I live in north Gloucestershire, so my home territory is bounded by the limestone villages of the Cotswolds, the market gardens of the Vale of Evesham, Herefordshire’s apple orchards, and the ‘black and white’ villages of the southern part of Warwickshire. It’s the kind of place – tranquil, rural, steeped in history – that many people think of when they think of England, and the villages of Warwickshire, with their timber-framed, thatched houses were described as ‘Unmitigated England’ by Henry James in a phrase that has been much recycled since he coined it.
The first book I read about the area, John Russell’s Shakespeare’s Country, was also alert to this quintessential Englishness. Writing during World War II, Russell knew that this was a place where one could savour England’s history and tranquillity. He also knew that the war placed these very qualities under threat, and the region associated with Shakespeare stood for the whole country that soldiers, sailors and airmen were fighting for. Yet Russell, with the sharp eye that would make him a penetrating art critic, was also aware of the rich array of outside influences that helped shape this very English region. In Shakespeare’s area he could cite almshouses built by a Westphalian, a wool-weaving industry founded by Flemish artisans, Dutch armourers, Hungarian workers who created a glass industry, French craftsmen. Even the market gardens of Evesham were apparently started by an ambassador from Genoa.
All these contributions were part of networks of interaction stretching over hundreds of years. Slowly – these things do not happen overnight – Middle England’s industry, commerce, and society absorbed these influences, just as England’s art has benefited from all kinds of ideas from overseas. Shakespeare himself absorbed and transformed writers such as Plutarch, the Romantics devoured German philosophy and poetry, writers such as Rosetti were inspired by the poetry of Italy. In architecture, too, English builders have been transforming foreign styles of centuries, creating out of Norman models our own massive version of the Romanesque, out of French ideas the uniquely English Perpendicular Gothic of King’s College Chapel, out of the designs of Greeks, Romans, and Italians, new kinds of classicism. The most English of composers, Vaughan Williams, took lessons in France (he went to Ravel, he said, to acquire some ‘French polish’); our most popular drink, tea, comes via the empire from India; and if our stereotypical meal, roast beef, is local enough, it can be accompanied by red wine – and if our purse doesn’t stretch to St Emilion, we can resort to something like the curious hybrid tipple of Rumpole, Château Thames Embankment.
This island nation, in one way so isolated by the sea, has been hospitable to those who have made it across the waves and receptive to the cultures they brought with them. Norman masons, Huguenot cloth workers, those seeking asylum from Vietnam or Uganda, artists from Paris or Prague, have gained from living here, but those here already have gained from their presence too. So when I look at the typically English scene around me, I feel thankful for the diversity of culture and heritage that underlies it. The range is formidable: great Gothic ‘wool churches’, paid for by merchants whose trade made links with France or Flanders (one, Fairford, even contains stained glass made by Flemish glaziers); ruined monasteries inspired, and sometimes led, by monks from Rome or Burgundy; palatial country houses furnished with the aid of Italian tutors and guides and funded by agriculture in the native hills; factories started by immigrant Jews from central Europe or British citizens from the Indian subcontinent. Quintessential England, but with links all over the world.
Philip Wilkinson is a writer and blogger whose published books include The English Buildings Book, 50 Architecture Ideas You Really Need To Know, and What The Romans Did For Us. He lives in the Cotswolds and the Czech Republic.