Books compiled from magazine or newspaper columns occasionally struggle to offer the cohesion of a coffee table book written with that end in mind, but this isn’t the case with Candida Lycett Green’s Unwrecked England.
Selected from 17 years worth of her columns from The Oldie magazine, Unwrecked England is a vast, deep pool of a book that you’ll want to dip your toes into, wade up to your waist in or dive head-long into.
Candida’s passion for England’s wild places was passed down to her by her mum Penelope and dad, St John Betjeman, and in her preface to the book she writes of happy childhood memories spent exploring the countryside. Far from being a simple travel-guide, the book is a celebration the best of England’s unspoilt areas, from entire villages to a single oak-tree, so that while her entry on Ashdown is largely factual, other pieces are a glorious mishmash of impressions supplemented with quotes from diverse sources ranging from modern-day horse traders and pub landlords to historical diarists, artists and poets.Candida paints vivid portraits with her words, not just of places but of the people who inhabit them. She brings in local mythology, architectural descriptions, and a wealth of curious observations on everything from the “bone-shakingly good” toboggan rides of Beverley, Yorkshire, to the bell-ringing mute swans of Wells, Somerset and the delicious dialect of Clun, Shropshire, where taxy-waxy, crod and kwank are all part of everyday conversations.
Candida has an eye for the intriguing details that capture the spirit of a place. While many of the place she’s picked out are well known, others are pleasant surprises to both us and Candida, as she rides on horseback down a half-hidden country lane, turns a corner and discovers Exton, “all of it built of the same honeyed stone”, North Bovey, wher “The village grows from the landscape,” or Rame in Cornwall, where she passes the village of Wiggle and a farm “where a hanging sign sticks out into the road saying ‘Rabbits, pet or plate.’”
Earlier in the volume there’s such there’s an entire entry devoted to the Bowthorpe Oak, more than 1,000 years old and with a 40-foot girth, its trunk complete with a roof and door. Storytelling is clearly in her blood as thickly as the poetic heritage that may have helped spawn descriptions such as the one on Rousham Gardens in Oxfordshire: “paths snake down the hill through haunting groves, giving sudden and unexpected views of sculptures, temples, pools and a long sinuous ribbon of water in a stone rill. The winding, alder-edged Cherwell bounds the garden, sometimes flooding the meadows beyond to form an enormous lake.”
These portraits reveal more about our countryside than any travelogues, or historic description could alone. Many seem written directly from Candida’s heart, glowing with quiet energy and emotion and revealing a passion for her subject that’s indubitably contagious.
One of the most evocative entries is Batcombe, Somerset, which begins: “Barcombe is dream England. It is a place we would be happy to reach by chance at the end of a long day’s journeying.”
Quite frankly, this entire book made me feel rather like that – as though I’ve reached a destination that may not be the one I expected, but is more than welcome all the same.