In Search of England

Tours, travel writing and youth hostels

In the 1920s people were flocking to the countryside in greater numbers than ever before, laying the foundations of the youth hostels movement in Britain.

One popular journalist blamed roads, coaches and the cheap motor car for the growth in travel. Throwing open to ordinary people regions which had been remote and inaccessible, roads had come to life again after years of dominance by railways, and roads were once more a place for adventure and exploration.

Thousands of men and women in a new phase of history were discovering the countryside for themselves, the journalist, HV Morton, declared. As spring arrived in London’s gardens, squares and parks with a smell of fresh new grass and damp earth, in blossom and flowers, Morton decided he would join the adventure and take to the road.

He was a columnist on the Daily Express, today’s Express, and his journey became a series of articles, gathered later into a book, In Search of England, which became an immediate and popular success in 1926.

On his journey he took with him a common concern of the time, that English country life had declined, that behind its great beauty lay an economic and social disaster. The countryside employed too few people, and Britain was importing too much food, with cheap meat from Argentina replacing the roast beef of England. He went in search of an answer to a worry shared by many of his readers and by many today.

Going like a magpie

He followed an idiosyncratic route “through the lanes of England and the little thatched villages of England” [1], along the way weaving little pictures of human interest and potted histories of places, scattered with conversations and observations from among the people, a written vox pop.

His was a journalist’s journey, light hearted, airily dismissive, never serious and often mocking, an account to be read over breakfast by a male reader who would later head to work in an office. Women might read his books and columns but it was a male world he described from a male point of view. He was a patriot too, given to enthusing about the exceptional qualities of England and its empire.

He went around like a magpie, along meandering lanes, to Cornwall via Winchester and Salisbury and back through Somerset, following the border with Wales to the Lake District where he hadn’t time to climb a hill but admired those who did.

Beyond Carlisle, he followed Hadrian’s Wall to Newcastle before turning south through York to Lincoln, Boston and Peterborough where he headed for Norfolk. The final leg of his journey took him to Stratford and home to London.

Saxons, whippets, tobacco

Morton enjoyed meeting with strangers, weaving his story from conversations and chance encounters with a quarry foreman, archaeologists, a pack man carrying a pack, a book seller, old sailors and Mr Pickwick in Bath.

His meetings are reminders of ways of life and work that have vanished, but one in which US tourists were seemingly everywhere, but not Europeans, on the streets of Boston, York and Gloucester.

His writing is full of stereotypes. Lancashire men had whippets. Celts in Cornwall loved to talk. Saxons – whoever they were, he is not clear on that – were standoffish and an Essex man would ask outright for tobacco. Lancashire folk were tough and sturdy. His observations are full of the casual racism of his times.

He drank beer with a deaf old man on the edge of London, with innkeepers and barmen, at the Warren Inn on Dartmor, in “the Monk’s retreat” in Gloucester and a very dry Martini with an American in Boston.

He comes across as a moustache twirling roue, modelled on leading actors and matinee idols like Ronald Colman or Clark Gable with a taste for Martinis before James Bond. He patronised women wherever he went and leered at “brown-faced, muscular girls in breeches and stockings”[2], girls neat as does and the prettiest gypsy he had ever met.

He scattered references to Greek and Roman classics through his writing. The fields through which he travelled rang with Shakespeare and the history of an English “race” with imperial traditions based on Rome and Greece.

The loveliest in England

Morton’s writing reveal his out of date and often insulting attitudes, but he also illustrates the striking differences between tourism then and now. He was writing on the cusp of modern mass tourism.

History guided him, not beauty or landscape. The big modern cities of Liverpool and Manchester he dismissed as somehow un-English. History and historical sites are guiding beacons for him and his aim “to shake up the dust of kings and abbots … knights and cavaliers … the thunder of old quarrels at earthwork and church door”[3].

