Learning British history is as simple as a walk in the park – or anywhere else you may happen to stretch your legs. Next week, for example, I shall be hiking in the Lake District National Park and, while admiring the picture-postcard landscape, will remind myself (and my hapless companion) that most of it is not quite as nature intended, having been modified by mankind’s economic activities. The flanks of the hills that once were clothed in trees are naked now, cleared and stripped of new growth by the sheep that are the mainstay of farming in the area. Moreover, I learned from a local barmaid (in the days before they all came from the EU) that the common place-name ending “thwaite” is Old Norse for “clearing in the woods”: deforestation has been going on for a long time. It is pointless, however, to bemoan the fact that the hills are treeless – sheep farming will persist for as long as it is economically viable. It would be more useful to recognise such phenomena as the imprints of history on our countryside.
But in our built landscapes it is, perhaps, easier to decode the stories of history. Stroll through enough suburbs and, if you are interested, you will begin to identify when they were built, which will soon prompt the questions ‘why?’ and ‘how?’. Make your way through the crowds on the High Street, where familiar liveries and logos compete to draw your attention and distract you from looking up at the architecture, and pause instead to ponder why the street layout is the way it is. The most obvious markers, however, are the monuments and statues peppered around public spaces. They may be so familiar that we become blasé and disinclined to stop and read their inscriptions, nevertheless their presence, in itself, is as much a part of our identity as the houses in which we live. The recent call for the removal of Lord Nelson’s statue from Trafalgar Square is, therefore, alarming, though it does raise the question whether we think consciously about our history or clothe ourselves in it uncritically. Nelson was a significant national figure and, like most of his contemporaries, did not embrace the moral or ethical standards that are widespread today. But rather than remove him from his column and thereby erode public awareness of our history, we would do better to place a statue of Napoleon facing him to more completely illustrate the story of Trafalgar.
Away from the grandeur of Central London, along the north bank of the Thames Estuary, I was walking with friends who pointed out the features of its layered history that make up in interest what the area lacks in visual appeal. There are ancient and barely visible remains, like the row of wooden stumps that was a medieval jetty. There is the star-shaped stone fort at Tilbury, lovingly preserved by English Heritage. (It is currently closed while being used as a set for Mike Leigh’s film of the Peterloo Massacre, a crucial event in the fight for universal suffrage, yet not well known – outside of Manchester, that is). There is industrial archaeology-in-the-making just nearby, where a redundant power station awaits its uncertain fate. As the land gets lower, we walk past a jetty where earth spoil from excavations in and around London is deposited to create arable fields which, one day in the future, passers-by will assume were always there.
We end up at East Tilbury, a small town that once was home to the headquarters of the worldwide Bata shoe-making empire. The elegant, grade II listed factories are now empty but intact and, at their entrance, stands a bronze statue of Thomas Bata himself. He once made a fortune from supplying boots for Mussolini’s army, but one hopes that the remote location will protect his effigy from a call for its removal on that account.