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Ozymandias on the Solway: England at the edge

David Hayes
7 July 2007

7 July 2007 is a melancholy date in modern British history, the second anniversary of the London bombs which took the lives of fifty-two travellers on the city's transport network (as well as those of the four suicide-bombers responsible). For those with a sense of a longer national (and multinational) history, it also marks another event that is both significant in itself and full of contemporary political resonances: the 700th anniversary of the death in 1307 of the most powerful and ambitious of all England's kings, Edward I.

Edward I, the eldest son of Henry III, died at the age of 68 after thirty-five years on the throne. His was an epic life of administrative zeal, legislative reform and (above all) military conquest: against royal enemies and would-be usurpers, and against those in the lands of Wales and Scotland whose refusal to submit to his command also became - in the process of questioning his right to rule them - the affirmation of an alternative centre of political sovereignty.

Edward died as he lived, as a warrior - not in battle, but on the campaign trail and in sight of the Scotland he had spent the last dozen years of his life attempting to subdue. The place of death was an overnight encampment on Burgh Marsh, north of the small Cumbrian settlement of Burgh-by-Sands by the Solway Firth.

Modern official and media Britain is in love with anniversaries, especially royal ones or those to which a patina of monarchical glamour can be attached. Edward I resists the treatment. There are few signals of any commemoration of 7 July 1307. The most visible is in Burgh-by-Sands itself, where the local community has organised a week-long series of events. These include the unveiling of a statue of the king in the centre of the village to supplement the monument erected at the site of his death in 1685; a lecture by Oxford historian John Watts; the opening of affordable, energy-efficient homes for eight local families ("King Edward's Fauld") by the Duke of Kent; a pageant written and performed by local schoolchildren; concert performances in the tiny St Michael's church (where the king's body lay); and a medieval fair.

Burgh-by-Sands thus reclaims Edward 1 as its own. Modern, unofficial, local Britain does history like this with tremendous, refreshing energy. As this corner of Cumbria rises to the moment, what follows is an essay written five months after the change of government in Britain in May 1997 which reflects on the relationship between some of the themes raised by Edward's life of struggle (power, nationalism and national identity, and the future of England within a multinational state) and the region where he breathed his last. It belongs now to its own moment, further testimony to the fact that the most endlessly fascinating aspect of the past is that it is - like the ground under our feet - never still.

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David Hayes's essay "Ozymandias on the Solway" was first published in Anthony Barnett & Roger Scruton eds., Town and Country (Jonathan Cape, 1998)Ozymandias on the Solway

This too is the last of England. The Solway estuary west of Carlisle is a desolate place of salt marshes, migratory birds, industrial relics and imperial ambitions. The Roman wall reached its limit at Maia (Bowness today), part of a defensive system that stretched forty miles down the coast. African legionnaires were here a millennium before the Normans. The Brythonic (Welsh) kingdoms of Rheged and Strathclyde straddled both sides of this narrow firth. Norse settlers from Ireland and the Isle of Man spread through the region. The expansion of Northumbria led to new forms of cultural synthesis, as the Anglo-Scandinavian stone crosses at Gosforth and Dearham indicate. The Scots held sway when the Domesday Book was being compiled elsewhere, and contested the area for two centuries after the arrival of the Normans. In the 19th century, a canal and railway built by Irish labour attempted to link Carlisle with the sea. The past of this "corner of a corner of England", to adapt Hilaire Belloc, "is infinite and can never be exhausted."

It is also part of the oldest political frontier in Europe. This is the only terrain where the lines of demarcation of 2nd-century empire and medieval statehood coincide. There is much of the contingent and disjunctive in this. The northern campaigns of Agricola included a famous victory at Mons Graupius (81 CE), and Antonine's earth wall (143) sought security at the Forth-Clyde isthmus. But the Tyne-Solway line "was to prove the best location for a frontier that could be found" (Peter Salway). A shared recognition of Cumbria as part of Scotland broke down in the 12th century, amid conflicts over a much wider region. The contours of different zones of authority were not preordained, but established by power and accommodation. England was forged in history here.