He was often in out of the way places which few tourists would visit today, like Peterborough and Ipswich, reminding us that there are places off the beaten track today that would be worth visiting. Places that he did visit which are popular today were strikingly deserted then. He had Stonehenge at sunrise to himself and he met no one else visiting the ruined castle at Tintagel.

He saw sights that would be remarkable or impossible today, cattle in the market at Salisbury, a cruiser being built in Devonport, and ships at anchor in Gloucester quays. He saw pastoral beauties that a modern eye, seeking grand space and wilderness, would pass over, like the Somerset hills which he thought were among the loveliest hills in England.

Such sights were enough for Morton to conclude that England really had not changed. An unnamed vicar, in an unnamed churchyard, a “red-faced, muscular, white haired” man, not wearing a dog collar, carrying a basket of eggs, assured Morton that nothing had changed in England even though newspapers reported the latest murders every Sunday morning.

“Our fields are the same as they always were, and we are the servants of our fields.” [4] As long as one English field lay against another there was something left in the world for a man to love, Morton declared.

Too cute for words

Morton went on to write a series of similarly titled books of travels, to Scotland, Wales and Ireland, to Spain, South Africa, and the Holy Land. By 1964 he had sold 2.9 million books, establishing himself as the most popular British travel writer of the twentieth century[5]. He was a determined populariser and insisted that the price of his books was kept low, within reach of his readers.

But he couldn’t come to terms with changes he had helped bring about. Despite his own commercialism, he mocked commercial tourism especially during his visit to Clovelly with its “girls in cycling knickers, young men with hairy legs dressed as Boy Scouts, thin young men with spectacles and open-necked shirts, who carry enormous rucksacks on their backs”[6] racketing through the streets, and Americans who thought everything was too cute for words.

The new tourism

Despite his mocking dismissal of tourists an admiration for some crept into his book. In the Lake District he admitted that those who climbed the hills had the better experience of the region than those like him stuck in traffic jams.

He envied those who travelled more simply. On an evening with a couple in woods near Stratford, he heard that the best idea was “to keep exploring.”

The couple were staying in a clearing in a green tent with a rug on the floor and two beds, and a touring car from which they took electricity, an experience that sounds like today’s “glamping”.

Their best camping spot had been on the edge of a pool, miles from anywhere, in the New Forest. They had swum in the pool and Mrs John admitted that though she took a swimming costume she never used it. She was a wild swimmer before the term was invented.

At night they heard foxes barking. They had eaten wild honey. They sat with Morton as moths flickered in the light of the fire and the tall trees stood unruffled by the slightest wind.

Their travel was a cure for the pressures of modern urban life, a chance for them to get away alone, to fend for themselves and to rely on one another. They had escaped London for peace and “a night of stars as if they were in the heart of the Libyan desert.” [7]. Their love of dark skies and wild swimming strikingly echo modern aspects of sustainable tourism.

In a few short years after Morton’s book was published, that kind of travel was no longer confined to those with a car and sufficient wealth from a well paid job or an inheritance. Once youth hostels opened anyone could travel as simply, staying in youth hostels that were like indoor camping, without frills.

References

In Search of England, Morton, HV, Methuen and Co, London 1927.

  • [1] In Search of England page 3
  • [2] Ibid page 193
  • [3] Ibid page 4
  • [4] Ibid page 278
  • [5] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • [6] In Search of England page 116
  • [7] Ibid page 264

All quotes 24th Edition, 1947.

Illustration of a lane in England, from In Search of England.

One thought on “In Search of England

Add yours

  1. A really interesting piece, Duncan – thank you. Had to smirk at the various clashes of cultures, just as potent then as nowadays, especially the forest couple ‘au naturel’. I wonder what you meant by ‘I am going to be sick’?

    So many of these travelogue writers seem to have been insufferable snobs. Thank goodness for our down-to-earth YHA log writers – Mary Jeffcott et al.

    I’ve just been tidying up some Idwal papers from 1952-54 re the International work party arrangements there. Now a pdf – do you want to see it?

    J

    >

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