Picture credit: Historic England Archive/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Staying in place

How history and heritage enrich our surroundings

Clover Stroud lives in rural Oxfordshire with five children, three dogs, two cats and two horses, one of which is pregnant. But she rarely lives with her husband, whose career demands mean he spends most of his time in America instead of at home with her.

The Giant on the Skyline, Clover Stroud, Doubleday, £17.47

The strain this absentee arrangement puts on their marriage leads to the dilemma that underpins her latest volume of memoir: will she be able to pack up the life she has built for herself and her family and move to the US to be with him, or is her attachment to her home and its associations too powerful for her to embark on such a daunting change?

Stroud is a lifestyle journalist whose candid autobiographical books have chimed with a popular audience. Her first covered her bohemian but traumatic childhood and young adulthood, including a stint as a cowhand in Texas; the second addressed her extensive experiences of motherhood; the third her bereavement after the loss of her sister soon after the death of her mother. This is her fourth. 

Throughout the book the necessity to make a decision on whether to pack up and move to suburban Washington DC looms on Stroud’s mental horizon. 

Meanwhile on the actual physical horizon, immediately outside the house she’s being pressured to sell, looms that renowned chalk hill figure, the White Horse of Uffington. Stroud, who spends much time brooding on this view, further notices that the shape of that hill itself above her house, its horizontal outline, appears to resemble a huge man recumbent; hence the book’s title.

Stroud repeatedly weighs the idea of a transatlantic move to reunite her family against her feelings for this landscape around her home, and particularly its historic details. And she begins physically visiting places in her vicinity and ruminating on them: the Ridgeway, the prehistoric “road” across hilltops from the Chilterns to Wiltshire, Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic long barrow, the stone circle at Avebury, and her very local white horse, which, unlike most chalk-gouged hill monuments, is pre-Roman rather than a Georgian or Victorian pastiche. 

In these neolithic pilgrimages, she is far from alone. There has been a surge of interest in these places in recent years.

I’m a devotee myself: I’ve visited all the places she mentions, some repeatedly, among numerous trips to stone circles, long barrows and standing stones from Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire and, yes, Oxfordshire, across Wales, Lancashire,Yorkshire and Cumbria to the Scottish mainland and islands. 

What is it that fuels the interest of us modern antiquarians (to use the phrase coined by Julian Cope, whose nineties writings helped inspire the trend)? 

I suspect it’s the aspiration to find in the landscape and its oldest manmade features a sense of enduring meaning and identity in an increasingly secular, global and now digital age.

Stroud repeatedly talks about the foot traffic on the Ridgeway going back thousands of years. I’ve had these thoughts myself while walking there; it’s what draws us. But these people aren’t our ancestors, however much we might project onto them. And Stroud certainly projects. 

Despite this, these neolithic sites retain their resonance

In fact the Stone Age people who built Avebury and co were later pushed out by new arrivals: first the Bronze Age “Beaker people”, then Belgians, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Vikings and finally Normans. So even if your DNA were to show that you are “100% English” — a rare thing — you are unlikely to be related to anyone who walked the Ridgeway five or six thousand years ago. 

Despite this, these neolithic sites retain their resonance. The Prehistoric Society, for example, is now suggesting that visiting them can help to promote “wellness”. Professor Alice Roberts, a former president of the Humanist Society, spoke during her recent Desert Island Discs appearance about how she finds post-religious spiritual solace in nature and landscape — and the idea of the people who inhabited it in the distant past.

But it’s not just the pre-Roman that attracts Stroud. She is seemingly attracted by any local history or folklore. There’s a hunt with her son for a lost village abandoned in Victorian times. King Alfred crops up repeatedly too. There’s even a recurring cameo from an actual giant, of sorts, in the strangest part of the book.  

In tandem with the growth of interest in these old places and tales, there has also been a perhaps related boom in publications of books which fuse the historical, the geographical and the personal — which is very much what Stroud does here. And, in her case, it’s the very personal.

For her, the landscape obsession seems to be particularly driven by trying to process her grief around the premature loss of her sister. Will leaving the country mean leaving her sister — as if abandoning her memory? Or, alternatively, if she were to leave her sister’s ashes in one of these places forever would that reconcile her to being able to go to America, knowing she must and will be back? 

Away from the historical stuff, Stroud is also very good on the emerging eventuality of empty nesting. Her oldest child is on the point of starting at university as she is grappling with her relocation quandary and she has a dawning awakening that her life will not always be this hectic, as her children grow up and move on.

Her style is disarmingly frank. We get almost verbatim descriptions of the couple’s often quite bitter arguments. She records her fleeting impulse to seduce a woman photographer who has come to take her portrait. 

But this frankness isn’t the whole picture. The tabloid journalist in me wants to know more than just her feelings about her husband — which we get in spades. If you’re sharing this then what about the nitty gritty stuff which informs their US v UK rows: what does the husband actually do? How much do he and she respectively earn? How much would they sell their house for and how much is equity? And so on. Call me prurient but having been invited in to examine their lives in such detail, one can’t help but begin to wonder about this stuff too: if there’s a horse in the stable, how much are you spending on hay? 

Similarly, there is also a lot about that oldest child, Jimmy, culminating in their poignant first university drop off at halls in Manchester. But the second child, Dolly, is relatively little mentioned — she is just heading to “a university”. One senses some late teen kickback against parental oversharing informs this disparity — though, if this is the reason, it’s not made explicit. 

The more prosaic sections — school runs and drop offs, picking up bread from the local Co-op – can weigh the book down. Stroud feels happier and certainly writes better when she’s picking the burrs from a horse’s mane in her paddock or following the dogs up an ancient hill. So when she is away from the outdoors, it can begin to feel that there isn’t quite enough material in this phase of Stroud’s life to support an entire book. 

And the final outcome of the central dilemma never really feels in doubt. Indeed the author’s potted biography on the inside back page provides an unequivocal spoiler on what she does eventually decide to do.  

But it’s in exploring historic landscapes — and her feelings about them — that the book works best. Stroud is at her most sure-footed on the compacted chalk of the Ridgeway.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover