I walked from home through the housing estate at the back of our house and up over the chalk scarp that encompasses the western fringe of the town in which I live. It’s steep and a hard way to begin a walk but there is something cathartic about it. In fifteen minutes, you can go from town to country, from a preoccupation with the everyday to the brow of a hill and the broad vistas of the National Park.
As I headed West toward the next valley, I was struck by the contrast in how I feel about the land in which I live and the current political landscape of our nation. In so many ways this really is a green and pleasant land, but like so many beautiful countries sometimes it can also be something else.
A couple are cycling up the bridle path using electrically assisted bikes – and I don’t blame them it’s a brute of a hill – we smile and greet each other, fellow travellers on a country path, each re-assuring the other as we pass. It’s such a small thing, greeting strangers on a country path, but it has always struck me how kind we can be at times. It’s easy to forget that we can be.
I branch off on a path that crosses a farmer’s field. On the chalk it cuts a grey and white furrow through the green. For a while there is a certainty and a definition in the direction that the path takes before it reaches the brow and curves down into the valley beyond. As I walk, I wonder about that and how often we look for certainty in life and especially in our identities? We define ourselves with certainty by our nationalities, our ethnicities, our disability, our gender, our sex, our politics, our professions, and our roles. And the more uncertain the times the more desperately we seem to grasp at the idea that our identities are concrete when in truth there is little certain or definite about any of these things.
By now I’ve reached the village in the valley beyond and approach the church where the villagers used to shelter from marauding Vikings. I stop for a moment at a rare water standpipe to top up my bottle. Listening to the wind as it rustles against the leaves, it is easy to imagine the lost voices and the stories of those who have passed this way before me. The frightened villagers sheltering from Vikings; or frightened Protestants hiding from Catholics prior to the Reformation and the frightened Catholics hiding from Protestants in its aftermath – traces of change and history in the land and in breeze.
For a while now I’ve been wondering about my own identity. Genetically it would seem that I am a descendent of these islands. In almost equal parts English, Irish and Scots. Perhaps a Briton in an old sense of the word and if not, perhaps a descendent of those who lost their nation at Hastings. Maybe that is why I have such little time for those who’ve run this country for hundreds of years. People who claim “Englishness” from the vantage point of their historic Norman privilege, an aristocracy and a class whose ancestors took this nation from the people who came before.
I put my water bottle back in my rucksack before continuing up another steep path into the fringe of the forest. The leaves of the trees have begun to turn from green to yellow and gold, and there’s a damp Autumn mustiness in the air. At the top I stop for a moment and consider my route. I decide to head North, out of the forest along the ridge of the Down.
It’s always windier and wilder up here. In town, Autumn is something that we experience looking out the window, or in short walks between places or in journeys in the car. But up here Autumn is something far stronger than that. The darkness in the clouds can turn an afternoon’s walk into a genuine struggle, if not for survival then for comfort and home. But the sheep I pass seem oblivious to that and to me, and the path curves in a westerly direction as I approach Wilmington Hill. From there I can look North West and see the line of hills now disappearing into a haze of rain. Or I can look South over the forest and the Cuckmere River meandering between the hills and down toward the sea. But this time I look North toward the Weald.
Despite the rain I can make out the Church at Wilmington. It’s one my favourites. I love the peace and the tranquillity of so many of Sussex’s rural churches but this one is special because of its tree. An ancient Yew that would have been a sapling when the Romans were here. A tree that was already old when the Normans built the church and when the Benedictines built their Priory.
I wonder how many of those currently committed to the cause of English nationalism really understand what being English – or Englisc to use the original Old English term – really means. It strikes me that few will know that in the aftermath of Hastings, England ceased to be the land of its people and became the property of the Conqueror, who parcelled out land and estates to his relatives and supporters. The land around Wilmington that I was looking down on was one such gift, given to the Conqueror’s half-brother Robert, the Count of Mortain. All held in the name of the king of course.
In the years that followed the conquest of England, the English were subjected to what would now be referred to as a genocide, and to assuage their guilt the Norman nobles and their families would gift land to the Church in an effort to ease their relationship with God. The land on which the Priory at Wilmington was built was given to the Abbey of Grestein in Normandy, who would retain possession of it until 1414 when Henry V suppressed all of the “alien” religious houses. For hundreds of years after Hastings “England” was not a nation of Englishmen, it was a stolen identity and a plaything of the Normans and some of the divisions within this country that were created then, persist to this day.
But of course, those who came before the Normans might have been “Englisc”, but they weren’t really British either. They were the descendants of other invaders- Saxons and Angles and Danes and Norwegians who in turn had taken this nation from the Romano-Britons who had ruled for hundreds of years before the Anglo-Saxons had arrived on these shores – and we all know where the Romans came from.
I think again of that ancient Yew, that has survived the reigns of all the Kings and Queens of England and it strikes me that there is a pointlessness to this. We might like the idea of our identity being rooted in the history of our nation but if you go back far enough there is no certainty to be found in that, beyond being able to state that we are all of us the descendants of invaders and immigrants.
The rain is getting worse, it’s time to head home.