THIS book has a Watling Street theme taking the reader from Dover to Llanfair P. G.; but it is not a book about the Roman road. The great landmarks along the way are merely triggers for unusual essays that often return to the mystery of where Brexit might take us.
John Higgs wrote the book only because he liked the road’s name and knew that pigeons followed it. There are seventy reflective pages before he starts out from Kent, where there is a close examination of Becket at Canterbury. Other martyrs feature at the Tyburn Tree in London. In St Albans, the author attends the Albantide pilgrimage procession and gives the case for Alban to take over from George as England’s patron saint.
From Atherstone there is a graphic account of Shrove Tuesday football in Long Street, which is a local name for Watling Street.
At Rugby near by, the claims for William Webb-Ellis’s inventing another game receive short shrift. Bosworth Field allows for a reflection on a thousand years of changing dynasties’ holding the throne.
Just as the author decides on flimsy evidence that the famous road ends in Anglesey rather than Chester, so he insists that in London the route avoided the City of London by running west along Union Street in Southwark. This allows for a remarkable exploration of Cross Bones Burial Ground and a revealing interview with poet John Constable. This is the book’s real scoop. Constable saved the burial ground where the medieval Winchester Geese, or Bankside prostitutes, were buried beyond the pale.
He claims to have met his fellow poet Chaucer one night in Borough High Street and been led to Cross Bones by “the Goose”, who dictated much of the Southwark Mysteries later staged at Southwark Cathedral. John speaks highly of the late Dean Colin Slee, who is described as “an absolute stickler” on theology.
Southwark is the place in England most associated with St George, and John Constable always joins in the St George’s Day celebrations. He tells the Alban promoter John Higgs that George’s “un-English foreignness” and patronage of so many disparate nations makes him a saint for everyone.
Leigh Hatts is a writer and online journalist.
Watling Street: Travels through Britain and its ever-present past
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10