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Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  186 ratings  ·  48 reviews
A journey along one of Britain's oldest roads, from Dover to Anglesey, in search of the hidden history that makes us who we are today.
Long ago a path was created by the passage of feet tramping through endless forests. Gradually that path became a track, and the track became a road. It connected the White Cliffs of Dover to the Druid groves of the Welsh island of Anglesey,
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published July 13th 2017 by W&N
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3.97  · 
Rating details
 ·  186 ratings  ·  48 reviews

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Jun 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: vine
In this book, author John Higgs embarks on a journey down Watling Street – a route older than recorded history - which takes him from Dover to North Wales. This book begins on the day of the referendum and Brexit inhabits the pages, with musings on national identity and nationalism pervading much of the text. This is a mix of history, culture and politics as well as being a travel book, which examines the way history intrudes upon the present. So, although much of Watling Street may be an ancien ...more
If you're British, you'll be well acquainted with the type of tv programme that follows a 'celebrity' on a journey. Whether it be Julia Bradbury or Tony Robinson or Alex Polizzi, they all follow a fairly similar model. Along the way, the presenters meet up with various locals with a story to tell or an activity that requires the presenter's amused participation. These characters may be totally unrepresentative of the local environment and may add nothing to the story of the journey. They are the ...more
Sep 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Ostensibly the story of the Roman/pre-Roman road from Dover to Anglesey, which the author travels and which, coincidentally, mirrors his own story: born near Rugby, close by the road and brought up in north Wales in similar proximity to it. But it is much, much more. I learnt so much from this treasure chest of knowledge which thrills and stimulates the old grey matter. Inspirational writing which finds the pulse and mystical heart of England/Wales past, present and possible future.

It isn't perf
May 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Having loved 'The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds' and 'Stranger than we can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century' I was keen to read more writing by John Higgs (aka J.M.R. Higgs). This sense of anticipation was further heightened when I had the good fortune to listen to him (alongside Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair) at an event themed around this new book 'Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past'.

Brexit looms large over 'Watling Stre
Oct 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
It is easy to be complacent about the amount of history we have on this little island of ours. The layers are draped over our landscapes and towns and if you know where to look, the past is startlingly visible. Some of our roads go back to before Roman times, and these have become historical sites in their own right. These include Ermine Street and Icknield Way, the Ridgeway and of course one of Britain's oldest roads, Watling Street. This trackway can be still travelled along in its modern inca ...more
Alex Sarll
Higgs is best known for his astounding KLF biography; its follow up, on the 20th century, was obviously hampered by having a less interesting and significant topic, but still an extremely good read. This time out he’s prodding at the fraught topic of British (or perhaps English – this will be a recurring theme) national identity in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Which he addresses by following one of our oldest roads, in a manner he compares to a surgical incision:
"The surgeon wields her sca
Rob Adey
Jul 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I guess one good thing had to come out of Brexit. I sometimes find pyschogeography a bit much, but John Higgs is a relaxed and generous guide who gives space to his interviewees and the stories he finds and unravels his thesis – that the British noosphere is rich enough and both strong and nebulous enough for all of us – lightly and elegantly.

It is the only good thing to come out of Brexit, though.
May 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
thanks to netgalley and the publishers for a free copy in return for an open and honest review.

This book takes us on a journey on the prehistoric route of Watling Street travelling from Dover to Holyhead in Wales on whats loosely the modern A2 and A5 roads but feel its more a journey of history and cultures which make a cross section of this nation through the places on this famous road from the first Briton to the spiritual home of Canterbury as it heads towards the capital city of London and t
Shirley Revill
Jun 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: owned-books
Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past
One of the best books that I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
It's one of those books that you will want to read many times and becomes a permanent feature on your book shelf.
Highly recommended. Absolutely loved this book.
Thank you Goodreads for a copy of this wonderful book.
Ophelia Sings
May 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
I've just spent a thoroughly enjoyable weekend ambling along Watling Street in the company of John Higgs, and it's a journey I can heartily recommend.

