Recently, I blew an American’s mind.
I didn’t mean to. The lady in question was visiting some friends of mine and the conversation had turned to our school days, and all I did was mention that our school was founded in 1676. She made a flabbergasted noise and exclaimed, “That’s a century before my country was founded!”
But astonishing Americans isn’t hard in this part of Britain. You’re virtually tripping over history around here. Napoleonic, Medieval, Roman, it is everywhere.
I’m very fortunate to live in an area where the history is as rich as any place in Britain and longer than most. The Roman invasion landed here in Kent and that, for us Brits, is when recorded history started.
Not long after the Roman Empire fell, in the year 449, some guys stepped off a boat onto the Kentish shore about 20 miles from where I live. They were Anglo-Saxons, and they were the very first ancestors of the English (and of every person of English descent in the US, Canada and Australia and any other English-speaking country you care to mention). That’s always been Kent’s role – an ancient gateway, for traders, for travelers, for invaders.
Above my kitchen sink is a copy of a map of Kent, dated 1616, that my partner gave me. There are two ways of looking at this map. The first is to see it as something very old. It’s smothered in old place names – some bizarre, some beautiful, some lost without trace: Blackbourne, Selbrightenden, Shamel. Others are familiar names but with weird, archaic spellings.
The next thing that strikes you is how very small everywhere was back then. Only the ancient cities of Canterbury and Rochester are shown as settlements of any size. My partner pointed out her home town, Ashford, now rapidly growing with a population of 60,000, mapped as a tiny cluster of houses around a bridge.
Most of that town’s growth has been since WWII, so the majority of people there live in neighbourhoods which, only 60 years ago, were rural communities. You know the phrase: “I remember when all this was just fields!”
Except it wasn’t just fields. It was a landscape where people lived their lives, and had experiences, where things happened. And not all of them good.
Most of Kent has been occupied for a very long time and, due to fertile soils, has been relatively well populated. Almost every part of it is densely layered with history. The past is piled high and you are always walking in someone else’s footsteps. And my map, lovely though it is, does not by any means capture all of this long history. That’s the other way to look at the map – as something not really very old at all, but a relatively recent snapshot. It may look ancient next to the mod cons of my kitchen, but if you set it against the entire span of Kent’s past, it may as well have been drawn last week.
The question is, when you explore a landscape so rich in the past, so imbued with what has gone before, are you just walking through the ‘now’ landscape, or are you, in some way, also setting foot in all the landscapes that preceded it?
Those past times are most evident in the countryside – in Saxon place names, Roman roads and Bronze Age tombs. But when you go home to your modern house in your brand new suburb, do you completely leave that past behind, just because the urban environment has obscured it more opaquely? That land has a story too. What happened where your house now stands? Was all of it good?
Visit a Norman castle or a Roman villa and you will expect to feel the presence of the people who have gone before, sense that so much has happened there. But, in those parts of the world where history is thick on the ground, the same could be just as true of your garden, or your living room. Or of that spot in the kitchen where you stand and stare at that fascinating old map.