The process of formation occurred over centuries among the variety of peoples who inhabited this territory, and in relation to those who would develop an alternative self-definition. It was also driven by the imperatives of war and resistance. The crucial landmarks of the first millennium - including battles from Catraeth (600) and Nechtansmere (685) to Brunanburh (937) and Carham (1018) - helped to shape collective identities as well reordering territory. The conflicts of the second millennium formed the connection between physical environment and nationhood. Borders developed not only on the land but in people's minds. The Solway (from sulwath or "muddy ford" in Norse) is now part of England's far north, remote from and unconsidered by what are significantly called its "home counties". The basic components of the landscape - water, farming plain, village settlement, the view of higher ground - are hardly unique. This is very much countryside, even if it would not normally be considered as "the" countryside.

In this, the Solway may be emblematic of those diverse components of England - some (East Anglia, the North-East, Cornwall - though in its case the designation can be disputed) quite sharply defined, others (the West Country, the North-West) perhaps less so, yet which all themselves subsume numerous odd corners seeming to escape easy categorisation. For the regional status of the Solway is ambiguous - a northern extension of the Lake District, a western promontory of the Borders, an eastern territory of the Irish Sea, yet not quite belonging to any.

This too is the work of history. Many ambitions of power lie buried here. The Roman wall has been recycled into churches and farms, the anchorage at Skinburness (from which a large English fleet sailed north in 1296) was reclaimed by the sea, the mined harbour at Port Carlisle is lonely evidence of industrial failure, the massive toxic-weapons dump at Beaufort's Dyke is a sunken monument to military vanity.

A land of solitudes

It is another monument I have come to see today, walking around the wide expanse of Moricambe Bay past the disused airfield at Anthorn, and onto the narrow firth that bridges two nations. Waders on the sandbanks are observed by a few twitchers with huge lenses propped up on their car windows. Some isolated farms, a lavishly friendly collie, a fresh wind in a grey sky. The 7th-century missionary St Cuthbert called this "a land of vast solitudes". It is indeed a bleak landscape, but on this October day not a hostile one.

The dark outline of Criffel, highest of the "Scotch mountains" of Wordsworth's 1810 tour, is just visible over to the west. The other coastline is astonishingly close, a vivid reminder of historical intimacy. An embrace of settlement, trade and plunder across these shores is the work of centuries. The vulnerability of this land is apparent in the churches at Newton Arlosh and Burgh-by-Sands, which have fortified towers with walls seven feet thick. Narrow slits, turret access, space for cattle, avoidance of wood - these are sites of last-ditch survival as much as worship.

In this, the Solway unequivocally becomes borderland. To visit Appleby, Lanercost, or Hexham (whose abbey, says a panel, was "five times sacked by the Scots, yet is still in full use for Christian worship") is to realise the relentless force of northern depredations. Many of the incursions came from waths thrown across the Solway at low tide. It is a commonplace that England's historic enemies are continental, and that the country has not been invaded since 1066. Here, the sense of the past is otherwise. In the borders, people have often had to look even further north, by necessity alert to the intentions of their neighbours. Endurance and adaptation matter here.

The raiding was never only one way, of course. The classic invasion routes to the north were along the east coast or through the Cheviots, giving access to the rich pastures of Lothian. Galloway, and the high valleys of Eskdale and Liddesdale, were always more wild and troublesome for any intruder. The northern kingdom had developed by an analogous process of conquest and coalescence among several peoples - Picts, Scots, Welsh, Angles, Norse, French. Between the 9th and the 13th centuries, a federative, conservative society acquired "regnal solidarity" across a variable terrain, containing forces able to contemplate both expansion and defence of its core territory.

Dynastic uncertainty and royal ambition turned crisis into war in the 1290s, as the subjugation of Scotland became a strategic aim for England's king. Wales had been conquered with the defeat of Llwelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282, but a prolonged conflict saw Edward 1's claims to overlordship in the north defied by William Wallace (executed in 1305) and now Bruce. The western "march" (border zone) was the king's line of approach in 1307, the ninth army sent to subdue the Scots in his last dozen years of power. Moving west from Carlisle with agonised slowness, Edward's army camped at Sandsfield where, weakened by dysentery, the 68-year-old king died on 7 July.

It is striking to see, just past Cardurnock, a tall flagpole with an English flag billowing. Waverley House's affirmation, or defiance, seems appropriate when the Dumfriesshire coast commands the horizon. But in Port Carlisle, an old cottage with pink roses around the door is named Scotia. The appropriation of an adversary's mystique to defuse its threat is an ancient reflex, yet this feels a long way from (kilted) Balmorality. The intertwinings of a borderland are often unexpected.

