Ancient Mercia, a kingdom lost to us over a thousand years ago, survives. As the modern east and west Midlands, historic dioceses of (Coventry &) Lichfield, Worcester and Lincoln. An ancient map of the world it is: Africa the Worcester-corner, deep, complex, red, fecund; Asia the Lincoln-corner: golden, champion, rolling, sunlit even after frost. And the Europe-corner as Lichfield, overrun by its own barbarian Danelaw, dark, sliding into its own violent disinclination. Sadly, this metaphor makes Birmingham into Jerusalem, its boulevards and shopping palaces suitably tinself-bright satanic mills; the mills themselves – of chocolate and cars – owned by Americans or closed, and shall we build?
First, today, to Asia. History has shifted Towcester’s centre several times: seen over a couple of thousand years, the jumps collapse into each other, like Chilean cities after earthquakes: here is a Roman crossroads, Fosse Way and Watling St no less; here a medieval town with big ironstone church next to a newly-landscaped motte; here the grand Easton Neston, hidden in the landscaping, its Russian owner ensuring the gas wells (or in this case fashion arcades) of Siberia are supporting the market towns of rural England. The orangey-red houses and burgage plots; the church with Saxon reused in the C12 and C12 reused in the C14 and Sponle’es cadaver white open and proud beside his aisle: see the churches blog.
Then the low, quietly cared-for valleys that run north into the limestone belt, past Northampton, Higham Ferrers; the grandeur of Earl’s Barton and Brixworth a reminder of two things: firstly, that little has happened here to disrupt the past: no big industry, no major wars; secondly that this is country that has long been rich. Two of the most ambitious Anglo-Saxon buildings in the country, within 10 miles of each other, is not an accident of preservation. Northampton, with two C12 churches of real interest, with Cambridge and Salisbury and Oxford a centre of advanced schools for clerks, only two of which would become universities. From here we move into small villages and into the stone belt, where remarkable churches are two-a-penny in a dense, forgotten champion country.
But somewhere near Kettering we join the modern hinterland of dual carriageway and retail parks, and suddenly history is a dried out husk, a profitable side line, a preserve, a native reservation. With the bleak guilt of the porn user I sheer my way north at at mph:, A14, M1, availing myself of cheap fossil energy at Tesco, cheap artificial high of Starbucks, the cheap comfort at Travelodge, up towards dark Europe, after the rain.
I never liked Nottingham. I lived there briefly in the mid-1980s, and the place in my memory is all silent redbrick terraces, failed attempts at the cosmopolian, second-rate shops and a racial atmosphere of unhappiness and uncertainty: more than a town, but not really a city; wanting to be south, yet not really north, neither divided nor integrated: Friday night outside Yates wine lodge the worst of both. As city, so county: here is where my medieval world divided north from south – at the Trent; where the frontline of the Civil War etched its earthworks across a county, dividing villagers from each other; where in one Miner’s Strike after another the Notts coalworkers had been the Class Traitors.
Well, it’s changed, or perhaps I wasn’t looking. There is no doubting it now, this place has cityness in spades. Students, shops, show-off architecture, density. And now the it split personality that is this county’s theme seems a strength as well as a weakness. It’s there, after all, in the backstory: two towns, the Anglo-Saxon and the French, facing each other off across the sandstone ridge; the market growing up between them; the old town, with its grand-as-grand Perp town church, a C15 rematch of C14 Gloucester, becoming the bijou Georgian focus, the castle fading in significance, the market within it the resulting new centre – and immediately to the east, hemmed in by late-enclosed fields, industry (lace) bringing with it a dense medieval cliff-world of C19 warehouses. All this and a pockholed real cliff, too. Nottingham has its own architects, making commercial palaces in special Waterhouse-collides-with-Wollaton local variety; yet somehow here, in the pride of the Boots building, the finally-a-city statement of the domed city hall with its Milanese galleria behind, a certain wannabe insecurity fuelds, justifies, explains. It has its own geology, too: the local sandstone, which becomes a beach if you want to carve it; the unexpected discovery that is Leicestershire Red Granite, along the older setts; the smoked-out scarlet face of older redder sandstones.
The split’s not gone. 60s-carved concrete cliffs around the bluff; the passive-aggressive modern way with planning, smearing love over the past one second (Lace Market); leaving it to die the next (large number of local authority-owned buildings at risk); commissioning buildings of jaw-dropping quality one minute (Nottingham Contemporary); blithely ignoring the past the next (Market Square). Anywhere with trams swishing their Viennese way across the Midlands is surely trying too hard. But somehow now the splitness is a virtue: I like this place.
In St Peter’s, a two-minute cross-section of the modern town: young Pole with a face of perfect alabaster, praying earnest and unmoving; local Rasta with an easy smile, confused as to who’s moved his bike; rotund, scruffy local, with a something’s-wrong-with-me shuffle, approaches then sheers away, muttering something about how I always like to show people the painting.
Out again, and east and south, and this borderland of Notts/Derbs/Staff is deepest dark Euro-Mercia, a place where sods overturn glittering warhoards, old buildings are black with history, sudden unexpected estates of industry consume ancient farms. Penda stalks, sword in hand, along the wide, black basin of the Trent; water slices sharp as Danelaw overwinters across the frost-sharpened claws of gypsum, alabaster trapping history everywhere in its soapy-amber clamp, or squeezing from High Peak meltwaters the peaty notes of Burton beer. In the forest, the Horn Dance goes. Traffic pulls outunnerved; black country, spaghetti junction, curry house. Complex, small scale, yet rounded when one expects flat, rising to choppy plains, sinking to flood-washed vales. Somehow everywhere and nowhere, utterly itself and completely overlookable. Somewhere to the north, the Peak whispers it: the North is coming. And here, on a battered sandstone rise hard by the Trent, Repton.
My God, what a place. The school was an Augustinan priory; the earthworks of the Danes are still traceable; the church is arge and likeable, but while I knew about the cypt, no one told me about the chancel above it, Saxon too… or that the crypt is arguably the most complex architectural testament left of pre-Conquest England. Many places bigger, of course; and Deerhurst and Brixworth were both, clearly, serious buildings; while Escomb and Bradford are even more complete. This is tiny compared even to them. But where it trumps everything is in complexity and sophistication; in the forest of bulbous columns wrapped around with Rome-apeing spirals, in the fancy pilasters, nerve-tingling passages and foot-shined floor. You should have told me it would be like this, he said, sniffing back tears. More on the churches blog.
Then up and out, and back to the real England, Breedon another distant siren of the blood and elegance of the Iron Age/C8/C13/C20, the M42 its diesel and tarmac answer; glimpses of real places tumble away in the hurtle of my metal box, the roadworks, signposts and service stations stretching south. Away from the lost, horrible, compelling kingdoms of Watling and Trent.
Mercian Africa is as great as any of the others: anywhere that can fuel the fires of Piers Plowman, A E Housman and Geoffrey Hill gets my vote. Even from the M5 the towers of Worcester and Tewkesbury tempt, while the Mountains of the Moon beckoning at Malvern and Bredon. But its all too fast again, and history cannot keep up, place is a glimpsed furore offstage. The A417 cuts through Cot’s Wold as if he were melted butter: Jurassic; my chalkland home traceable on the horizon, a distant eloquent sentence punctuated with barrow-topped clumps; somewhere in the clay vale Mercia becomes Wessex, and I know I’m nearly home.