Extracts

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 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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