Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday Salon 11.35 Great British Journeys by Nicholas Crane.

Yesterday I added 'Liverpool' to the small British Journeys I have been making recently, but more about that later. This morning, for Sunday Salon, I am reading about more impressive undertakings, Great British Journeys in fact, a book written by the television presenter Nicholas Crane - and they are fascinating.

Rather unexpectedly, the journeys I have read about so far have literary connections. The first traveller was Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) in 1188. Now I've often heard about this writer in my many travels around Pembrokeshire, and have even been to his birth place - Manorbier Castle. I'd thought he was just some sort of wandering monk, but it turns out that he made the first recorded circumnavigation of Wales, and he did this because he was trying to drum up support for the Crusades. He makes a record of how things go and this provides the basis of an early example of travel-writing. Nicholas Crane later follows in his footsteps, and skilfully manages to evoke the terrors of travelling in a land of wild unpredictable terrain and even wilder and more unpredictable natives.

There is quicksand, wide swirling rivers, sheer slopes, narrow passes, and, worst of all a hostile people. Few seemed to be swayed by the call to the cross, but Gerald seemed to determined to gloss over this. He completed his journey in a little over six weeks, and returned to Hereford exhausted - but at least now he had a map of Wales in his head. In later life he would direct the drawing of a map of this little principality, recording the position of monasteries, castles and churches.

Even more interesting is the next chapter on John Leland. John Leland landed in Henry VIII's court mainly because his fashionable education in Paris and his connections in court. He was a writer, and his poetry was read out during the coronation of Anne Boleyn. He was also a librarian, and it was in this capacity that he received a royal commission 'to make a search after England's Antiquities, and peruse the Libraries of all Cathedrals, Abbeys, Priories, Colleges, etc as also all places wherein Records Writing and secrets of Antiquity were reposed.' (a quote in the book from Anthony Wood, a great seventeenth century Leland scholar). Leland was equipped with a 'special pass' (which seems to me to be something like a dream ticket) to allow him access to all these collections, and rode all over the country picking out choice volumes for the King's own collection.

The monasteries were already under attack. In 1536 there had been an act which suppressed all monasteries with and income of les than £200 per anum, and John Leland doubtless saved many valuable books. His journeys were haphazard, and suffered because he had little idea of navigation. Triangulation had only just been described in Europe, and the practice of mathematical surveying had yet to become established in England. Nicholas Crane describes John Leland as a poet, librarian an auditor and not a mathematician.
Insomuch as they are arranged at all, the notes are left around the routes he travelled. A modern traveller could spend a lifetime trying to trace John Leland's footprints to and fro across across England and Wales . But it would be a journey into madness, for Leland's quest had no end. His itinerary crosses and recrosses itself. He returns to places he has already visited, and describes them over again slightly differently. With each visit the Itinerary accumulates more layers but less form.
Wonderful stuff. Nicholas Crane, of course, nevertheless takes up the challenge, and follows in Leland's footsteps to Cornwall. It makes exciting reading.

Cornish people are related to the Welsh, until the last century it was possible to find people that spoke Cornish, which was a variation of Welsh, and also related to Breton, and I am happy to report that John Leland found the sixteenth century Cornish as hostile as Gerald found the twelfth century Welsh. The landscape is similarly difficult too; but whereas Gerald was in the middle of a balmy period in the climatic history of the British Isles, John Leland explored during the two hundred year mini ice-age. In both cases the coast was under attack: i n the twelfth century due to expansion of the water with temperature, and in the sixteenth due to storms and extreme weather. Droughts one year would be followed by excessive rainfall in the next. An extremely cold winter could be followed by a blazing summer. As a quote from Professor Brian Fagan says in the book 'The pendulum of climate change rarely paused for a generation.' This is sounding very familiar.

I have just finished how sand has been swept everywhere in John Leland's Cornwall, and the whole place seems to be in danger of becoming submerged. Did this last forever? I think Nicholas Crane is about to find out...

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Anonymous gautami.tripathy said...

I like Journey books. This one goes into my TBR pile..

My SS post is about short stories

Sun Sep 28, 03:01:00 pm  
Anonymous nicole said...

Ooh, this is just the kind of fun, quirky, never-heard-of-it-but-charming book I love. Straight onto the Amazon wishlist it goes.

Unfortunately I've never been to Wales, but Cornwall is one of the most under-ratedly beautiful places I've ever been.

Sun Sep 28, 07:37:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, Nicole - I think you've summed it up pretty much there. Just read the next few chapters and gradually we're coming up to the present: first a woman explorer called Cecilia Fiennes who made an epic journey to Newcastle from Somerset, then Daniel Defoe the novelist - who based Desert Island on a storm off the East Anglia coast, then a man in search of the picturesque...really, really interesting.

Wales is better than Cornwall IMO. The scenery is more spectacular and it is less crowded.

Sun Sep 28, 07:55:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

And glad you like the sound of it Gautami!

Sun Sep 28, 07:55:00 pm  
Blogger Andi said...

What a fascinating selection of journeys . . . Sounds like a great way to travel both on the page and in person. . . enjoy your journeys.

Sun Sep 28, 09:39:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Andi. I've finished the book now, and learnt a lot.

Tue Sep 30, 10:43:00 pm  

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