It’s there. Under the dark water. Beneath the cold surface. A lost Mesolithic world that once connected Britain to Europe and jutted far up into the North Sea. A low-lying land of rivers and marshes and shallow hills, with a great inland lake. Doggerland, it is rather unromantically called, after the Dogger Bank, which once would have been hills but are now fishing grounds. But unlike other lost lands, it seems to have left nothing at all behind in the way of folk memories, myths or legends. There are no tales of the North Sea flood, nor of the great wave that was unleashed by the Storegga Slide, no cuneiform tablets awaiting excavation that tell a northern version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The land vanished beneath the sea and took its history with it, into the silence there. This book is the, slightly technical, account of the archaeologists who are trying to bring it back from the dark and the surprising amount of detail they can find of the geography of Doggerland. A fascinating book, but probably best suited for those with a working knowledge of archaeology.
Growing up in the 1970s, I remember well the proposed doomsday scenarios that haunted the world then. Apart from the obvious fear of all-out thermonuclear war between Nato and the Warsaw Pact, there were confident predictions of a coming ice age and even more confident predictions of world wide famine as population outstripped food supply in a doomsday Malthusian scenario. None of them happened. So I remain somewhat sceptical of confident predictions about the future, even when the prediction is for something I would hope for, as in Steve Turley’s book. The point he is making is straightforward and one that has been taken up by quite a few demographers. To put it simply, religioius couples have significantly more children than non-religious couples, and children tend to follow the religioius persuasion of their parents. So, in a truly ironic example of Darwinian selection, according to this model the religious shall inherit the earth since the irreligious aren’t sufficiently invested in the non-personal future to produce the children that will affect it. The argument is sound, and is also reflected in what appears to be a normal shelf life of an officially atheistic culture of between 70 and 100 years. But as with all such arguments, it depends on current trends continuing on into the future, and… well, events, dear boy, events. Things don’t normally turn out the way we had predicted. So while I hope that Christnedom will return, I treat these predictions as nothing more than signs to a possible future.
That a walk so near to the heart of London can summon such variety is a wonder, to be ascribed to the fight to save common land, which led to Wimbledon and Putney Commons being protected by Act of Parliament in 1871, and through the creation by Charles I of a deer park away from plague pits of 17th-century London. The walk from Wimbledon tube station up Wimbledon Hill Road to the Common takes the walker past any number of designer fashion outlets and delis, so the Common itself comes as a relief to the booted and anoraked. And what a relief. Despite the name, Wimbledon Common is more wood than heath; walking through it, trees receding into the distance, it is easy to think that you could spend a lifetime walking it and never penetrate its mystery. Maybe that is what inspired the Wombles.
Following the Capital Ring from the western side of the Common takes the walker into Richmond Park which, with its expanse of deer-grazed grasslands and flocks of ring-necked parakeets, seems almost savannah like in contrast to the deep green depths of Wimbledon.
The deer, sufficiently blasé about people to allow walkers to pass quite close to them, are magnificent, particularly in the autumn when the stags carry their full set of antlers. The last part of the walk provides great views over the Thames, a section along the Thames and even more opportunity to window shop high-end designer outlets.
Walk here: Turning right out of Wimbledon station, head up Wimbledon Hill Road and the High Street to first part of Wimbledon Common. Take one of the westerly paths through the common (wood, really) to join the Beverly Brook Walk, then head west on the Capital Ring Walk into Richmond Park. Follow the Capital Ring Walk through and out of the park and on to the Thames Path, then head downstream to Richmond for its tube station.
Let’s be honest now: this is romantic nonsense. Beautifully written and well plotted with all Daphne Du Maurier’s gifts for bringing the Cornish countryside and coasts to vivid life on the page, but the story… Beautiful, headstrong woman caught in loveless marriage with upper-class boor (a marriage entered into on a passing whim), develops major-league crush on rakish (and for almost all the book unnamed) French pirate and then, probably, elopes with him at the end. It’s the female version of James Bond – a wish-fulfilment fantasy to fill a few empty hours.
