Dear fellow travellers
It was way back in 1879 that a witness, testifying before a Select Committee of the House of Commons in London, declared "Geography is ruinous in its effects on the lower classes. Reading, writing and arithmetic are comparatively safe, but geography invariably leads to revolution."
Geographers, too often mocked by those who do not understand their craft for their supposed encyclopaedic preoccupation with capes and bays, happen to combine a number of rare skills: an appreciation of how landscapes evolve through time, an acute sense of place and an understanding of how the world around us can be explained only by reference to a nexus of both physical and human factors.
If there is one discipline which has informed our writing in hidden europe more than any other, it is most surely geography. And travelling through England this past week, we have been struck by how geographical insight is still important. Neither history nor geology alone can unravel the English landscape. We made a journey that took us from the Thames to the Avon through deepest Wessex, visiting Salisbury, Shaftesbury, Glastonbury, Wells and Clifton along the way.
Modern highways in Wessex defy geomorphology, slicing through the landscape like a knife through soft butter. But we took instead to byways that contour chalk escarpments and meander like winterbournes through soft vales. This is England at its most self-confident. Thatched cottages, the postman on his bicycle, village pubs and the insignia of First World War regiments carved out on the chalk hillsides.
We marvelled at Shaftesbury's steep streets and Mendip's fierce gorges. We saw cathedrals aplenty, slender spires in Salisbury and squat towers in Wells. We savoured Georgian terraces in Clifton and saw Somerset villages without a vestige of life, hollow shells of communities where high housing costs have driven out the young. And we witnessed England's two great modern follies, a nation doubly addicted to the motor car and to shopping. The heart of too many communities has been ripped out, and one-time marketplaces have markets no more. The local butcher gone, the baker soon to follow. Soon only the estate agent will remain, tempting and tormenting those who think they understand the property market.
Out on the edge of town a slow procession of cars fills the ring road, water meadows have given way to concrete, and folk cast in vain for comfort as they pile high their shopping trolleys in vast sheds.
In the Levellers and the Diggers, England had earlier generations of rural rebels. The ideas of seventeenth-century social and agrarian reformers have never quite lost their meaning. But it will take more than a handful of socially committed geographers to spark a revolution in modern England. No longer does geography invariably lead to revolution. And more's the pity!
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe)