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What we’re reading: September 2017

In 1936, in protest at mass unemployment and poverty, 200 men marched from Jarrow in South Tyneside to Downing Street. Exactly 80 years later, broadcaster Stuart Maconie traced their walk to find a nation eerily similar to 1930s Britain

What we’re reading: September 2017
Terraced houses, Leeds. Image: Getty

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Long Road from Jarrow

I was surprised how little fuss there seemed to be as the anniversary approached. Maybe 80 doesn’t have the right cachet. But what particularly appealed was the idea of a readymade narrative — a journey on foot. Also, a walk from Jarrow to London, while rich in the things I’m interested in — such as British social history, landscape, industry and pop culture — took me outside the north into terra incognito like Bedford and Market Harborough.

It surprised me that Bedford was like England in miniature, and full of history and stories and secrets; John Bunyan, the weird Panacea Society, the Italian community and the fact it was the BBC’s secret base in the Second World War, known only as ‘somewhere in England’.

My most memorable moment was bumping into Alan Moore, the great British fantasy/sci-fi/comic author in Waterstones in his hometown of Northampton. Also, being taken into the House of Commons at journey’s end by Tracy Brabin MP, the late Jo Cox’s friend and successor. The lowest ebb was a cold Sunday afternoon in Market Harborough in a grim, unfriendly pub watching Chelsea beat Manchester United 4-0.

The most hospitable town was Leeds — maybe my favourite city in England. Great people, food, hotels, architecture, high art and low culture, a real working town that knows how to have a good time. The lovely people I met in Luton and Leicester were fabulous, too.

Britain of the 1930s and today seemed most indistinguishable during the ‘middle England’ section, but the echoes of history went even further back. During a quiet morning in Northampton and a still afternoon in Buckinghamshire, when nothing seemed to have changed since the Civil War, or even the Norman Conquest.

If you want to try a section of the walk yourself, the Brampton Valley Way, between Northampton and Market Harborough, has fine easy walking and two spooky disused railway tunnels. Priestley called this ‘the old England of Parson and Squire’ and I’m afraid this son of the industrial north felt very out of place and unwelcome here.

Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey Through Britain Then and Now, by Stuart Maconie. RRP: £16.99 (Ebury Publishing)

Wise words: The natural reader

ReWild
TV’s Nick Baker examines the art of returning to nature. Ditch the gadgets and let this memoir and quietly inspirational practical guide connect you with the wilderness. RRP: £16.99 (Aurum Press)

Hidden Nature
This voyage of discovery, mapping the unexplored, follows one woman (author Alys Fowler), a broken relationship and a journey paddling some 125 miles of British canal. RRP: £20 (Hodder & Stoughton)

The Secret Life of Cows
A humane, humorous look at the complex characters behind ‘livestock’ in this heart-warming book about free-range farming in the Cotswolds, with a foreword by Alan Bennett. RRP: £9.99 (Faber & Faber)

Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)