Released in March this year, author Mike Parker delves into the history of the border between England and Wales
Borders are a very hot topic right now. As I write, Finland has just joined Nato, doubling the length of the boundary that organisation shares with Russia. For more than a decade Vladimir Putin has been telling anyone who would listen that Ukraine’s borders are fake and, just over a year ago, he put such statements to the test. There is talk of hard and soft borders on the island of Ireland (and down the middle of the Irish Sea), the vexed problem of crossings between countries in the Channel and talk of a bigger, better wall along the Rio Grande in Texas (there are in fact physical border barriers – ie, walls – in no fewer than 73 other places around the globe). So, it is a timely moment for Mike Parker to publish his exploration of the demarcation between England and Wales.
That border, stretching from the Dee to the Severn, goes back to Roman times, but like a particularly slippery eel, it has thrown itself into strange convulsions along its length. Sometimes it is relatively straight, even if that means cutting through villages, down the main streets of towns, dissecting pubs, golf courses, even a football stadium. It is not above capriciously bulging this way or that, often evidence of an ancient landgrab or trade-off. During lockdown, Parker pored over maps and satellite photos of the oft fraught and fought-over border, walking every inch of it in his imagination. And when the virus retreated, he did it for real.
The legacy of the pandemic hangs over this travelogue, as the author recalls how the porous border became more impermeable as Cardiff imposed rules that were different than Westminster’s. It entrenched some attitudes on both sides and called to mind the days when Wales had dry Sundays, thanks to an Act of Parliament in 1881. Those wanting a drink had to cross into England, where pubs did a roaring trade on the Sabbath (the last Welsh parish went wet for Sundays in 1996). Instead of alcohol, though, the division between the adjacent countries was caused by whether people should wear masks and obey different social distancing rules. Generally, Wales went faster and stricter and the population was more cautious, whereas the author suggests the neighbours (and especially English second-home owners) were more cavalier in heeding any Wales-only restrictions when they crossed over.
Parker is an entertaining, if sometimes waspish, guide. Chester, the AE Housman industry and even poor Hay-on-Wye come in for some gentle snark. There is plenty of history and politics – delving into issues of national identity, class (privileged families such as the Legge-Bourkes, the Ormsby-Gores, and the Grosvenors pop up), culture wars, real wars, the lasting scars of careless exploitation and the importance of the Welsh language – but also much obvious enjoyment of the wilder parts of the border, sections he memorably calls ‘a rough-arsed Eden’. There is also an element of partisanship at work. There is no doubt which of the two conjoined countries has his heart – I didn’t buy the audiobook, but you can almost hear his sighs of relief and whoops of joy when he crosses from, say, the suffocating tweeness of Cheshire and back into ‘the rebel hills of Wales’ and its more careworn towns and villages.
Not that Parker is a native – he describes himself as a middle-class Englishman turned Cymro o ddewis (Welshman by choice) – but he has the passion of a convert. As a child of Liverpool, who holidayed in Abersoch (before the second-home owners hollowed it out), took seaside trips to Rhyl and Llandudno and longer school sojourns to The Eisteddfod at Llangollen, I, too, have a soft spot for the country. Like the author, I can still remember the vertiginous shock of the first sighting of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct at Llangollen with its railing on one side only. I am still building up the courage to take a narrowboat over it.
In his relishing of the parts of the borderlands that tourist brochures eschew, Parker sometimes reminds me of Robert MacFarlane, whose book The Old Ways led me to the treacherous mudflats around Foulness Island in Essex, where I eventually set a novel. I felt a very similar pull from his description of the Maelor near Wrexham, where the River Dee, marking the Welsh-English border for some of its length, switchbacks into sinuous curves. He describes the area as a ‘calloused Welsh toe, stretched out and poking deep into England’ where the lines between the two countries are blurred, some villages seem uncertain whether they are Welsh or English and the landscape is dominated by bog and mosses and villages where, in the dim past, Romani gypsies, army deserters and unmarried mothers found refuge. The Maelor sounds right up my street. If that description tickles your fancy, All the Wide Borders is a book for you, too.
All the Wide Border: Wales, England and the Places Between by Mike Parker (HarperNorth, £20)
Robert Ryan is a journalist, screenwriter and Sunday Times bestselling author
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