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  • Michael Smith

Book Review: The Road by Christopher Hadley

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

When I began life as a printmaker, an early influence in terms of emotion and evocative execution was the Hitchin printmaker and illustrator FL Griggs. How wonderful then to see one of Griggs' own illustrations appear early on in The Road, a haunting new work by historian, traveller and essayist Christopher Hadley.

Griggs, an architectural draughtsman by training, was attracted by the old ways and a dedicated obsessive in the manner of many in the arts and crafts movement. Touring a number of English counties on his Rex motorcycle, he was to create a delightful suite of exquisite drawings for several volumes in the popular early 20th Century travel series, The Highways and Byways of England. Engendering a bewitching sense of rural timelessness, those for Hertfordshire (1926), represent perhaps the apogee of Griggs' work before commercial pressures later tested his inspiration.

Pasts and histories; the richness deep within

Hadley, like Griggs, is inspired by this rolling landscapes of pasts, histories and hidden possibilities; he evokes with his writing what Griggs does with his art, teasing out from the everyday the richness deep within. Hence, it is apposite that on page 41 of The Road we meet Griggs' drawing of Braughing, the small Hertfordshire village which marks the starting point of Hadley's own journey into the past and the landscape which clasps its secrets.

Braughing is a good starting point. Once a trading centre and a key part of the Roman road network, the village - small and rural now - has revealed significant evidence of a vibrant place which belies its current rural dormancy.

Yet, rather than following one of ancient Rome's more famous routes, such as Ermine Street which runs past the village on its long journey north, Hadley's interest lies elsewhere, his journey richer and deeper. Choosing a route known prosaically as Roman Road 21b, a number designated under the system devised by the historian Ivan Margary, he follows the ghost of a road running from Braughing to Great Chesterford in Essex.

As he reveals however, 21b was no minor roadway. Now a road populated by ghosts and landscapes unknown to busy travellers, it was in its day busy and vibrant; essential to trade, to travel and to war. This is a road with a story of its own.

Through woods and banks, by barrows and windmills - it's dead but still alive

I wrote of Hadley's earlier work, "if any book can define the magic of north Hertfordshire’s astonishing blend of ancient trackways, lonely fields and curious legends, it is Hollow Places". Now he goes further, testing the county's nuanced landscape to the limit as it is crossed by the straight, unforgiving rigour of Roman engineering.

What is revealed is a landscape where later accretions have borrowed from The Road while leaving it forgotten beneath: parish boundaries and marker trees; the lonely burial mound at Rumberry Hill; relics in the middle of a motorway interchange. We also meet a road whose certainty is lost and then regained, like the curious bend in the road at Meesden where a wrecked old windmill sits on the Roman way while the later lane circumnavigates the mill before returning to its Roman course.

Most haunting of all is meeting The Road where it survives in orphaned sections buried deep in the woods, as at Hormead or at Rockell's Wood; unwanted, left, unseen. Or its vestiges disguised in hedge banks or in crop yields, or revealed during periods of drought as it crosses bare fields while spied upon from space or lit up using LIDAR.

The certainty of The Road is unforgiving; if today it lives a quiet life just wishing to be forgotten, its rigour will not let it; it's still alive, just. As the book's series of maps reveals, The Road dissects the landscape with military precision - the antithesis to the genial corruption of England's later layout, shaped and farmed by various interlopers into its current wondrous form.

A journey into mind and meaning

The Road appears to be more than just an arterial road, becoming in fact an artery of the land itself, essential to its wellbeing, just beneath the skin.

Hence, as much as the book is about the way, it is also about the meaning - how The Road has inspired others. It dips into diaries of young boys engaging with The Road in their childhood; into the writings of Victorian clerics using its evidence to embellish their own quaint theoretical neologisms on history and nationhood; into the musings of travellers along the way; into the findings of detectorists and the carefully gathered thoughts of landscape historians and archaeologists.

As Sherlock Holmes says in The Adventure of The Copper Beeches, " It is my belief ... that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

Hadley collects this 'dreadful record' with aplomb, showing us just how deeply it lives below the surface - and in the minds of those who know or who have known it. We can choose to see the landscape as it is or to interpret it, question its meaning, ask it why it forms the way it does. A twist here, a pottery sherd there - all are parts of a jigsaw puzzle once tossed into the ancient air, many of its pieces to be lost for ever, with just a few remaining to tell us of the greater picture.

A survey of remarkable rigour

But if every road leads to Rome, they also lead elsewhere - in this case to Great Chesterford with its military camp and long lost Roman walls. Through winding lane and muddy bank, via thorny undergrowth and antiquarians' diaries, Hadley shows us the road he knows so well. And when he arrives at his destination, he tantalises us even then with the thought that diarists not so long ago were bemoaning the digging up of its Roman walls and roads by locals, little of which now survive above - and even below - ground. Sic transit gloria mundi, we must say - as no doubt did the commentators witnessing such great loss.

And so it is that Christopher Hadley travels with us as our guide to the world once known by this old trackway, 21b. We don't just meet the Romans and their road, we meet the land as they shaped it and how others responded to the way they left behind. In boundaries, lanes, trees and fields, some follow its legacy and others don't yet, come what may, its legacy endures notwithstanding, shaped by later minds and vivid imaginations.

In this magnificent book, stripping away the sweeping grandiloquence of the conventional narrative of empires and hegemony, Christopher Hadley takes us down a different way, looking through a gentler window on that road's long lost days. He reveals The Road's own intimate knowledge of the land it knew and the folk it's known, turning the tables on what we think we're reading; because The Road is not really about it, it's about us.

The Road leads us down a pathway we often barely see but one we all know very well, should we care to confront it - that for all of life's seeming certainties, everything is fragile, nothing lasts for ever. The Road, like life itself, is a journey into the unknown, where only the fragmented tesserae of those who went before conspire to give us certainty. But somehow we survive.

Take it with you on your journey.

Michael Smith

Author, Translator, Printmaker


The Road, A Story of Romans and Ways to the Past

Author: Christopher Hadley

Published February 2023 by: William Collins

ISBN: 978-0-00-835669-9



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