Published this week by Faber, Matthew Green’s ‘Shadowlands: A Journey through Lost Britain’ unearths the stories of Britain’s lost cities, ghost towns and vanished villages. Adam Scovell reviews.
‘Lost places can be all things to all people,’ writes Matthew Green in his accomplished new book, Shadowlands: A Journey through Lost Britain (Faber). Green sets out in search of some of Britain’s most evocative and unusual lost cities, towns and villages, whether lost ports such as Dunwich and Winchelsea, forgotten settlements such as Skara Brae, Wharram Percy and Trellech or those places with politically contested ghosts such as Capel Celyn or the STANTA military zone traversing the East Anglian border. The result is a detailed, flowing volume that successfully combines history, archaeology and walking memoir.
Voice is key to Shadowlands. With a boon in books titled after some form of land, it would be easy to make assumptions regarding the book’s content. Many land-titled books tend to be less about the wandering of said places and more about the wanderer; a veiled conceit of autobiography with place merely a mirror to reflect in. “I”’s often heavily abound. Shadowlands avoids the clichés that increasingly bog down other books, using the first person to merely situate and humanise the exploration rather than geographically map personal problems.
The language is especially deft. Green is exemplary in weaving history, character and place together. Historical figures are particularly well sketched, no longer mere quotations and references but fully fleshed people whose company is often a delight to share. Professor Vere Gordon Childe, an eccentric academic of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, feels like a figure straight out of an Ealing Comedy in spite of his important work on Orkney’s Skara Brae. On the other hand, Stuart Wilson, the celebrated yet controversial amateur who is privately digging up the remains of Trellech in Wales, feels an antidote to the fusty academy he battles in the endless fight for historical clarity. If Shadowlands is about lost and abandoned places, Green certainly finds the most interesting of people still picking over their remains.
With Green’s background being academic, Shadowlands could easily have been jargon-laden and too heavy on the purely historical information. But, just as each patch of detail begins to feel ponderous, he veers into other forms, whether dramatising the history itself (in measured prose that should leave novel writers envious) or the aforementioned first-person trudges, usually to amusingly empty fields. He has a knack of knowing just when to switch between these modes, no doubt a product of someone who decided to bring his research and work to a broader audience through media. Green’s C.V. is long with writing and broadcasting, and the skills clearly honed in more public as opposed to cloistered arenas pays dividends for the reader.
With decay and destruction at the centre of the book, it’s unsurprising that the tone feels Gothic. Its chapter detailing the destruction of Dunwich, the famous seaport on the Suffolk coast since fallen into the sea, is especially effective in this regard, characterised perfectly by its evocative opening gambit: ‘It fell amid a waterfall of dead men’s bones on to the beach below…’. Dunwich is really the model for the exploration, a driving force of interest. Aside from opening the book, it’s telling that, when it was famously sold in a close nine-way auction between publishers, Shadowlands went under the initial title of The City that Fell off a Cliff.
Green fills out much of Dunwich’s cultural history with refreshing gusto. He resists (mostly) the more recent, popular draw of the place, focussing not on W.G. Sebald’s famous walks around it in The Rings of Saturn (though Sebald admittedly frames the book’s modus operandi in the opening page), instead looking into Dunwich’s older creative figures and visitors, especially Henry James. ‘I defy any one, at desolate, exquisite Dunwich, to be disappointed in anything’, Green quotes of James, before concluding that the town ‘was a magnet for Victorian dreamers.’ In fact, the book is filled with such dreamy Gothica, whether detailing the fallout of great pestilence, the gory reality of hand-to-hand battle or the melancholy of lost homes under the waves.
In contrary to its position of hindsight, Shadowlands resists nostalgia for simpler times, marking Green out as a refreshing voice in this regard. So often, writers fall quickly into half-imagined visions of a kind of Victorian folly pastoralism when even mildly discussing times before The Enlightenment.
Shadowlands is driven by the momentum of entropy. It’s less about rediscovery — though certainly with its expertise being historical and archaeological, it has many aspects of interest in that regard — and more about the fragility of civilisation, simply in a micro rather than macro perspective. It also denies nostalgia by exploring towns not too far in the distant, foggy past. Capel Celyn, the Welsh village flooded in 1965 to supply water to industries on Merseyside, is a prime example; one in which locality and identity becomes threatened by industry and is allowed to be drowned by Parliament. There is no rosy vision of the past here. The destruction is still raw.
Very few of the communities discussed believed in the possibility of their homes being lost, and only appear to have been convinced of such by various large scale catastrophes. Of these, the most interesting and poignant are the climate-linked disasters. A number of the towns explored suffered at the fate of changing climate, albeit not man-made in most cases in the book. Old Winchelsea, for example, was the ‘first British town to drown since the beginning of recorded history.’ It seems that the graves of these shadowlands are often a watery one.
Climate is the real haunter of the book’s pages, and the resulting romantic ideals ascribed to the echoes of places fall away when finally considered. It’s difficult not to find this element unnerving, especially as the previously quite natural (albeit destructive) change in climate feels omen-esque of the man-made decimation to come. As Green notes when talking about Wincheslsea, ‘the storms that finished off Old Winchelsea are just the kind of extreme weather events that are becoming more common in our own time as a result of man-made climate change, much worse than anything the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries could dream up.’
Ultimately, Shadowlands is a rewarding but humbling book. It’s easy to feel secure in a city when the walls are firm and the streets bustle with life. But many of the places explored by Green were arguably just as certain in their fallible belief of longevity. As he writes in his last chapter ‘There will be more Dunwichs and more Winchelseas’. Shadowlands aren’t simply a past echo of unique and distinct disappearances, but a warning of futures yet to manifest; when things that seemed so permanent will dramatically reveal their true transience.
‘Shadowlands’ is out this Thursday and available here (£18.00).