Part travelogue, part social history, Higgs views the history of the United Kingdom through the prism of one of its most well-known ancient roads. Meandering from the tip of Kent to North Wales via the nation's capital, market towns and some of England's most green and pleasant land, Watling Street has been the setting for some of history's most no
Jan 06, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction

This was a gift given on the basis that I live near Watling Street and appreciate history, and so logically might enjoy a book on the history of Watling Street. Firstly, to correct this misapprehension, the book is not really about Watling Street. Higgs is writing a book about British identity following the EU referendum result, and Watling Street is a handy metaphor for him to base his exploration on. While there is some history in the book, this is largely because history is important to Higgs
Ian Brydon
Jul 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
John Higgs has produced a marvellous book that manages simultaneously to be informative. Entertaining and thought-provoking.

The basic premise is very simple: Higgs follows the route of the old Watling Street from the Kent coast right across England and North wales to Anglesey. I have been aware of Watling Street in one form or another for most of my life. My first encounter with the name was probably around fifty years ago while I was at infants’ school. Then, Watling Street was described to me
Georgina Phillips
Feb 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: giveaways
Higgs' opening statement that he does not think anyone should be proud to be British, rather they should be delighted to be British, resonated with some of the personal anxiety I have with patriotism and national identity.

Watling Street explores the noosphere - the realm of consciousness - by looking at stories, fictional, non-fictional, and the many fuzzy in betweens along the route of this millennia old path from the south of England to the North of Wales.

This book was written at the time of B
Oct 13, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Although this book is described as a mixture of history and travelogue, it is not a coherent history and the author did not make a continuous, or even contiguous, journey along Watling Street stopping off to visit places and talk to people along the way, in the manner of Morton, Orwell or Priestley. He has visited many places along the route at various times and made some journeys along the rest and he has met some very interesting people who live on or near the road over the years, including tw ...more
Elisabeth Bibbings
Feb 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
As I live near Watling Street, and my aunt actually lives on it, (though a long way further up!) I was fascinated by the title of this book.
John Higgs takes us on a fascinating journey, never farther than five miles from this famous Roman Road. Originally, it was one of the King's Highways, where crimes committed on it were policed by the king's laws rather than local ones. This shows how important it was.
John takes us from Dover (where Watling Street actually starts), through London and out th
Jun 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Watling Street is a charming and readable history book that combines British history, popular culture, and observations on modern society, all centred around the ancient road from Dover to Anglesey. Chapters follow the road up along the A2, the A5, and the M6 toll to pinpoint specific locations and match them with historical fact and anecdote. Higgs links in his own travels on and around Watling Street, from a family trip to Bletchley Park to stories about his childhood. What results is an eclec ...more
Jo-anne Atkinson
Aug 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Watling Street is one of the four ancient roads that cross England and date back to pre-Roman times. Extending from Dover in the South-East to Anglesey in North Wales, Watling Street is a road with history at every turn and one which also provides a microcosm of life in England from the past to the present. John Higgs travels this road and visits various places of interest, telling the stories of each and how they have influenced life as we know it.

This is one of my favourite genres of book, the
Jan 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book is so hit and miss. At times it seems utterly spurious, at others it is compulsively readable, insightful and rousing. The journey's links to the areas it goes to seem utterly eclectic. Northampton, for example, is represented by Alan Moore, while Dunstable contains a strange mix of 12th century criminals, highway persons and vicious Daily Mail articles. This can be infuriating when it seems that random matter is being collated but then it can be rather excellent, as when it nails the ...more
Louise Culmer
Oct 04, 2018 rated it liked it
John Higgs traces the route of the old Roman road known as Watling Street, from.Dover to Anglesey, visiting various places along the route. There is some interesting information about the places he visits, but not ad much as I had hoped for. He tends to ramble on rather about subjects like the EU referendum result (no getting away from that anywhere) inequality, etc, rather than actually telling you much about the place he happens to be in. One of the most enjoyable bits is in the chapter about ...more
Mar 10, 2018 rated it it was ok
Our history is all around us even today. We travel down Watling street from the white cliffs of Dover to Anglesey in North Wales. Much of our British history was made on this street from the stories of the Canterbury tales. Miss Havisham's house imagined by Charles Dickens. Thomas Dun and Dunstable. British folk hero's such as Robin Hood. The wonders of Bletchley Park and it's role in society and the war. We find the centre point of Great Britain. Argue over land ownership. Discuss the beginning ...more
Julian Walker
Sep 16, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Filled with so much historical trivia, this is almost a reference work in its own right.

A supremely whimsical journey along one of Britain's most well known roads, slicing and dicing the route with observations, historical trivia and strange characters, this is a fabulous book and a great read.

