John Julian Norwich, A History of England in 100 Places

This is another recycled post but I enjoyed the book so much I thought I’d share it!

When I got the book for my birthday I thought something like ‘hmm – wonder if I’ll actually finish that’. Then I started reading it and found it very easy to read. Norwich has a style of writing that lends itself to historical anecdotes and this book is basically a collection of well-researched connected anecdotes. The author himself is aware of the restrictions of the book; it concerns only England and many places mentioned are used as a gateway to a period of history rather than the history of a specific place. Thus, the story of Battle Abbey is the story of the Norman Conquest, the events leading up to it and most of King William’s reign – not just the story of the Battle of Hastings. However, this does mean that although Lord Norwich was restricted to 100 places, the reader actually gets an insight into many more places and much more history than the title itself suggests.

The places chosen are an eclectic mix of ‘serious scholarly stuff’ and, if you will, ‘pop history’. For example, the places chosen for Anglo-Saxon England are Sutton Hoo, Lindisfarne, St Peter-juxta-Mare in Essex and Offa’s Dyke. Sutton Hoo has been popularised in recent years thanks to the discoveries and new findings made there. Lindisfarne has always seemed to me to be a bit like the Isle of Avalon – mystical, mythical, not quite real, but I’d at least heard of it. The church of St Peter’s is, Norwich conjectures, the first one in England (ca 653) and Offa’s Dyke – well, to most people it’s probably a great walk. So we have two places that people not generally versed in historical literature might have heard of and two places which are lesser known or known for other things. Such a pattern continues until the twentieth century when the places include the Lizard Marconi Wireless Station, Coventry Cathedral, Watford Gap Motorway Services and Mendips (otherwise known as the childhood home of John Lennon if you didn’t know – I didn’t).

Two things I particularly liked about the book. I was really glad of the photos – and I think 98 of the places chosen for the book have a photo. Nevertheless, some show only a part of the building or place which is, occasionally, disappointing but it fits with the necessity of brevity displayed throughout. The other thing I found very helpful was that all the places are presented in bitesized chunks. It is as easy to dip in and out of this book as it is to read a whole period in one go. Great bedtime reading and definitely for anyone with a passing interest in British history.