Historic England’s new book of ‘irreplaceable’ places in England locates a decent proportion of them in the North. I reckon that 33 out of the 100 is pretty good given the general propensity to focus our nation’s history on the lower counties.
In part, this is due to places in the North of England being home to plenty of firsts, and this book is quick to acknowledge some of them. Jodrell Bank (the first radio telescope to track a satellite); Sellafield (the world’s first nuclear power plant); the Castlefield Canal basin (terminus of Britain’s first true canal); Chetham’s (the world’s first public library), and Rochdale Pioneers’ shop (the first Co-op) are just a few among its pages, reminding us that the North is home to invention and discovery.
Irreplaceable recognises grand places – the splendour of the Blackpool Tower ballroom, the impressive buildings and gardens of Chatsworth, and Halifax’s recently refurbished Piece Hall, as well as the dilapidated Gothic grandeur of Whitby Abbey and Sheffield’s Park Hill estate. It even checks off Hellvelyn, not the highest peak in the Lake District but perhaps the most striking and romantic, praised by the poet William Wordsworth.
But humility is also reflected in the inclusion of the Brontë Parsonage (home of writer sisters Charlotte, Anne and Emily), perhaps not a spectacular piece of architecture but an important place in literary history nonetheless.
There’s room in the book for poignant historical reminders such as the Hillsborough Football Stadium. And pleasingly there are unexpected and incongruous inclusions such as Lady’s Well, a venerated pond in Northumberland, and the former site of The Haçienda nightclub in Manchester (who said English Heritage only cared about old stone walls?).
That said, the mention of a celebrated former nightclub makes me wonder about the title of this book. If the sites included in its pages are ‘Irreplaceable’, why then does something that’s been replaced by a block of flats make it onto the list?
And while we’re on the title, I do wonder whether A History of England in 100 Places is really an accurate description of this book. Although each place has a mini-essay to accompany the strong and atmospheric photography, there isn’t one overarching narrative that links any of the places to each other. They’re grouped into chapters, but ultimately, when viewed together, these areas don’t tell a story, never mind a history of England.
Historic England has long sought to overcome this challenge – namely uniting a disparate group of buildings, monuments, ruins and landscapes and weaving them into a narrative of the country. Visitors to each of these physical sites would be just as immersed in the one place as they would any other. This book represented an opportunity to stand back, reflect and to create dialogue between these places, but that seems to have been missed.
The book is a list of 100 places, each with its own history, and Philip Wilkinson has written each of these incredibly well, often making what could have been dry historical content relevant to the reader today. But this is not a history of England, as the title suggests. As such this charming publication leaves me intrigued by individual moments – and I will certainly be going to visit some of them – but ultimately underwhelmed by the whole.