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The Queen’s England

28 November 2014

Philip Sidney considers an attempt to 'grasp the essence' of the counties

Sky pilot's-eye view: A Most Rare Vision: Shropshire from the air is a hardback of fine colour photos and commentary by Mark Sisson, an aerial photographer who was flown about the county by the Revd Henry Morris, a retired clergyman. Here we see the Wyre Forest enhanced by a rainbow (Merlin Unwin, £14.99 (£13.50); 978-1-906122-66-9)

Sky pilot's-eye view: A Most Rare Vision: Shropshire from the air is a hardback of fine colour photos and commentary by Mark Sisson, an aerial photo...

Engel's England: Thirty-nine counties, one capital and one man
Matthew Engel
Profile Books £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT292 )

THIS is a timely book. As the debate over Scottish independence ramifies into arguments about devolution and "English votes for English laws", Matthew Engel provides a much needed examination of what this "England" actually is.

This engaging tome - cheerfully illustrated with maps by Susannah English - takes us around the country in all its variety, from the well-dressers of northern Derbyshire to the skimpily dressed of the Chester races.

The title Engel's England - and its rather grandiose subtitle - might imply that this is a guidebook, in the manner of Pevsner (a writer of whom Engel is clearly fond). This book is not a Companion or Compendium, although it is both companionable and compendious; even the staunchest Anglophile will finish it more knowledgable about (for instance) the Chorleywood Bread Process, the Panacea Society, or Herdwick sheep. It is, instead, the record of three years' travelling through the 40 historic counties of England, attempting "to grasp the essence" of each.

For Engel, this is partly a personal journey (he attends evensong in all of the country's Anglican cathedrals, lighting a candle in each for his late son), but it is also a quest in search of local identities that are all too often in grave danger of disappearing; throughout, Tesco looms. He is rightly scathing about the short-sightedness of the 1960s and '70s, when town centres were disfigured and ancient boundaries carved up for the sake of administrative convenience.

Engel gives a fascinating and, at times, forthright account of the counties: his reactions range from delight (Worcestershire is "stunning") to modified rapture ("Leicestershire is not that unattractive") and robust dislike (neither Stoke-on-Trent nor Stonehenge comes off well).

Nevertheless, his prose is always warm and good-humoured, whether sensing the numinous at Little Gidding, sympathising with the plight of veteran Gurkhas in Aldershot, or enjoying a cup of tea and slice of cake in the Sugar Hut, Brentwood, the spiritual home of The Only Way is Essex.

Engel's England genially celebrates the best that the country has to offer, while offering a salutary warning of how much there is to lose.

Dr Philip Sidney is a research assistant at the University of Cambridge, working with Landmarks, a project that explores the ways in which landscape and language inter-animate each other.

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