It is hard pounding through Glasson and Drumburgh along the line of the wall. A turn north at Burgh, along a rough track until, from a distance, the destination is in view.

A long way from Westminster

This is the loneliest monument in England. On the very edge of the marsh, in the middle of a field of cows, a sandstone pillar of thirty feet surrounded by a fence and topped with a cross. Erected in 1685, it was rebuilt in 1803 after flooding, and restored in 1876 when subterranean peat workings had caused it to list. In this mournful setting, with the carved tnbute (Edwardi primi famam optimi Angliae regis...) fading and the hills beyond still indomitable, it is impossible not to think of Ozymandias.

What DH Lawrence called "the spirit of place" is an idea both dangerous and (sometimes) irresistible. It is palpable that this is a monument to failure. The monarch who handed over the great seal of Scotland with the words "A man does good business when he rids himself of a turd" now has a memorial ringed by cowpats. It is tilting again; this is shifting ground. Iron will and sovereign power do not rest easy here.

Edward's death in the very field, quo finit marchia regni (says a contemporary account) imparts a dramatic character to this forlorn place. But if - beyond the contingencies of a particular encounter - any meaning does indeed inhere in this combination of stone, metal, sky and soggy grass, it surely can be discovered only by reclaiming the debatable lands of a multilayered history. English ground contains a myriad stories as real and arguable. Here again, the Solway is only one of many of the country's landscapes which tell of thwarted achievement, of contingency and possibility.

The king's body was carried to Burgh church, where a stained-glass window now depicts him in regal pose, the cross of St George resplendent on his cloak. He looks down today on the harvest festival fruits and flowers. The most common word in the visitors' book is "peaceful". It is a long way from Westminster Abbey.

Edward's instruction that his bones be boiled down and carried into battle until the Scots were crushed was not obeyed. The famous appellation "hammer of the Scots" was only fixed on his Westminster tomb in the Tudor era. Now, as the artefacts and enchantments of monarchy have been marketed for tourism, the first Plantagenet king is too troublesome to be incorporated in a harmonious national narrative. There are no biopics of this gargantuan figure. Perhaps it is significant that the greatest mythologist of English history, William Shakespeare, never wrote a line about him. The sceptred isle has many mansions, but the most ruthlessly ambitious of English rulers cannot be easily accommodated. The "full Heritage" treatment of his monument which Jo Darke warned "would as usual annul all romance and sense of personal discovery" must be considered improbable.

Such a treatment would in addition entail violation of world and self. A belief in the present as having somehow escaped from history animates the heritage cult and the fashionable celebration of modernity alike. It is one of the most profound illusions of a mediatised world. A true engagement with history, by contrast, seeks also to understand what is living and dead from the past in order to grasp the particularity of the present. One reward of understanding is the chance of meaningful action; one difficulty in the way is that the past is not singular - it can be burden or resource, and its meanings arc not static. The past also, it might be said, lives within history.

Thus, for example, Edward's monument was raised on land bought from the Duke of Norfolk by the Lowther family, who as earls of Lonsdale came to wield enormous power in Cumbria for generations. (A 1777 history noted the remorseless increase of the Lonsdale estates, "from age to age purchasing, and never selling again"). The understandings it could generate in the time of James II and Victoria, or during the Napoleonic wars, have their own integrity. An aura of royal or strategic failure may not be the most immediate. But a return to this refractory terrain in the late 1990s suggests a distinct freight of meaning from Edward's day. It is in the protean nature of history and of modern Britain that it is unlikely to be the only one.

The image of England

The idea of the unification of Britain under southern leadership has deep roots. The 10th-century ruler Athelstan, as did later kings of Wessex, claimed authority also over "all the nations round about". The Anglocentric vision, evolving "an ideology of uniformity, unity and conquest" in the 12th century, achieved its flowering during Edward's long reign. His vigorous centralisation, wars of conquest, and pride in the native realm over the fetish for Europe, brought this prospect closer.

The many propagandists of the era "enshrined English nationalism in a confident doctrine", writes Geoffrey Elton. "This nationalism rested on a powerful streak of chauvinism - of hatred for all foreigners who, it was repeatedly asserted, were battening on the wealth and welfare of the English."' The drive to unity foundered, however. Wales and Ireland never lost their sense of difference, while invasions of Scotland generated over time the coherence among disparate forces necessary for successful resistance. The eventual integration of the island had to be accomplished under another banner, and was provisional even then.