Life deals out its cards skew whiff. Some people struggle, burdened with debts personal and afflictions public. Others get given the full house. Witness: Michael Wood. Not only was he blessed with the sorts of looks that historians, historically, were denied – compare him to Eric Hobsbawn for example – but Wood was also gifted the ability to write with a clarity and enthusiasm that matched his on-screen persona. In Search of the Trojan War is a good example: a scholarly account of the archaeological history of the search for Troy good enough, in its grasp of the sources, to stand comparison with the best specialist work, but Wood also writes it in a way that makes the technicalities accessible to the layman. But then of course, good Hector, prince of Troy and all round decent bloke, also realised, as he coughed out his life’s blood on the plains of Ilium with that peacock psychopath Achilles strutting victory above him, that life doesn’t play fair. Take advanatage of that: read this book.
While it looks like a novel and reads like a novel, I can let prospective readers in on a secret: Fools and Mortals is not really a novel. It’s actually a paean, an encomium, a love lyric written by an old man who has fallen in love. Old men who fall in love are always fools, but sometimes that foolishness washes away the accreted knowledge of a lifetime to reveal a silver seam lying under all that conventional knowledge.
That is what has happened here. Bernard Cornwell, who is 75 now, ten years ago fell in love. He fell in love with the theatre, with that strange, uncertain magic that happens, sometimes, when people get up on a stage and tell a story to a group of strangers, uniting them all into a shared world. According to Cornwell’s afterword, he’s been acting with the Monomoy Theatre in Massachusetts for the last ten years and this book is the fruit of that extended love affair. While ostensibly about the travails of Richard Shakespeare, jobbing actor and younger brother of the slightly more famous William, it is really an encomium to the theatre and, in particular, to that group of actors, entrepeneurs, playwrights, theatre goers and nobility who, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries created modern theatre in London. While wrapped up in a story of theft and treachery, Fools and Mortals is really about the extraordinary set of circumstances and people that made this all possible, and it’s a celebration of a sort of miracle in plain sight: the creation of a play that works. Having a wife who works in theatre, as actress and voice teacher, I’ve got some second-hand insight into how remarkable the whole process is and how contingent. If not for a London audience large enough to support the theatre and thirsty for new plays, if not for Shakespeare, Burbage, Marlowe and Johnson and their ilk, there would not have been plays to sate that thirst, and if not for a nobility willing to sponsor and protect the theatres and theatre companies from the censors and puritans of the age, it would never have come together.
Fools and Mortals is a celebration of theatre, of this every day artistic and financial miracle, with a side order of story. The story is fun, but the play’s the thing.
South-east London is so unregarded that the tube doesn’t go there and the DLR tentatively puts a one-station extension over the river and into the area. But Woolwich Arsenal station allows the walker to connect to a series of dramatic views and unexpected finds, unparalleled elsewhere around London.
Admittedly, the initial stretch doesn’t seem that promising, but once you join the well-signed Green Chain Walk everything changes. Well, it does once you’ve done a bit more urban walking, but that takes you up on to the heights of Shooters Hill (the highest spot in south London at 433 feet/132m), with its glorious vistas of forest and city, and then the even more glorious Oxleas Wood and Meadow, saved from a road being driven through it in the 1990s by a vigorous local campaign.
From there, the Green Chain Walk is green all the way to Thamesmead, passing through the unexpected expanse of East Wickham, quiet Bostall Woods and the even more unexpected remains of medieval Lesnes Abbey, founded in 1178 by Richard de Luci in penance for his part in the murder of Thomas à Beckett.
Then it’s through Thamesmead estates enlivened by the surprising number of horses grazing the council sward and on to the Thames Path, heading west past the site of the sinking of SS Princess Alice in 1865, when the paddle steamer was struck by a collier and cut in half. Over 600 people died, drowned in water thick with the raw sewage pumped into the river just upstream. Cross over the river via the Woolwich Ferry or under it through the white-tiled Woolwich Foot Tunnel for the short walk to King George V DLR station.
Walk here: From Woolwich Arsenal DLR station take Woolwich New Road to the junction with the A205, then turn left, joining the Green Chain Walk. Continue following the Green Chain signs through to Plumstead Common, then follow the signs to Shrewsbury Park and Oxleas Wood. From Oxleas Wood, follow Green Chain signs to Bostall Woods, and then to Lesnes Abbey and finally Thamesmead Riverside. At the river, head west on the Thames Path to Woolwich, crossing the river via ferry or foot tunnel, and then follow signs to King George V DLR station.