Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places edited by Philip Wilkinson

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Reviewed by Harriet


This attractive and informative volume does exactly what the title promises. It’s divided into ten sections: Science and Discovery; Travel and Tourism; Homes and Gardens; Sport and Leisure; Music and Literature; Loss and Destruction; Faith and Belief;  Industry, Trade and Commerce; Art, Architecture and Sculpture; and Power, Protest and Progress. Each section was curated by a different distinguished historian: Mary Beard made the choices for Loss and Destruction, for example, David Olusoga was responsible for Power, Protest and Politics, and Bettany Hughes, who also writes the Foreword, for Travel and Tourism. Each place has its own full-page illustration, accompanied by a page-long commentary setting it in context, and each section ranges widely, both geographically and through time, providing a fascinating reminder of the richness of the history, both in buildings and landscapes, in one part of the British Isles.

I thought I knew England really well, but many places and stories were new to me. I learned a lot about the 18th-century physician and researcher Edward Jenner, who pioneered the use of vaccination for smallpox, and built the most delightful looking thatched hut in his garden at Berkeley in Gloucestershire where he would treat his local patients. Still on the subject of health, a photo of a plain black, handleless water pump situated in central London stands as a reminder of how the city was overtaken in the 19th century by the deadly disease cholera, which was believed to be carried through the air. The disease was firmly located in particular districts of London, and a pioneering physician named John Snow realised that all the sufferers were using the same water pump. Removing the pump handle and supplying fresh untainted water aided the decline of the disease and had a revolutionary effect on medical knowledge.

Although I’m particularly drawn to more ancient history, I found some of the later selections equally fascinating. The Travel and Tourism section includes, in addition to the great British mountain Helvellyn and the Roman Baths in Bath, an entry on Dreamland, the oldest surviving amusement park in the country. Originally built in the seaside town of Margate in the late 19th century, it was redeveloped and acquired its present-day name after WW1. By the 1950s it had become hugely popular and successful, but declined badly at the end of the century. However, thanks to a preservation campaign, it has risen from the ashes and now has a display of numerous historical rides, with its famous Scenic Railway at its heart. I’d never heard of this, nor of Caister Camp, the first ever holiday camp, situated in Norfolk. Then there’s the incredible Grand Hotel in Scarborough, built at the height of the railway boom, which has 365 rooms and 52 chimneys and still stands as a reminder of the importance, to the late Victorians, of seaside holidays. 

The Homes and Gardens section features some places I was familiar with – the fascinating Port Sunlight near Liverpool, built to house the employees of William Hesketh Lever’s soap factory, Blenheim Palace and Windsor Castle for example – but also has an entry on post-war prefabricated bungalows (prefabs), which were built to last ten years but in some cases have survived intact and still inhabited 70 years on. At the opposite end of the size scale there’s Park Hill in Sheffield. A massive block of flats, built in the 1950s and threatened with demolition, it’s now a Grade II listed building and has undergone a massive redevelopment.

There wasn’t much new to me in Music and Literature – I’ve even done some research in the amazing 16th-century Cheetham’s Library in Manchester and visited the Brontes’ parsonage and Jane Austen’s house, but I’d never seen inside Abbey Road Studios or the Hacienda Club in Manchester, now demolished. I had once, however, visited the 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street and spotted Jimi Hendrix in the crowd – he’s not in the photo, though – that’s a young looking Humphrey Littleton. And speaking of Jimi Hendrix, did you know that he and George Frederick Handel lived in the same house in London, two centuries apart?

Loss and Destruction needless to say features a number places that are no longer with us. I’m very familiar with the site of that great marvel of 19th-century London Crystal Palace, but it’s good to be reminded of what it looked like when it was first moved from central London to its new site in south-east London. Not all the buildings here are actually lost, though: there’s The Monument, in the City of London, a reminder of the Great Fire of 1666 in which so much of the city was destroyed, and Hillsborough Football Stadium in Sheffield, where the terrible tragedy in April 1989 caused 96 people to lose their lives and hundreds more to sustain injuries.

I could go on, but you get the general idea. If I have a quibble, it’s that though there’s a list of the historians who collaborated on this venture, there isn’t a complete list of who was responsible for each section. Also, the places were evidently nominated by members of the public, but it’s not clear who they were or how they were selected. However, I enjoyed the tour through my own country, especially as I no longer live there. This is a book for anyone, English or not, who wants to get a sense of the long history and varied beauties and riches of England.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Philip Wilkinson, ed., A History of England in 100 Places (Historic England, 2018). 978-1848025097, 224pp., hardback.

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