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Friday, January 30, 2015

I Saw Two Englands - thoughts

And so I have finished HV Morton's "I Saw Two Englands".

The book was written as two journeys the first in May 1939 when Morton thought war with Germany was inevitable and the second in October 1939 when war had been declared.

The first part (2/3 of the total) is a typical Morton travellogue he gets in his car and goes to see places that interests him. The earlier In Search of England saw him leave London for Hampshire and this drip sees him start in Kent and Sussex.

For the visitor of Heritage sites (like me!) it is interesting to see the growth of the Hertiage industry. By 1939 the National Tust gets a mention and he starts at Westerham visiting the relatively small Quebec House which was once the home of General Wolfe (he who led the attack on Quebec and drove the French out of Canada). Of course what is striking is that Westerham is today more famous for another National Trust property Chartwell the home of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill (arguably Britain's finest Prime Minister I'd suggest both Pitts are candidates). In 1939 Morton just comments that Mr Churchill's home Chartwell was at Westherham - in May 39 Churchill's was a voice in the wildnerness and I guess if WWII hadn't happened he'd have remained a footnote in history.

Morton visits some of the great show houses of Kent - Chavening (then a private house and now the residence of the Foreign Secretary it wasn't offically open to the publicin 1939 and it isn't now), Penshurt, Leeds Castle and Knole (now in the hands of the National Trust but in '39 a private house). There were no team room and visitors centre, often you knocked on the door on the appointed day and were shown around by a housekeeper.

He also visited Ightham Mote another trust property which in those days was still privately owned and was open on Fridays for visitors. He was told "you can't be in Kent and fail to see Ightam Mote. If you don't see it, you'll always regret it!". It is 76 years later a lovely sight when you first see it.

This idyllic journey is occasionally interupted by a reference to carrying a gas mask.

He comments on Maidstone "It is not a pleasant town to enter, because of every kind of wheeled vehicles contends for mastery in its streets". I wonder what he would make of it today?

Curiously when  he leaves Kent (after visiting that most wonderful of buildings Canterbury Cathederal) and enteres Sussex he seems to concentrate more on the towns, churches and small museums. He visits the lovely village of Alfriston and waxes lyrical over its church and doesn't mention the clergy house right next door. Most odd.

In his visit to Battle Abbey he bemoans the lack of information. I think he would enjoy the English Heritage interpretation.

He visits Chichester (which he seems to like) and then moves North to Oxford and Blenheim.

His second visit has a different tone. His journey in October 1939 was more prosribed and he is visiting sites that require official permission to visit. The BBC had moved out of London to "Hush Hush House".

His trip is about visiting army/airforce training  sites. a prison camp (some Germans were captured in Oct 1939!), armament factories, fisherman.

I'm not entirely convinced his heart was in it. It feels more like a journalist at work. That doesn't make it less interesting just a different tone.

Definitely a book worth seeking out.

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