Extract | The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places

Neil Oliver explains how the story of Britain's past can show us how to navigate an uncertain present

The Story of the British Isles Neil Oliver

The stories and places relevant to telling the story of these British Isles are like stars in the night sky, too numerous to count. At first sight their volume is overwhelming. But if you have someone to point out the patterns - the constellations, planets and galaxies, then the mass of it begins to make sense.

I have seen a great deal of the British Isles. I have circumnavigated the archipelago several times. The coast is like the hem of a garment - fixing the whole against unravelling - but I have explored the interior as well. I have viewed these islands on foot, from microlights, helicopters, stunt planes, vintage aircraft, trains and automobiles, and from every kind of seagoing craft a person might imagine, from kayaks to warships. I have looked out from the summits of lofty peaks, the tops of lighthouses, through castle battlements, from church roofs and city tower blocks. I have even been under the sea in scuba gear and on board a nuclear submarine. Now and again I have considered the possibility that I have seen more of these islands, in a shorter time, than anyone else.

Why do we remember the places we remember? The particular places in the landscape that we commit to collective memory - that we write about and photograph and thereby make monuments of - are the skeleton's bones poking through skin. We, the people, are the flesh - thin, fragile and soon to decay. The skeleton lasts longer, perhaps for ever. We are continually drawn, in wonder, fascination, fear, sadness, joy, to where the white of bone has been revealed by great and terrible moments. The attention paid to certain places and times - and, where appropriate, to unforgettable human characters who helped make those places and events significant - is part of how we seek to remember who we think we are as a people and as a nation.

After all my travelling around the islands, some sites and stories have stayed with me. I have also made destinations of a handful of objects - artefacts, even the written word - since these too are worthy of a visit, time spent. The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places is a personal sketch rather than a full-blown painting. I have chosen what I consider to be the most characteristic features of the face I have grown to know and love. What they have to say seems to me fundamental to an understanding of the long, slow shaping of the British Isles we live in today. In this present climate of public fear, disagreement and uncertainty about the future, I think it is time to look again at the past, the story of this place from its earliest times.

The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places

These islands have a story to tell, as long as it is grand

Everyone who settles here is changed by the place. Even those all-conquering Romans found it necessary to adapt, to alter their ways, in order to thrive. The kind of Roman culture that evolved here - known as Romano-British - was unlike any they practised anywhere else in the known world. They learned to behave differently here. They became - or allowed themselves to become, British Romans.

In the shadow of the legions, Christian wanderers made a home. Their faith would survive its darkest hour here in the farthest west, maintaining a toehold. Then Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Norman French - the list of invaders goes on and on. Pilgrims came seeking saints - Wystan at Repton, Thomas at Canterbury. Others bent the knee before King Arthur and his Guinevere at Glastonbury, where the Holy Grail was buried and a thorn tree flowered in midwinter.

Inhabitants of any and every other country might claim that their homeland is special and unique, but there has always been something remarkable about these islands. This place grew in time to change the whole world. Laws and a system of governance were established. Later the kingdoms were united and then parliaments. There was enlightenment. Our Industrial Revolution empowered the building of the greatest empire the world has yet seen. The language that evolved here - English - is the language of the world.

People have always come here, coveted life here, and likely always will. Most recently the newcomers have arrived in hope of the freedom made sacred by our democracy, the protection promised and enshrined by our laws. Our light attracts as strongly as ever, perhaps more strongly.

What now for us, the people who call these islands home? It seems to me that for a long time we have been preoccupied with our rights, with what we believe we are entitled to do and to have - even living as we do in a society that grants us so many freedoms and privileges while keeping us safe and secure for a lifetime. I have been around a bit and know that most of the world is not like this, not even close.

This way we live here, have lived, is not in the natural order of things. Natural is a damned mess. Instead of focusing so much on what more we would like, we should humbly be looking at what we have and trying to repay some fraction of the debt we owe for all that we have been gifted by the past. Rather than demanding someone or something else to make our lives easier still, we would do better each to shoulder some responsibility for the well-being of this astonishing place in which we live. It starts with having a look around - a proper look. It might even begin with picking some litter off a beach or tending a garden.

These islands have a story to tell, a story as long as it is grand. It is woven right through the fabric of the place and might yet reveal to us all we need to know about how we got here, why things are the way they are. It is important to get out there, see each place in turn, or even just some of them, and pay attention to the wonder of it all. We are the youngest children of this place. It is time for us to grow up and show that we appreciate and deserve our inheritance, and that we know we are a lucky, blessed people.

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