theatre (just outside Newark – small but enterprising) but it can’t match Stratford by endlessly performing the master’s plays, or indeed performing them at all. No active pensioner can show you round Robin Hood’s birthplace: we have no idea when, where or if he was born. Indeed, everything anyone thinks they know is almost certainly wrong. If he was extant in the reign of Richard the Lionheart, as most stories suggest, then — according to Emrys Bryson’s Portrait of Nottingham — he can’t have used a longbow (not invented); can’t have consorted with a friar (none around); and can’t have thwarted the Sheriff of Nottingham (there wasn’t one).”

Oxfordshire (Chapter 14)

Mayday! Mayday!

“… Forget Blenheim Palace, forget Churchill’s grave. This new phenomenon is Bicester Village, an outlet centre on the outskirts of the once-obscure town of Bicester, which is now better known in China, Brazil and Russia than any of the dreaming spires: 130 shops, nearly all of them belonging to chains even I had heard of; three million visitors a year, many of them arriving by air from Beijing and Shanghai via bus from London … Nothing in the windows looked cheap to me. And I was beginning to feel the whole thing was ludicrous when I was suddenly spotted by my photographer mate Rick and his girlfriend, Leanne, who is in the fashion trade and understands these places. She explained that although not necessarily cheap, Bicester was cheaper. ‘If you crave a £1,000 bag and it’s worth £250 and you see it for £350, it’s a bargain.’ So we sat down, had tea and a laugh, and I felt better and went and had another stroll round. Look, I only bought two shirts, a tie and two pairs of shoes, which I really needed, and honest they were bargains so just shut up, will you? I came to scoff and I stayed to pay.”

Rutland (Chapter 9)

Ignorant Hobbledehoyshire (not)

“… I used to read the Fern Hollow books to my son, full of animal characters — Lord Trundle of Trundleberry Manor, PC Hoppit, Parson Dimly, Farmer Bramble and Boris Blinks of the bookshop — all living in idyllic English countryside by a railway line, probably offering a service like Oakham’s two direct trains to London a day: ‘The animals of Fern Hollow are all good friends and neighbours and, if you are a stranger, they will make you feel at home in next to no time.’ It had to be Rutland. It was always the tiniest of English counties: in terms of acreage, from the moment it emerged in the twelfth century; in terms of population, certainly by the mid-eighteenth century. If you count the Isle of Wight as a county, which I don’t, Rutland would have a rival. The island is said to be smaller than Rutland when the tide is in, but bigger when it’s out.”

Shropshire (Chapter 35)

Percy and the parrot

“… The post-2010 coalition government liked to distinguish between ‘strivers’ (good) and ‘skivers’ (bad). The mainly Tory voters of Shropshire fit into neither category: this is a county for the conscientious but unambitious. It has had people who go off into the world and make names for themselves, but this does not always turn out well. The trouble started with Old Parr, Thomas Parr of Alberbury: born 1483, so it was said, died 1635. For nearly all that time, he appeared to be doing rather well on a diet of ‘green cheese, onions, coarse bread, buttermilk or mild ale (and cider on special occasions)’, with none of that new-fangled tobacco but a good deal of old-fashioned sex: he married at eighty, committed adultery at 105 and remarried at 122. There is no evidence that any of these numbers were remotely correct, but he was obviously knocking on a bit yet absolutely fine, until, having allegedly passed the 150 mark, Parr was discovered by the Earl of Arundel. His lordship insisted on taking him to London to be exhibited at court, where he took ill and died. The royal physician William Harvey proclaimed that he had been seen off by London’s rich food and pollution.”

Somerset (Chapter 30)

Let’s party like it’s AD 43

“… Somerset is The Hedonistic County, the County of Self-Indulgence. They can put that on their leaflets and road signs, and credit me. It was a conclusion I reached while wearing my floral-pattern bathing cozzie, lying back nonchalantly in a bathtub-warm rooftop pool and staring dreamily towards Bathwick Hill over the best cityscape in the kingdom. All I needed for total nirvana was one of the bikini-clad fellow bathers to lean over and peel me a grape.”

