Extract: All the Wide Border – Wales, England and the places between
The latest book by the award-winning writer Mike Parker is All the Wide Border: Wales, England and the places between. It’s described as a funny, warm and timely meditation on identity and belonging, following the scenic route along the England–Wales border: Britain’s deepest faultline. We are pleased to publish an extract from the book’s prologue.
Daytime television was a distant dream in black-and-white Britain, but on the morning of Thursday 8 September, 1966, there was something special: a ninety-minute live outside broadcast of the Queen opening the new Severn Bridge.
Viewers watched her arrive at Aust, on the English bank of the river, shake a lot of hands and give a little speech, before climbing into her official car and being driven across the bridge to do it all again, to a rather smaller crowd, at the Newhouse roundabout, on the Welsh side.
The second ceremony, according to a spokesman for the royal household, was “almost as important” as the first.
In an instant, the bridge became visual shorthand for the border, for the coming together of two old neighbours, an outstretched handshake high above the silver tides.
Thirty years later, a second bridge was added, longer and even more graceful than the first, and together their elegant functionalism became the icon not just of a line on the map, but of a tangled ancient relationship too. No TV producer could resist their gimcrack symbolism, the soaring shots and swollen soundtracks.
You can’t blame them, for finding the essence of this furtive border is a notoriously fraught occupation. Crossing the divide, there’s almost always some disjunction to be found or felt, but peer too closely, or light it too brightly, and it might just evaporate.
The March, the middle land, is a will-o’-the-wisp. Hillforts and castle mounds growl from the green; church bells toll in lonely sunset skies; lanes twist and creak through the woods to take you where you least expected.
Even the names on the map refuse to choose a side, written in a mash of two languages that have coupled in a hayrick, and spawned a beautiful bastard third.
To Mary Webb, this is “the country that lies between the dimpled lands of England and the gaunt purple steeps of Wales – half in faery and half out of it”, and in its very mutability lie so many of its truths.
When travelling from England into Wales, it is invariably so that the greens swell deeper, the contours sharper and the crags sulkier, but somehow in ways that are both imperceptible and sudden.
No less a stereotype, crossing into Wales often seems to provoke a downpour, as if the two countries are governed from different heavens. And perhaps they are: for all the egalitarian swagger of the Severn Bridge, you need not go far either side of it to be reminded that these are neighbours of radically, almost comically, mismatched weight and wealth.
Today, Wales’ population is around one-twentieth of England’s, yet it is home to half of their combined poorest districts. An economy based so heavily on blasting coal, slate and minerals from the ground has left it bruised, blistered and in chronically poor health. Meanwhile, the wealth of the plush parts of England has grown giddily, and the gap widens daily.
Every recession, every crisis stretches the balance sheet only further, and yet…and yet, beyond the numbers, by any token that cannot be counted or quantified, Wales holds fistfuls of trump cards, and knows it.
We know it too, those of us from the English side of the line who have been so readily seduced by our next-door neighbour. We fell for the rugged beauty and dark-eyed charm, the hint of something wilder and earthier beneath the starch of Sunday best.
Many cross in the other direction too, of course. Aside from the necessities of economy or opportunity, nowhere in Wales can offer the freedom of the great English cities, their intoxicating blasts of anonymity irresistible to anyone strangled by too-tight apron strings.
Criss-crossing the border too are centuries of rumour and legend, hearsay and hubris, dark shadows and shafts of heathen light; also countless paths, hundreds of streams, nine railways and 202 public roads.
None come trumpeted so loudly as the Severn bridges, to this day still the only motorway in Wales. Most are quiet B-roads and mud-puddled lanes, where only a change in the tarmac lets you know that you have gone over to the other side.
The main road between Shrewsbury and Welshpool is firmly mid-rank, busy and slow through dusty villages and often clogged with caravans, but it is the border crossing that I make far more than any other, and love with a fierce, weird pride. In all its mongrel clutter, it’s me.
Thirty years on the English side, and nearly twenty-five on the Welsh, as I cross the line in either direction I feel it pluck inside me like a piano string, its plaintive vibrato persisting long after the signs have receded.
Heading east, I’m poised for the first view over the wide plains of my Midland upbringing, and thinking of beer and spices and warm red brick. Heading west, I sink into the stony embrace of the hills and let my thoughts decouple, and drift home.
All the Wide Border: Wales, England and the places between by Mike Parker is out now, published by Harper North. It is available from all good bookshops.
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