Britain Archive

‘The Fens’ on Radio 4

The Fens, a new portrait of the marshy, low-lying landscape of eastern England by the archaeologist Francis Pryor (Head of Zeus, £9.99), is to be Book of the Week on Radio 4, starting next Monday morning. The BBC site had few details when I checked, but the publisher’s blurb says: 

Inland from the Wash, on England’s eastern cost, crisscrossed by substantial rivers and punctuated by soaring church spires, are the low-lying, marshy and mysterious Fens. Formed by marine and freshwater flooding, and historically wealthy owing to the fertility of their soils, the Fens of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire are one of the most distinctive, neglected and extraordinary regions of England.

Francis Pryor has the most intimate of connections with this landscape. For some forty years he has dug its soils as a working archaeologist – making ground-breaking discoveries about the nature of prehistoric settlement in the area – and raising sheep in the flower-growing country between Spalding and Wisbech. In The Fens, he counterpoints the history of the Fenland landscape and its transformation – from Bronze age field systems to Iron Age hillforts; from the rise of prosperous towns such as King’s Lynn, Ely and Cambridge to the ambitious drainage projects that created the Old and New Bedford Rivers – with the story of his own discovery of it as an archaeologist.

A literary dredger on the Thames

Sam Wollaston, for The Guardian, has been delving into the history of the Thames Estuary with Caroline Crampton, whose debut The Way to the Sea is published this week by Granta:

A literary dredger, she chugs downstream slowly (but with much more elegance than the literal dredger), scooping up stories of maritime disasters, floods and cholera, slavery, prison hulks, political upheaval, the rise of the far right, sewerage. When she is not on the estuary, she is travelling by foot along the Thames Path, which we are sitting beside. She finds joy – mudlarkers and archaeologists, happy sailing trips, the vast skies and light that Turner sought to capture – as well as sorrow and mud… She twists her own story, and the stories of the other storytellers, into the tale of the river, splicing it into something not only scholarly, but purposeful and personal, too.

Judah nominated for Kapuściński Award

Ben Judah has been nominated for the 2019 Ryszard Kapuściński Award for Literary Reportage — a Polish prize named after a writer whose example, Judah has said, he has long tried to follow — for his book This Is London (published in Britain in 2016). It’s a fizzing, buzzing, choral account of the forgotten people of the capital. It reminded me of the work of Orwell and of Studs Terkel, who gathered oral history in Chicago from sharecroppers and signalmen as well as models and judges because he believed that “ordinary people have extraordinary thoughts”.

On the bill for Essex festival

Contributors to the Essex Book Festival (March 1-31) will include Damian Le Bas, author of The Stopping Places, which has been short-listed for Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year; Sara Maitland (perhaps best known for A Book of Silence), who in a session on “journeys and words” will be talking about her recent travels in the Sinai, the basis of her next book; and Xinran Xue, author of The Promise: Love and Loss in Modern China (which is reviewed this week in The Spectator by Rose George).

Gypsy Britain with Le Bas

Damian Le Bas, whose debut about Gypsy Britain, The Stopping Places (Chatto & Windus), has been short-listed for Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, will present the first episode of a new series on on BBC 4, A Very British History, at 9pm next Monday (February 11). The programme “explores how Gypsy people in the 1960s were forced to abandon their nomadic way of life for a more settled existence”.

Deserts and Dickens

William Atkins’s latest book, The Immeasurable World, is about deserts, but his first was The Moor. He’s returned to the damp for The New York Times to make a journey into the world of Great Expectations. I particularly like the way he makes Google Maps and Streetview redundant:

The Hoo Peninsula divides the estuary of the Thames from that of the smaller Medway 10 miles to the east. To get a sense of its shape, take a seat on the churchyard bench and rest your right foot on your left knee: the Thames follows the curve of your heel and sole; the Medway the bony top of your foot. Both rivers open to the North Sea beyond your toes. The marshes occupy most of the northwest of the peninsula, which is to say your heel.

On the Waveney, with Gaw and Deakin

In his debut The Pull of the River (Elliott and Thompson), which I’m just dipping into, Matt Gaw acknowledges that his own journey on Britain’s waterways was partly prompted by one made by Roger Deakin in 2005 on the River Waveney, which became an audio diary for Radio 4, Cigarette on the Waveney (Cigarette being Deakin’s canoe, which was named after one used on the canals of Belgium and northern France in 1876 by Robert Louis Stevenson and his friend Sir Walter Grindlay).
  Deakin’s programme, as Gaw points out, has recently become available again via the BBC iPlayer. And Gaw’s canoe, built by his friend and fellow traveller James? It’s called the Pipe.