Book Review: The Marches, by Rory Stewart
I'd seen one half of a pair of TV programmes by Stewart on the consequences of Hadrian's Wall for Britain, but missed the other programme. Nonetheless it piqued my interest and I went looking for more, discovering this book as "forthcoming" on Amazon. After something of a hiatus, it was published last year and I enthusiastically bought a copy in the final work book sale of the year.
The thesis presented on TV was that Hadrian's Wall imposed an artificial boundary across a culture that existed broadly from the Humber to the Forth, and laid the foundations for England and Scotland that we know today (though - for the benefit of any southern readers - the present border does not align with Hadrian's Wall). The book combines this idea - which Stewart attributes to his father - with Stewart's walks around the region, first with his father following the course of Hadrian's Wall, then later from Stewart's house near Penrith (for which he is the MP), meandering across the north Lakes, the borders, and up to his father's house near Crieff in Perthshire.
Much of the book forms a reminiscence of Brian Stewart, who does come across as an interesting character. His recorded thoughts, clearly from another, colonial, age, and frequently politically incorrect, are intertwined with Rory's own reminiscences of experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the question of the Middle Land, though, little hard evidence is to be found: in fact Rory Stewart discovers that a history of different land management and policy over the past few hundred years present a clear division between England and Scotland, and the psychogeography too, though unconfrontational, draws a clear line. Nonetheless, fragments of history are presented to give some idea of the transitions over time, from before the Romans, through the Northumbrian "Golden Age" of Bede (in which the region was a European centre of scholarship) and the ancient kingdom of Cymru (Cumbria), then Vikings, Normans and Border Reivers (essentially state-sponsored terrorism on both sides), before a quick settling down following the Union of Crowns. The final part of the book deals movingly with the last weeks and days leading to Brian Stewart's death, but it does not disturb the balance of the book, which is already tinged with romantic melancholy.