Staffordshire (Chapter 34)

Not not proud

“… Staffordshire towns exist to please themselves, not sniffy visitors, and that’s fine. And there are unexpected pleasures. Triple-spired Lichfield Cathedral, for instance. Having had an overenthusiastic makeover from the Victorians, it is not to everyone’s taste as a building — somewhere round the bottom of the second division of the ecclesiastical league table — but its setting is champion, by a lake in a particularly congenial close. Inside, it was unusually sunny and airy near the altar, which gave the building an invigorating feel. This arose, one eventually realised, from the absence of stained glass. The cathedral authorities are very proud of their stained glass: the sixteenth-century Herkendrode Windows. But they had gone away for restoration. ‘Is it just me?’ I asked a guide. ‘But might the cathedral actually be nicer without them?’ She looked around furtively. ‘It certainly isn’t just you,’ she whispered. ‘But we’re not allowed to say so.’”

Suffolk (Chapter 13)

The sound of the froghorn

“… Suffolk taunts me. Normally, the land is there and the sea is there, and that’s that. Here you never quite know. How many outsiders think of Ipswich as a port? On a map Woodbridge looks miles inland. But if you pass through by train, there is a boatyard that stretches alongside the line for what seems like a mile or more. There are no north–south roads anywhere near the coast (‘too crumbly, squishy and volatile’). In some places there is no route seaward of the A12, about eight miles from the notional edge of England. Beyond that, there is terra-not-all-that-firma, estuaries, rivers, meres and marsh and the very Suffolk habitat known as sandling heath, merging and unmerging with the tides, the seasons, the years and the eons while the opportunist North Sea lies in wait like a wolf at the door. It is the mud from all the estuaries, I was told, that makes the Suffolk sea so peculiarly brown, even on bright days.”

Surrey (Chapter 3)

Adventures in the state-your-business belt

“… The epitome of Surrey is Seven Hills Road in Weybridge: huge houses set among the tall trees and the rhododendrons, nearly all of them with sylvan names: Squirrels Wood, The Beeches, Hill Pines, Fox Oak, The Spinney. The only exception I spotted was Millstones, presumably named by an owner who needed multiple mortgages or hated his children. But I may have missed some: if I had slowed down a fraction to check the names, someone would have nuzzled my rear bumper. These houses must constitute second prize in life’s lottery (we will come to the first prize later). Yet just turning right when they exit their security gates in the morning constitutes a further gamble for these winners. The traffic is always fast and the drivers furious. What are they furious about? Because they don’t live on Seven Hills Road? Or because they do?”

Sussex (Chapter 8)

Life on the edge

“… The sight was astonishing. And so was the sound. And that was only the start. The marching would go on for another four hours, and even then the night would be young. This was Bonfire Night in Lewes, perhaps the most gloriously individualistic town in England on what is emphatically its most gloriously individualistic night of the year. As the evening went on, I caught overtones of Remembrance Sunday, Mardi Gras, Saturnalia, Purim, the Gordon Riots of 1780, the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Mexican día de los muertos, the First Intifada, the Battle of Little Big Horn, the Wicker Man, Sherman’s March to the Sea, Up Helly Aa and the Northampton League of Pity fancy-dress party circa 1957. There is also a soupçon of April Fool’s Day since, in the weeks beforehand, the Sussex Express goes on to red alert about news tip-offs in the expectation of being hoaxed. The one event to which it bears no resemblance is the sanitised, organised, municipalised, be-careful-dear-sparklers-can-be-dangerous Guy Fawkes celebrations that now take place almost everywhere else in the country as an afterthought to Americanised Halloween.”

