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Neil Oliver Introduces The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places

Posted on 14th September 2018 by Martha Greengrass
Since his 2002 television debut on the BBC’s Two Men in a Trench, Neil Oliver has become the face of archaeological research in Britain. For him, our island is a precious chalice of history, from the emergence of civilisation to our contemporary structures of war and peace. The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places is his brilliant and intensely personal eulogy to that history.

Like someone we see every day of our lives, it is easy to take these British Isles for granted. But however long we have known that person, however familiar they might seem, there is always more to learn, more to understand and to appreciate. These islands have known us, and others like us, for the longest time. For the best part of twenty years I have travelled the length and breadth of them. That journey has shown me a picture no one else has seen, told me a story of the British Isles that no one else has heard.

At Happisburgh, on the Norfolk coast, cousins of modern humankind left footprints on a beach the best part of a million years ago. Every day the sea claims more of that coastline, wiping away those ephemeral glimpses of deep time.

Stone Age farmers in the Cumbrian valley of Great Langdale learned to build funeral pyres that turned the bodies of their dead to ashes, and to smoke that rose into the sky. They took to following that smoke all the way to the mountain peaks towering above their heads, and from the green stones they found there, as close as they could get to Heaven, they fashioned axe heads that gleamed like polished jewels.

In the village of Fortingall, at one end of Glen Lyon in Perthshire, there is a yew tree. By some estimates it has been growing there for 9,000 years and more. It may be the oldest living thing in Europe, and if that is so, then every moment of our history, from the time of the hunters who came here after the last of the glaciers had retreated, has unfolded in its shadow.

By the Thames at Tilbury, preserved by the anaerobic magic of that river’s mud, stands the jetty walked on by Queen Elizabeth I when she came to address the soldiers waiting there, ready to defy a Spanish invasion. She stepped down from those timbers and reassured her fighting men that while she might have the body of weak and feeble woman, she had also the heart and stomach of a king.

In the quiet dark of Cambuskenneth Abbey, by Stirling Castle, Robert Bruce, the man who would be king, swore an oath to defend the independence of Scotland’s Church. It was a step on the long road towards the legend of Bannockburn, and the independence of Scotland itself.

In the village of Staithes, on the North Yorkshire coast, a lad named James Cook worked as a grocer’s boy. Through the shop window he spied the North Sea beyond and knew in his heart that his destiny lay not on the land but out upon the rolling waves.

On the Channel Island of Alderney, the flowers and sand dunes are at work reclaiming places tainted by the horrors of Hitler’s Reich. What was lost to us for a while is ours once more.

Crouched above Penlee Point in Cornwall is the boathouse left empty by the last RNLI lifeboat to be lost along with its entire crew. Its emptiness is the memorial to great men.

On and on the story goes, the long, long lifetime of this place that has been our home. All across the landscape are treasures, traces of the people we used to be - hints of the people we might yet be. 

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