On the road

21 November 2008

Leigh Hatts enjoys an eccentric tour

McKie’s Gazetteer: A local history of Britain
David McKie

Atlantic Books £30 (978-1-84354-6542)
Church Times Bookshop £27

DAVID McKIE has written essays on 150 places he particularly likes. His choice is heavily influenced by Ian Nairn’s books, old Shell Guides, anywhere recommended by John Betjeman, and places found by accident when looking for somewhere else.

The author suggests that rather than reading the book from Aan in Aberdeenshire to Zoze Point in Cornwall, you follow the signposts at the end of each section to enjoy the locations in the order he explored them.

He often ignores the obvious in a town. At Ashford, he searches in vain for a memorial or even a street name that recalls a former resident, Alfred Austin, who became a Poet Laureate.

In London, he goes to Marylebone to seek Berlioz, and finds St Mary Magdalene’s, Munster Square.

John Wesley’s birthplace at Epworth is ignored in favour of a neighbouring trolleybus circuit with historic working vehicles from Bournemouth and Bingley. At Sidmouth there is no mention of its trams, but he gives notice that next year Fields’s department store celebrates its bicen­tenary.

At Kinlochleven, he misses Alexander Mackonochie’s mem­orial, but discovers a connection with Canon Dalton, father of the post-war Chancellor Hugh Dalton. In Boston, where the stump is lost in mist like a skyscraper, McKie is alerted to an unfinished novel based on the life of Conrad Noel.

Sometimes, a place provides an excuse for a portrait of a person rather than a place; so Bedford becomes a tribute to Ian Nairn, who grew up there. The Morwenstow entry is a fascinating profile of its famous Vicar, Robert Hawker, whose biographer, the Danish-speaking hymn-writer Sabine Baring-Gould, crops up again at Hurstpierpoint as one of Canon Nathaniel Woodard’s pioneer teachers.

Chapters vary in length from five lines to several pages; so there is no padding in this very enjoyable and eccentric book.

Leigh Hatts is editor of In SE1, a South Bank arts-listings magazine.

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