Last month, my wonderful journey through the fascinating The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places by Neil Oliver came to an end. I started it back in March, I think, and from then took my time: dipping in and out of this ambitious, wide-ranging, and very personal history; which I was sparked to get a copy of after attending a brilliant night on Oliver’s talking tour for the book in 2018.
In fact, he is my favourite long haired Scotsman and I have for some time been a fan of watching Oliver’s TV documentaries and seeing him on the BBC’s long-running Coast series, along with another favourite of mine: Dr Alice Roberts. I even read his 2015 debut novel, Master of Shadows, so it was good and well overdue to finally read one of his popular history books.
For all his success on TV though, Oliver first and foremost sees himself as an archaeologist, born out of his childhood passion for this land and its history: The British Isles, this diverse archipelago of islands, is, Oliver says, the best place in the world! From north to south, east to west we enjoy some of the most astonishing natural beauty, and the human story here is a million years old, and counting.
However Oliver believes – and I think we have had a glimpse of it in the last year – that the tolerant, easy-going peace we enjoy isn’t permanent and has been hard won, through knowing the best and worst of times; from being the hero and villain, and all else in between; and learning some hard lessons along the way. And that is why Oliver set out to write this history, but also very personal account of what makes these islands so special, told through the places that have witnessed the unfolding of our history.
Beginning with footprints made in the sand by humankind’s earliest ancestors, he takes us via Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans, the flowering of religion, through civil war, industrial revolution and two world wars. Travelling from windswept headlands to battlefields, ancient trees to magnificent cathedrals, each of his destinations is a place where, somehow, the spirit of the past seems to linger.
All of which is beautifully described and brought to life in quick, bite-size chapters, that you can easily dip in and out of when time and mood allow, or binge a few in a row as you get swept away into the past and the splendid locations. There are so many I want to visit now and I wholeheartedly agree that this is an essential guide to take on holiday with you. As well as all the excellent research and historical detail though, Oliver also infuses each place’s chapter with humour, personality and personal experience, to make for a wonderfully, well-rounded read.
Overall, I thought The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places by Neil Oliver was an absolutely fascinating journey through the kaleidoscopic history of a land with a story like no other. I can see myself coming back to this book again and again, especially when planning holidays and trips out. It has also made me realise I really need to read more of Oliver’s histories! Great read ⭐⭐⭐
(I am counting this book towards my Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2021)
Now I’d love to hear your thoughts: Have you read this? Or any of Neil Oliver’s other histories?