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It's A Strange Place, England

It's A Strange Place, England

Book excerpt

It's a strange place, England. It occupies much of the southern two-thirds of the island of Great Britain, with a world-class capital in London, a host of vibrant cities and a history that stretches as far back as Stonehenge and probably further. Yet people see the epitome of Englishness as a fondness for quaint little villages of thatched cottages, cricket games on the village green, tea at the Vicarage and a quiet pint of beer at the local public house. All of which is good, except that the little villages will undoubtedly have a history of smugglers or highwaymen and the pub will invariably have a ghost or two. England is like that.

England is a thrusting country that wraps itself in its past, a place where grim castles built by Norman conquerors now sit at peace in some of the loveliest countryside anywhere. It is a country where the ghosts of Empire glide across a land crossed by six-lane motorways and the maritime past is remembered in coastal towns boasting expensive housing. It is a country of constant oxymorons, a green land of industry, and a quaint land of monsters and welcoming museums where smiling curators will guide visitors through a history as savage as any in the world.

Possibly the strangest thing about England is the fact that some English people do not know its borders. There are some who confuse England with Great Britain and use the terms indiscriminately. As a major part of the political union of Great Britain, England has much to be proud of without trying to lay claim to the other British nations as well. It is also strange that some call it an island nation when England is not an island. It has land borders with Wales and Scotland. How strange is that? So for clarification: England is a country of some 55 million people and part of a political union that comprises Scotland, Wales England and Northern Ireland. These are four countries that share a queen and a parliament. This book is only about England and not the others.

There: that's that said, so it's time to get on with the writing.

The nation of England is scarcely over eleven hundred years old. Before that, it was a patchwork of little kingdoms, most of which have been blotted from memory so even academics would have trouble working out where the boundaries were. When the Romans invaded the British Isles in 43 AD, England did not exist. The English were still pagan tribesmen in far-off Germania, having not yet surged westward to invade Britain. The old British tribes had names such as Brigantes, Iceni and Cornovii (from which latter tribe we can recognise Cornwall). After the withdrawal of Rome, and the invasion of the Germanic tribes of Angles, Jutes and Saxons from continental Europe in the sixth century, individual warlords carved out small mini-kingdoms. Many of these are now counties or recognisable areas: Sussex, the land of the South Saxons, Essex, the land of the East Saxons, East Anglia where the East Angles were, Northumberland, the land north of the Humber. Others, such as Deira, Lindsey and Bernicia have faded from memory.

Mergers and conquest led to the formation of larger Angle or Saxon kingdoms, such as Wessex, home of the West Saxons, Mercia, ruled by the pagan Penda, while the indigenous British strived to hold onto their lands in the face of the merciless invaders. There was Cumbria, where the Cymric-speaking Britons lived, and Rheged around the shores of the Solway. There was also the less obvious divides, one of which was the River Parrett in Somerset. This river was the agreed boundary between the pixies and the fairies. On the west were the pixies, these red-haired, broad-faced creatures with green clothes who stole horses and enticed travellers off their paths, while to the west were the fairies, mythical creatures whom it was best to avoid. In early England, it was sometimes difficult to know where legend and myth end and where history begins.

Take King Arthur for instance. To some, he is an English folk-hero, to others the chivalric knight in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur while those historians who believe he existed – and the jury is still out on that – think he was an indigenous British warlord battling against the tide of English invasion. Even where he operated is unclear; it may have been the English West Country, middle England, North West England or out of England completely in Wales or southern Scotland. It is strange to think that historians cannot accurately place such an iconic character as King Arthur. It is also intriguing, just one mystery in a land of strangeness.

Another strange thing is the food of the nation. Continentals have scorned English food in the recent past, yet only a couple of hundred years ago each region of the country had local fare that was both unique and worth sampling. The jellied eels of Thames-side London should be well known, while Lancashire hot-pot, Cornish pasties and Yorkshire puddings are still famous. But birds were also once eaten, with woodcock, snipe, plover and great bustards on the bills-of-fare of many eighteenth and nineteenth century inns, and boars, hare and venison were fairly standard. Add little-known fish delicacies such as elvers and lampreys, pike, chub and carp, and today's menus seem dull in comparison. Even worse; Cambridge brawn, Somerset laver, Banbury cheese and Kentish huffkins are hardly known now; what delicacies have been lost in the progress of time.

These are only some aspects of a country riddled with the strange and the curious, from haunted places and traditions that go back centuries, with memories of some extraordinary people and events and with sports and games that stretch credulity. For example, there was one of the most famous mass murderers in history in Jack the Ripper, there are the world black-pudding throwing championships, and there is a screaming skull that refuses to leave its home. There was the Mad Major who rehearsed his own funeral and Springheeled Jack who bounced around the countryside terrorising people.

Despite all the strangeness, England has given some wonderful things to the world. As well as parliamentary democracy, cricket and rugby, one of the great gifts that England had bestowed on humanity is the English language. It is an international language used by businesses the world over and is capable of tremendous flexibility. From the northernmost tip of Canada to South Island New Zealand and from Shetland to the Falkland Islands, England is spoken and understood by millions. But just how English is the English language?

The base is English of course or rather Anglo-Saxon from the Germanic tribes that invaded Britain in the sixth and seventh centuries AD and made the southern and eastern part of the British Isles their own. However many of the words that are in daily use have been added through time and reveal the journey that the English people have made from Germanic invader of the Celtic lands to a permanent nation- state, trading nation, part of the United Kingdom, headquarters of Imperial Britain and then back to a portion of Britain. The language is a picture of progress that offers a fascinating insight into the history of a people.

We will look at some English words first. Take the word know for instance. Have you ever wondered why there is a silent 'k' at the beginning? That is because the original word was kenow. In the northern part of the Anglo-Saxon world the second half, the ow sound was dropped, and the word became ken while in the southern part the e was dropped and the word became know. Not many people kenow those facts.

Or how about the quaint old ye for the? From where does that come? Well – it comes from English itself. In Early Modern English, scribes frequently recorded the word the as þe with þ being a no-longer-used Old English letter called thorn, a simple single character for the 'th' sound. When people put the letters into print þ and y look very similar and were often mixed up. So that explains that.

Other so-called English words have entered the language from other languages and countries. Smashing and clan come from Gaelic either through the English colonial attempts in Ireland or the influence of Highland Scots. Other words also have Gaelic origins such as slogan, the war cry of a particular clan. Lowland Scotland also gave blackmail – which meant payment by cattle rather than by cash – and feud, a minor war between families or clans. Galore is another Gaelic word often used in English and less obviously, so is trousers, which has replaced the old- fashioned word breeches in English.

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