A Walk Across England: Interview with Hugh Thomson

Photo of a forest in England.

Rays of sunlight pass through the trees revealing autumnal colours in Hampshire, England.


Simon Worrall

for National Geographic


British travel writer Hugh Thomson usually writes about far-off places, like Peru or Mexico.

But in his new book, he turns his attention to his own country, walking coast to coast along an ancient track. What he found surprised him.

The ancient past and the present frequently collide in your book. In one passage, you leave the town of Peterborough and stumble upon a major new Bronze Age archaeological site.

It’s a place called Flag Fen, in Norfolk. On the way I had to pass Amazon’s main distribution depot, or fulfillment center, as they call it, a term George Orwell would have loved. It’s big enough to launch a rocket from—and as representative of the early 21st century as Flag Fen is of the Bronze Age.

The dig was in this giant quarry. It looked like something out of Iraq. In deep pits at the bottom of the quarry, they’d found six Bronze Age boats, preserved by the peat—twice as many as had ever been found before. They were long and narrow, like punts, and had been deposited over a period of roughly 600 years. Many of the boats had been heavily repaired, so perhaps they’d come to the end of their usefulness. Or perhaps they’d been left as some form of offering, like the swords and jewelry thrown in the water nearby.

Flag Fen is now one of the biggest archaeological digs in northern Europe. We’re on the cusp of finding out much more about the Bronze Age.

A point you make is that the traditional idea that civilization in Britain only began with the Romans has been a distortion.

Absolutely. Because the Romans wrote it down, and no one else had before. As Churchill said when he was writing about the Second World War: History will be kind to me because I will write it. And in Caesar’s very self-serving description, it suited him to portray the Britons as savage because it emphasized his bravery in conquering them. But archaeological discoveries like Flag Fen are beginning to provide counterarguments to that.

You chose for your route the Icknield Way. What is that?

It’s a very ancient route slicing diagonally across England from Dorset in the southwest to Norfolk and the North Sea. For a lot of the way, it’s a broad track running along the hilltops, wide enough for cattle and horses, which would have been transported from a very early time. It was a trading route. Trade landed from the Mediterranean on the south coast of Britain, then came inland toward Norfolk, where a lot of other trade was coming in from northern Europe. It also happens to run through where I grew up, in the Chiltern Hills. So there was a natural impetus to take the Icknield Way.

The ancient cultures of Britain clearly fire your imagination.

When I traveled in Peru and Mexico, the pre-Columbian history is what grabbed me, so naturally traveling through England, I was drawn to the prehistory as well. I was particularly taken by the Bronze Age. It lasted for nearly 2,000 years, and during that time we were a very important nation in European terms because we produced much of the bronze. We were the bank, if you like.

How far was your journey? Did you do it all at once?

About 400 miles. In some ways it would have been good to do it all at once. But knowing myself, I would have forgotten what had happened on day one by the time I reached the other end! So I did it in stages, about 20 to 25 miles a day, depending where I was. I spent several days atStonehenge. Then there were other places where I moved rather faster, as there was less to see.

It’s not a wilderness trail like the Appalachian Trail, is it? You pass through towns and villages.

That’s right—though for southeast England, which is one of the most densely populated parts of the planet, it crosses some surprisingly empty patches, like Salisbury Plain. And as it keeps to the tops of the hills, you have to deviate quite a bit to get down to your friendly pub or village.

You’re a big fan of the traditional British pie, aren’t you?

Yes! [laughs] I love the traditional pie, accompanied by a pint. And the reason you find so many pubs along the way is because this was an old drover’s route. A lot of [the pubs] are called the Red Lion, which was the symbol of the drovers’ patron.

One of the odder bits of equipment you carry on your journeys is a clipboard. Why?

Well, I use the clipboard to write on, but it also helps a lot if you go to a monument like Stonehenge, where you’re not allowed to walk among the stones. I’ve found if you hold a clipboard ostentatiously in your hand and march forward, everyone assumes you must be a member of staff or doing something official. So no one bothers you!

Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows is a surprising leitmotif in the book. You compare yourself to Toad, and especially Mole. Are you a mole-like person?

What a great question! I think I combine elements of Mole and elements of Toad. There are parts of me that emerge blinking into the sunshine and find it rather adventurous to travel, and there are parts of me that want to be like Toad, toot-tooting down the highway in a motor car. But as I explain in the book, I had to go by foot because I had had my driving license taken away!

The author of Wind in the Willows had a more serious side too, didn’t he?

There was a tragic side, because his son killed himself while at Oxford, so there is a dark undertone to the Kenneth Grahame story. He is also obsessed by the idea of home. There’s a passage in the book, which tends to get abridged, where Ratty meets a traveling rat, who tells him all these adventures in far-flung parts. It’s a sort of extended meditation on what it is to have a home and what it is to leave it sometimes.

You also visit the house where George Orwell lived with his wife, in considerable poverty.

I didn’t realize until I did the trip that it would take me through the village of Wallingford, where Orwell and his wife, Eileen, tried to set up a village shop. It failed almost completely as a business, though Orwell says that at least he could buy his own produce at wholesale prices. The village also gave him the idea for Animal Farm. There were two farms there, one run on traditional principle, but one being run on communal principles. And the contrast between those two led to Animal Farm.

You clearly love England. But you don’t seem to like the English so much.

I both love the English and am exasperated by them, as I think people often are about their own country. We know our own faults best. But one thing I do love about the English is what I call “the boldness of the very shy.” We can spend an hour in a train carriage with one other person and never exchange a word. But if we do start talking, or are prompted by someone like me, the floodgates open, and it all gushes out! And I tried to do that a lot on my walk—chat to people and hear their stories.

You mention “the boldness of the shy” in connection with the contemporary English love of rock festivals, which you also trace back to ancient history. Can you explain that?

I think the instinct for the rock festival, the coming together, is very ancient in England. There’s a lot of evidence around Stonehenge that there were huge gatherings of people coming together to party. And we still do it with relish. Like at Glastonbury, which draws 170,000 people every year, losing themselves in a tribal mix, then going back to normal life on Monday.

Your journey ends at a spectacular monument known asSeahenge. People are more familiar with Stonehenge. What is Seahenge?

Seahenge is a very unusual monument, which was only discovered by coincidence. Someone was walking their dog on the Norfolk coast and noticed each time they passed that there was a circle of posts sticking up from the sand. The monument that was eventually uncovered was extraordinary. At the center of this circle was a giant, upturned oak tree, which had been lowered into a hole by Bronze Age man.

There’s an idea that this might have been a mortuary site, that corpses were left in the upturned tree roots so they could be picked clean by the birds. The tree has been preserved behind glass in a museum, and it still has the power to impress, like Damien Hirst’s shark in the tank. It is one of those instances of England being as strange as any ancient civilization in a distant country.

You call England “the strangest place of all.” Why?

I suppose because you expect it to be familiar. So when it does throw up some surprises, as it certainly did, that throws you even more. You are, in a sense, looking at your own country as a foreign country, and that’s an interesting perspective.

You end your journey looking out across the North Sea contemplating your next one. What have you got planned?

I’m finishing a novel about Peru, having written several nonfiction books about it. I also make documentary films, and I’m planning some films in Pakistan and India. So everywhere but England. I’m being called abroad again.

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