Warwickshire (Chapter 12)

Covered in blotches

“… I opted to hop off at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. The sun was out now and there was a queue to get in, with, in front of me, a group of teenage American girls who took my line on the absurdity of this exercise. ‘We’ll do what we did at Winston Churchill,’ one whispered conspiratorially. ‘Remember? We went in, we went out, we had ice cream and we went shopping.’ Good plan. I whipped through quickly, but by the time I was out they were long gone. They couldn’t even have taken time to indulge in the opportunity for self-expression afforded by the message board near the gift shop which had Post-it notes for comment: the tiny ones with barely room for a haiku, never mind a sonnet. A sample:

This is so fantastic. I’m so glad I came — Susannah, Calif, USA
Paul and Louise In Love forever xxx
Greetings from Boise, ID
Harry Styles I Love You
Claire and Hayley on our secret holiday
I know what you did last summer — Emilio
WOW Rating: ★★★★★ By Rosie 7 years old
To Shakespeare: Thank you for the genius in your writing.
[Shakespeare? Shakespeare? Oh, him!] and
We loved the Easter Egg Hunt!

Westmoreland (Chapter 18)

Damsons in distress

“… I was keen to catch the Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling. It started with a costume competition in which entrants posed in traditional gear, which comprises singlet and long johns with a pair of trunks on top, all of them handsomely embroidered with motifs. The sport is thought to have hints of Viking; the uniform seems to have Gypsy influences with an undertow of Turkish boudoir. It is not something one would lightly wear in places unfamiliar with the customs. To the intense irritation of some adherents, competitors are now allowed to wear conventional athletic gear to encourage newcomers sensitive to peer-group mockery. Yet the decoration, says Mike Huggins, was actually a concession to Victorian sensitivity: the bourgeoisie were shocked by the sight of men parading in what appeared to be their underwear.”

Wiltshire (Chapter 29)

A midsummer night’s mare

“… I met my old friend Bryan McAllister, the reformed Guardian cartoonist, in the Barge Inn at Honeystreet. Or as the sign in the bar has it, ‘Honeystreet twinned with Roswell, New Mexico’, global centre of ufology”… The Barge is the global centre of crop circles. Another sign offers a prize of 100,000 pints of the pub’s own brew, Croppie Ale, to ‘any genuine alien in possession of a valid passport from another world’ who could reproduce the most famous of all crop circles, the Galaxy Formation, which appeared at Milk Hill in 2001. The Barge has achieved something almost as hard as finding a winner of its competition: a USP to sustain the profits of a country pub.”

Worcestershire (Chapter 1)

I’ll be with you in plum blossom time

“… I drove back south towards Pershore and, after a few wrong turnings and enquiries, parked near the romantically neglected churchyard at Great Comberton. This is the start of the route (or one route) up Bredon Hill, northerly outcrop of the Cotswolds and great sentinel of southern Worcestershire. In the churchyard I saw the stone commemorating Robert and Lily Lee, ‘a dearly loved father and mother’. It gave their dates (1891–1966 for Robert, 1899–1981 for Lily) and added simply: ‘In Summertime on Bredon’. What a gorgeous summation of two lives, a marriage, a family, their love, a village, of Worcestershire and of England.”

Yorkshire (Chapter 7)

Bye-bye to the bile beans

“… The anthropologist Kate Fox saw the classic Yorkshire type as a self-conscious inversion of the English character. The English in general are even more squeamish about money than they are about sex. She regards the blunt Pythonesque Yorkshire businessman as a deliberate reversal of this, even a parody. It is not a diagnostic condition that afflicts every male born in the Broad Acres; Yorkshiremen come in all flavours. And not every example is in business. My own favourite representation came from Peter Simple, the late, great Daily Telegraph columnist, who invented Alderman Foodbotham, ‘the 25-stone, crag-visaged, ironwatch-chained, grim-booted perpetual chairman of the Bradford City Tramways and Fine Arts Committee’. At least I thought Simple, aka Michael Wharton, had invented him until the day I first clapped eyes on Eric Pickles as a real-life Bradford councillor.”