The imposition from the south "of an alien political authority of an interventionist and exacting sort"; a powerful leader driven "by ambition and circumstance to attempt too much in too many places", but whose ineffectual successor faced far greater humiliation; the cult of sovereignty, renascent xenophobia, an expanding state, Celtic disaffection, the "sneer of cold command" - all these figures descended from the late 13th century are deeply familiar. Their toxic efficacy in the present, however, only emphasises how problematic the political conscription of the national past has become.

"Of our conceptions of the past, we make a future", wrote Thomas Hobbes. The image of England has been often recycled to suit contemporary needs. The confident liberalism of the mid-19th century, for which the constitutional settlement of 1688 was a touchstone, gave way to the age of empire and a rediscovery of Tudor autocracy and expansion: Englishness was pushed back a century.The modern problems of state in Britain also have a national dimension, and the historical self- understanding of the English is again at issue. The multiple meanings of both past and territory remain contested on the eve of the third millennium.

An England seeking a renewed sense of itself within, or out of, a loosening Britain cannot simply disown the periods of its largest reach. But just as British history did not begin in 1707, so that of England did not end. No nation lives outside of its own (and now world) history; to engage with this history means also to situate oneself in the present. The official ideologues who seek to promote what Rudyard Kipling revealingly called a "peptonised patriotism" know this well. The intoxicating triumphalism of the 1980s right was fuelled by such a narrowly instrumentalised version of the national (English-to-British) past. A timeless greatness and exceptionalism are its potent assumptions; for it, feminism or trade unionism or republicanism (and by extension their modem proponents) can only be deviations from, not integral parts of, the "national story". Margaret Thatcher's 1982 Cheltenham speech is the fountainhead of this vision: "The lesson of the Falklands is that Britain has not changed". History is frozen in the self-image of the powerful.

The exigencies of self-understanding thrown up by political transformation are also territorial. England ends at the Solway, yet this "bow-shaped headland" (indeed the entire Borders region) has little place in the imaginative geography of the nation. The white cliffs of Dover at the opposite comer of England carry an iconographic charge - as island fortress, beacon of home, site of nostalgic longing - independent of geology and history. The core symbols of nationhood - Stonehenge, Windsor, Stratford, the Cotswolds - are not only real places but cultural artefacts, keynotes in the composition of an intellectually satisfying and lucrative narrative of national identity.

Charles Townshend remarks that the dominant view of rural England "rediscovered" in the century of industrialisation was "largely southern in its topographical connotations" - the heart of this "supercharged national identity" located by Kipling and Belloc even more precisely in Sussex. "Deep England", in Patrick Wright's pregnant phrase, is a country of the mind - evocative of the village green and thatched cottage yet not confined to any individual location - somehow more truly representative of an always-elusive essence even than (say) its fishing-towns or hill-farms, far less its urban streets. A nexus of interests, including tourism, reinforces an emotionally coherent symbolic ordering that is exclusive and ahistorical but also comes to acquire myriad powers of self-validation.

The debatable ground

This league-tabling of Englishness according to layers of authenticity draws on rich resources of historical and cultural experience, but its appearance of naturalness is the work of ideology. A particular part of the nation is first mythologised, then made to stand - repeatedly, and in a multitude of contexts and associations - for the whole. The central domestic metaphor of "home counties" and "regions" is balanced internationally by a vision of superiority, where (in Peter Taylor's words) "Upper England" transmutes into "Greater England". "Other countries have ‘homelands' or ‘fatherlands' that encompass their whole territory. For the Anglo-British ‘Home' denotes only a few counties in one corner of the country." Between these ideational pincers the richly various landscapes and histories of the actual nation are rendered invisible or passive.

The quiet integrity of Far England, where this very particular country slides away into the Tweed or the fluctuating Burgh Marsh, has been hard won. From the perspective of the Borders, the "lack of territorial emphasis in English sensibility" (John Osmond) is as significant as the reduction of its history to a few tendentious symbolic tableaux. A calm, prideful recognition of the resourcefulness of their compatriots in this austere northern landscape over many centuries, might be expected as one register of national self- awareness. It is astounding how little this note is struck. The patriotism of "Great Englishness'' sees the frontiers of its own land as if from the military jets which thunder across them: in a blur.

