This is a wonderful book, my first edition copy of a classic book published by the Readers Digest in 1973. As a young boy I devoured this book, it is a comprehensive encyclopaedia of the fantastic. Richly illustrated throughout, it covers every aspect of Britain’s wonderful history which is steeped in folklore and mythical legends.
Every part of Britain is covered,; maps are highlighted with symbols depicting which each are known for, from witches to graves and monuments, holy places, customs and festivals, crime and punishment to fairies and fabulous beasts amongst many others. I love how each county is labelled, from The Witch Country of Cambridge, Norfolk and Suffolk to The Marcher Lands of Cumbria and The Danelaw of Lincolnshire.
The Land of Merlin could only be Cornwall; holy wells and stones abound across the county, a giant known as Bolster whose stride covered six miles from St Agnes Beacon to Carn Brea. This is a book which shows Britain at its historically quirky best, from wonderfully named wildflowers, villages, old-fashioned foods and ales, to place names and dialects, this book encapsulates all of that and more. But it isn’t a book to be scoffed at. Yes, much of it is the stuff of fancy but it’s part in British history is an important one. These myths and legends have been passed down over centuries and are woven into the fabric of British history, often relatively unnoticed but there all the same,
It is also a book of place and our connection to the land and its trees, ancient meadows, healing plants, old roads and waterways. The celebration of stone circles, giant oaks and changing seasons are entwined in these old tales. Britain is a land of ancient places of worship, castles and bloody battles fought on fields long given over to the farmer and developers. Many of these battles still live on in the old ballads, stories and ancient ruins, embellished over the centuries with heroic exploits and tragic love affairs.
And tales of love and fair maidens are many….from naked maidens sent to test a monk’s chastity to the runaway daughter of a medieval mayor of Chester to the tragic tale of Lady Edona in the 14th century and the skeleton of the bride in the attic at Marwell Hall. Jealous lovers created many a ghost in centuries past; The grief-stricken Lady Louisa Charteret is said to walk the corridors in Longleat House in Wiltshire after her lover was killed in a duel with her husband, the second Viscount of Weymouth in the 18th century. The beauty of this book is in its ability to tempt you to throw rational thinking to the wind and make you want to believe in these tales. And why not? What has today’s reality got to offer us of late?
Copies of this book are still available, it was, unsurprisingly, reprinted many times and for those of a certain vintage it is a wonderful reminder of how non-fiction books used to be. It is a book to appeal to all ages and interests. It is invaluable in reawakening a forgotten love of one’s homeland. Many are quick to demonise Britain which, whilst often with some merit does a disservice to its unique history which should be celebrated. We have lost much in that regard, we no longer celebrate the good in the way we once did and this book is a charming nudge in that direction.
Categories: The Reading Room
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