I first wrote this article for Time Out magazine. Since our first son was one at the time, it’s older than I thought!
‘It’s perfect, isn’t it?’ My gesture took in not one but two castles, three lighthouses and a beach, broad and empty as the moon.
‘If perfection includes sand blasting and freezing water,’ said my wife.
And there you have it in a nutshell. The Northumberland coast produces extreme reactions. People either think it the most wonderful place they’ve ever seen, and make annual visits as faithfully as the pilgrims to Holy Island, or they get on a plane to a country where toes dipped in the sea don’t turn blue, and wind defences are not a prerequisite for a day at the beach.
England is tame. It’s been shorn of mystery, its wildness cut away as mercilessly as Aslan’s mane. But there are places where something wild and mysterious lingers on, and some of these places lie hidden in plain sight, side by side with all the excesses of modern-day England. Of these, none is stranger, nor juxtaposed more jarringly with its surroundings, than Alderley Edge in Cheshire.
What is Alderley Edge? In the blunt fashion of so many English place names, the answer is given in the asking. It’s a sandstone ridge, an edge that, depending on how you look at it, is the last ripple of the Pennines before it sinks into the Cheshire Plain or the first step upward from the flat lands. As such, it is border country, and this quality of strangeness is still palpable today. It was this strangeness that made the Edge the ideal setting for Alan Garner’s classic children’s books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. 2010 is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Weirdstone, and the book has remained in print throughout.
To get an idea of the geography of the area there is no better vantage point than Beeston Castle (Tarporley, Cheshire, CW6 9TX; 01829 260464; www.english-heritage.org.uk; £5.30 adults, £4.50 concessions, £2.70 children), which is about 25 miles south west of Alderley Edge. The ruins of the medieval castle stand atop and around a great rock crag jutting some 500 feet out of the plain – it may be the best view for the shortest climb in the country! To the west are the Welsh hills, south lies The Wrekin and east is Alderley Edge, marked out by the unmistakeable circle of Jodrell Bank just in the foreground, with the Pennines lying beyond (the visibility of the dish does rather depend on where it is pointing though). But what the view also shows is that this is a settled land, one deeply embedded in history and legend. And it is this that makes the British Isles so much more evocative than their size or comparatively gentle landscape would suggest.
Mountain, sea, forest, desert. Each has its devotees, people who repair to them again and again, forsaking all other temptations. For some it’s the wish to test themselves, for others it’s exploration and the lure of the unknown over the brow of the next hill. For some it’s strictly business, whereas for others it is simple pleasure. For me, it’s mountain, hill and moor, for you – given that you’re reading The Great Outdoors – it’s likely the same. But why should this be the case? Why is that these places call us – for it is a call and, notoriously and tragically, a siren call for some.
Anyone who has knocked around with climbers for a while will have a similar story. This is mine. I met Yossi at university and he took me climbing a few times. But what for me was a passing interest became for him the key question of his life. So when he survived a 3,000 metre fall off Mont Blanc he had to decide what was more important – climbing or the journalistic career he had set out upon. The mountains won. Yossi gave up his job, moved to South America and became a mountain guide in the Andes, only to perish a few years later in a stupid little avalanche. His climbing partner on Mont Blanc predeceased him. In Mike’s case, an overhanging cornice broke off, fell and snapped his neck. Neither man made it to thirty.
Thank you for letting me see “Far Trader.” I’m sorry it didn’t strike me as quite right for our present needs.
I rather like your style of writing and suggest that you try us again.
(It may be just as well this was rejected. Just after I sent the story off, my wife pointed out to me that a slight change in emphasis when reading the title would transform it into Fart Raider. Not quite the effect I was looking for!)
The Dark Ages were dark not for reason of savagery (although they were), or for ignorance (there were remarkable instances of learning amid the fighting), but for obscurity: after the legions’ withdrawal in AD 410, history… stops. For a century or so there is virtually nothing. The fifth century – the time of warfare between Britons, Angles and Saxons, the time of Arthur (if he existed) – is almost blank. The sixth and, more, the seventh centuries emerge a little into the light, with most of the illumination coming from Bede’s extraordinary – truly extraordinary in the context – Ecclesiastical History of the English People. And that very history might have permanently brought English history back from the silence of archaeology, for the Christian Church required men and women who could read and write to carry out its services, if not for the irruption of another group of raiders and invaders, very like the Angles and the Saxons: the Vikings.
The fact that history does not go completely silent again is due in no small part to the works contained in this crucial book: the biography of Alfred the Great, by Asser, and extracts from some of the works the king himself commissioned and, in some cases, translated. For Alfred, almost uniquely among war chiefs, saw fighting as the lesser part of the task of kingship. What he set his mind and his kingdom to was nothing less than cultural renewal, a re-establishment of the learning that had swiftly become the hallmark of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, only to decline to almost nothing before the ferocity of the Viking attack. This wonderful edition contains Asser’s contemporary biography of Alfred (the only such document we have from the period), and extremely valuable, and thorough, editorial notes on every text from noted scholars Michel Lapidge and Simon Keynes; the notes on the provenance and work that went into each text by generations of scholars are particularly valuable. An indispensable book for anyone interested in the Anglo-Saxon period.
On the never rains but it pours principle, to add to the contracts for the next two volumes of The Northumbrian Thrones, signed yesterday, I’ve also just put my signature to a contract with Amberley Publishing to write a biography of Alfred the Great! This is particularly exciting because I’ll be writing the book with Dr Katie Tucker, the osteoarchaeologist at the centre of the research efforts to locate and identify Alfred’s remains, as shown in the recent BBC2 programme, The Search for Alfred the Great (it’s no longer on iPlayer, but a search on YouTube might just find the whole programme).
I’m delighted to say that I’ve signed contracts with Lion Fiction for the next two volumes in The Northumbrian Thrones saga, the stories of kings Oswald and Oswy (and yes, they were brothers and their father had a weird fixation on the letter ‘O’; he had no less than eight sons: Oswald, Oswy, Oswudu, Oslac, Oslaf and Offa, topped and tailed with the eldest, Eanfrith, and the youngest, Æbba). Oswald: Return of the King (and this is not just a shameless attempt to rip off Tolkien; the Good Professor seems to have based aspects of Aragorn on Oswald) should be out early next year, and Oswy: King of Kings in 2015. Here are the first versions of their covers: tell me what you think.
I’m delighted to say that my story, ‘From Here to the Northern Line’, will appear in the Astronomical Odds anthology from Third Flatiron Publishing – and my estimable wife, Harriet Whitbread, will be recording the story so that it will be available as a podcast. Since Harriet is supremely gifted at bringing words to life, this really will be worth listening to! Here’s the cover of Astronomical Odds – the book is out on 15 March.
Here it is, the final version of the front and back cover of Edwin: High King of Britain. We had to, I think literally, stop the presses to get the quote from Publishers Weekly in there, but it was worth it.