Yet the whole of England can be authentically "englobed" (the term is borrowed from Edwin Ardener) through this territory as much as through its routine southern typifications The lineaments of this englobing might include nuances of experience, memory and outlook unavailable elsewhere. England looks more textured from here: an area that is part of the wider borderland which encompasses its Scots neighbours, of a diffuse "north" (for there are several "norths" as indeed there are several "midlands" and "souths"), as of a broader national community. The reflex of absolute sovereignty, organicist metaphor, or sentimental rhetoric about "the countryside" (a term invented - like so much else in Britain - in the 19th century), do not flourish in this often hard and conflictual environment.

The need for a more comprehensive view of England is a matter not only of scholarly accuracy or ideological preference, but a consequence of the distinctive political moment of the late 20th century. Convulsive global changes are impacting profoundly on Britain - loss of empire, end of cold war, European integration, casino capitalism. One kind of response (devolutionist and regionalist pressures, Scottish and Welsh nationalism, environmentalism, constitutional-reform campaigns) can be understood as a search for newly effective and legitimate forms of political community which can mediate and manage these changes. Another (unionism, constitutional conservatism, Euroscepticism) responds by seeking to revivify the central institutions and ideas which have guaranteed British state power for three centuries.

The debate is inevitably concerned with the meanings of past and nation that can be an imaginative support for different political strategies. And as the challenges to the centre have gathered pace, it is understandable that the "core nation" of Britain should itself become a contested site. For in England especially, rapid social change renders problematic inherited assumptions long experienced as natural. Beyond the passions surrounding the political mobilisation of "the countryside" lie concerns (about farming, hunting, transport, rural economy) which enjoin a rethinking of the city/country divide.

The questioning of ingrained definitions may be the fruitful precondition for real intellectual and social advance. It is harder for the English to disentangle their national past from Britishness and to rework it creatively to meet present needs (as the Scots, Welsh and Irish have begun to do). A past that is so lengthy, prolific and versatile is also rich in possibility. But the temptation to reprise visions of closure - grandeur and elite reform, peaceful social integration, cosy rural harmony - is especially strong in periods of wrenching transformation. An English history that culminates (poetically) with Little Gidding or (televisually) with Dad's Army may also be a retreat into the imaginary safety of the past, rather than a living dialogue with it.

This form of thought will do well to incorporate 1997. The year of the anti-Tory landslide, of the Diana days, of the referenda in Scotland and Wales, suggests that this old country is still moulding its history through a healthy exploration of its shared and competing identities The revival of the "English question" predates these impressive events yet is given renewed focus by them. The past has rarely seemed less resolved, more alive.

The real English, and British, story is one of complexity, plurality and conflict; and an open, critical and radical standpoint may be the most truthful way to explore this "heritage". A monument to greatness, by contrast, is designed to intimidate and disarm; but it cannot endure on hollow foundations, still less by (Patrick Wright again, in his marvellous book The Village That Died for England ) "fencing off the obtrusive modem world".

The debate over England and its countrysides is, then, a necessary dimension of the historical moment. The diverse attempts to reimagine the nation can choose to focus on a range of referents - the constitution, the English language and its literature, rural life, the regions, the urban mix - each of which can be seen to embody dense layers of experience and symbolism. But the heart of their encounter must surely address (as the Conservative Party and the Campaign for a Northern Assembly are now in different ways doing) the evacuation of politics from this once deeply political nation. An identity centred on art, music or sport can disguise but never escape from the class, power and regional realities at England's core.

A form of nationalism may be an unavoidable accompaniment to a revived discourse of the political nation; and the nationalism glimpsed through the murk of post-devolution, millennial England is often qualified, even by its putative adherents, with the words ugly, nasty or crude. No outcome is predetermined. But a deeper historical, and broader regional, awareness might question whether the multifarious and tolerant people of England will meekly file into the impoverishing cloisters so often assigned to them.

Out here on the Burgh Marsh, the living strands of the Cumbrian past seem so vividly clear. Perhaps this is only another illusion of the light. A totemic status in the national landscape might prove elusive, but that tangled and regenerative process, Englishness, evolves here too. Land and machine, sword and book, stone and stained glass, most of all an enriching mixture of peoples, have shaped this area. There is much to hate here, much to forgive. But standing on this debatable ground, it is hard to believe that the kind of nationalism memorialised here can long withstand the melancholy, quietly subversive tides of the Solway.

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