It’s unusual for a book to actually make me laugh out loud while I’m reading it, but I have to admit this one did…several times. A little treasure found amongst her books, like a lovely surprise present from Mum. This is a ripping yarn that combines history, humour, and travel writing marvellously and I can see exactly what the appeal would have been for Mum. She and her beloved Brian, my brilliant step-Dad, were avid watchers of the original series’ of ‘Coast’, and planned to take some lengthy road trips around the UK once he had retired – sadly this was not to be as we lost Brian, also to cancer, in 2008. I think this was one of the only things that Mum, a perennially cheerful bod, admitted to sadness about, missing doing the things together that they had planned to do. She told me this one day in Leytonstone Tesco, as we watched an older couple laughing together on the way back to their car with the groceries, and as I write this I’m sad too. I’m so sorry you never got to have those long anticipated laughs with Brian in the Volvo, Mum. So, reading this would have been an armchair ride round the UK and Ireland for her, and I’m willing to bet she giggled at the same bits I did – the first one being only a few pages in where the author is debating the level of authenticity he will bring to his walks; “If I was to follow Boudica to the letter, I’d have to burn down Colchester, London, and St Albans on the way.”
To clarify, Mr Connelly writes about walking through 2000 years of British and Irish history, following in the footsteps of the likes of King Harold, Mary Queen of Scots, and of course, the legendary Boudica. One of the things I love the most about the British Isles is that no matter where you are, you’re surrounded by history. People not so very different from you have walked the same routes, felt the same winds, cursed the rain, and seen the same views – minus the power pylons and wind turbines, I grant you, but fundamentally the same. Mr Connelly obviously feels the same way, and sets off initially with a page torn out of a road atlas to walk from Caistor St Edmunds to St Albans. He follows the route taken by the justifiably vengeful Boudica and her ragged army, after her flogging, and the rape of her two daughters by the Romans. Things don’t go particularly well to start with but then, through happenstance, he buys an Ordnance Survey Map and it changes everything. (I loved this part, especially where he describes realising that ‘I wasn’t just looking at a map, I was reading it’.)
From here on he is off the main roads, and travelling deep through the heart of the English countryside. I have to say he does go on a bit sometimes about the weather – this is the British Isles after all – but he entertains constantly with wry humour, delivers some not generally known titbits of historical data in an easily digestible manner, and introduces us to some fascinating characters, both historical and present day. I loved that he shares my delight in prodigious Viking names, and knows of Ivar the Boneless, a notorious Viking with a fascinating name, (being floppy for some reason, he was carried around on his shield but remained ferocious), mentioning him in the chapter/walk of Olaf the Dwarf, the hitherto unknown randy little King of Man who founded the castle at Castletown. Mary Queen of Scots in particular becomes very real in his chapter on her ‘escape’ to captivity in England. We meet an almost six feet tall, auburn, football and fun loving beauty in Mr Connelly’s narrative, who held the best parties Edinburgh had ever seen, but just kept on making bad choices especially in terms of husbands. King Harold is a hero. So is Owain Glyndhur. Then we meet Bonnie Prince Charlie in drag escaping the clutches of the duke of Cumberland in the Western Isles. It’s riveting.
He concludes by following the path of the Doolough Famine Walk in County Mayo, Ireland. This is the most unsettling chapter, and prompted me into some further research of my own. It’s alarming to remember that the potato famine, which emptied Ireland of around a quarter of it’s population through starvation or emigration, is recent history, very recent given the scope of this book. The Nazi’s happened only about seventy years later. It is not unreasonable to suggest that English policies in Ireland, especially during the famine, were comparable. Mr Connelly notes a fact that I too found confirmed and stunning – throughout the famine, Ireland remained a net exporter of food.
On a practical note, one of the nicest things about Mr Connelly’s prose is that you can put it down after a chapter, and pick it up again whenever. I didn’t, but then again I was snowed in while reading it in a comfortable warm armchair. I thoroughly enjoyed his tales, became inspired to do more walking myself, learnt some stuff I never learnt in History at school, and was reminded of how brilliant it is to casually drive along a road that was once a causeway walked by King Alfred. I’m lucky, I lived overseas long enough to in some ways only now truly appreciate these gilded isles, and this book only enhanced that feeling. A big thumbs up.
As always, if you would like to add this book to your shelf, please get in touch and I’ll pop it in the post for you!