by Rory Stewart
Penguin Books 2016
Reviewed by Hester Greenstock (first published in the Sherborne Times)
Rory Stewart OBE, MP since 2010 for Penrith and The Borders (the largest geographical constituency in England), and author of The Places In Between (written after his solo walk across Afghanistan), now describes a trek of some 380 miles starting from Ullswater in the Lake District, his constituency base. He wants to investigate the Marches, otherwise called the Middleland, the region which lies in the North of England and the Borders region of Scotland.
He loves walking long distances and is also fascinated by human beings and their idiosyncratic likes, dislikes and beliefs. He traces the England – Scotland border and then progresses up to his family home near Crieff. This is a book with many historical layers, but it is also a homage to his father, Brian Stewart, with whom he has a close relationship, yet whom he wants to understand better. The first part of the book is an account of their joint walk along Hadrian’s Wall, during which his father accompanies him for short distances before they review their impressions in B&Bs in the evening. Rory’s experiences while in Iraq and Afghanistan, his father’s insights fighting the insurgents in Malaya in the ’50s, and their joint knowledge of how the Romans maintained the northern frontier of their Empire on the Wall, all generate pertinent insights, not least into today’s Middle Eastern conflicts.
The main part of the book concerns the history of the Middleland, which effectively made up a third country between England and Scotland and which influenced the position of the border today. His concern about the landscape brings him into conflict with environmentalists who want to reduce sheep farming and preserve rare species, but who are not so keen in maintaining the Lake District sheep and their 1000-year-old history. He also explains how the villages of Northern England and their pattern of small farms contrast with the unpopulated swathes of land north of the border. He interviews a wide variety of people to find out their attitude to the land and discovers that their decisions for supporting independence for Scotland are often far from rational. This turns out to be true of his father’s views as well: though supporting the Union, as he used to support the British Empire, he is also an enthusiastic Scot.
In the final section there is a moving account of the end of his father’s life and his burial in the grounds of his Scottish house. The acute observations of relationships of people with the land make this a very thought provoking book on a number of levels: historical, personal and local. It is also a quest for understanding and meaning in 21st Century politics, and is written by a most unusual politician.