A little preachy in tone at one point, this is easily overridden by the sheer entertainment of his writing and knowledge - I haven't enjoyed a travel book so much for ages.

This is how history should be tau
Catherine Boardman
Oct 10, 2017 rated it liked it
Ancient pathways fascinate me and in the UK you don't get much more ancient than Watling Street. This book followed the the route but is far from a straightforward what to see where book and more of a what to feel where guide. If you believe that history can seep into the feeling of a place then is is the book for you.

To read my full review

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of Watling Street via NetGalley
Jul 04, 2017 rated it liked it
An interesting journey along the famous Watling Street travelling from Dover to Holyhead in Wales. Part travelogue and part history this book covers many of the notable events that have taken place on this historic path in a lively and engaging manner. However ideas about brexit and national identity give this book a political leaning that may make it less relevant as time passes. Overall an interesting concept and an enjoyable read but not my usual type of book.
William Deakin
Sep 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
an eclectic but interesting tour of Britain and its culture via the device of travelling along one of its ancient highways. My only disappointment was that there was a disproportionate amount of the journey focused on the towns in the southern England part of the journey and not enough devoted to the Midlands and North Wales areas

I am still summoning up the courage to tell my boss - a native of Buckley - John's views on his birthplace!
Jun 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017
This is one of the most interesting historical Travelogues I have read in a long time. It is a very clever concoction of History and socio-political commentary cleverly bound by the proximity to the ancient thoroughfare named Watling Street.

It does not preach, but definitely makes you question your ideas on national identity, it brings history to life in stark juxtaposition with modern issues.

I enjoyed it immensely.

Recommended as a more serious addition to works by Bill Bryson
May 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Watling Street is a journey along one of the oldest roads in Britain. On the way, J.M.R. Higgs investigates Britain's past, with a number of interesting diversions and digressions. He meets an eclectic cast of characters and delves into some lesser known bits of our history, giving it a different slant to other similar travelogues. He's an engaging, witty and slightly unorthodox travelling companion and gives a refreshing viewpoint on where we might be going as a nation post-Brexit.
Jill Lamond
Jan 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was a fascinating read. John Biggs has created a rolling, discursive history-cum- meditation focussing on what it is to be British. He emphasizes how the land itself shapes us, that as we claim the land it claims us. This was such a deep read in that it made me think in a different way about lots of things but it was in no way "heavy" it was very readable with interesting anecdotes and encounters with many eccentrics.
Aug 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: netgalley
Watling Street takes the reader on an interesting historical journey along the famous Watling Street from the white cliffs of Dover to Holyhead, Wales. The book covers many notable events along the route in an entertaining manner. It is not my normal choice of light reading but nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed it.

My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing a digital review copy.
Jan 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed the history parts, but the author bangs on about Brexit too much and too often. I was more interested in the parts about indigenous Britons and how patron saints were chosen, and some of the cities mentioned eg St Albans. I listened to the audiobook (narrated by the author) and it was engaging and held my attention through most parts.
Michael Macdonald
Dec 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating travel writing

Part travel journal, part rumination of the magical eccentricity of England, this is a challenging exploration of our complex national character and sense of place. Questioning debates mixed with whimsy, this is part of the search for a national identify we all feel comfortable with.
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“word noosphere, which refers to the world of human thought. It is the end product of a hierarchy of earthly spheres. At the bottom of these is the geosphere, the physical inanimate world of rock, ocean and mineral. From the geosphere arises the biosphere, the world of all living things. The biosphere moves and evolves faster than the geosphere, and can also change it. The noosphere, in turn, arises from the biosphere. This sphere is the realm of thought, and contains all our myth, history, science, law, religion and culture. It is more fluid and changeable than the biosphere, and it can also affect it. For example, men and women in the UK are on average 4.3 inches taller than they were a hundred years ago, due to changes in our understanding of health and nutrition. This understanding resides in the noosphere, so the noosphere in this example has physically altered the biosphere.” 1 likes
“We are seeking a better sense of national identity. Not one that is imposed on us by the state, monarchy or military, but one which bubbles naturally out of the land - an identity that is welcoming, not insular; magical rather than boorish; creative rather than triumphant. It is out there, waiting for us, and if we head out of the front door and follow that road, we will find it. It is an identity fit for those who would live nowhere else in the world, but who wince at jingoism and flag-waving. It should not make anyone proud to be British; it should make them delighted to be British.” 0 likes
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