True North: Essential Identity and Cultural Camouflage in H.V. Morton’s In Search of England




Morton, England, Northern England, National Trust,

How to Cite

Foster, K. (2017). True North: Essential Identity and Cultural Camouflage in H.V. Morton’s <em>In Search of England</em>. M/C Journal, 20(6).
Vol. 20 No. 6 (2017): north
Published 2017-12-31

When the National Trust was established in 1895 its founders, Canon Rawnsley, Sir Robert Hunter and Octavia Hill, were, as Cannadine notes, “primarily concerned with preserving open spaces of outstanding natural beauty which were threatened with development or spoliation.” This was because, like Ruskin, Morris and “many of their contemporaries, they believed that the essence of Englishness was to be found in the fields and hedgerows, not in the suburbs and slums” (Cannadine 227). It was important to protect these sites of beauty and historical interest from development not only for what they were but for what they purportedly represented—an irreplaceable repository of the nation’s “spiritual values”, and thus a vital antidote to the “base materialism” of the day. 

G.M. Trevelyan, who I am quoting here, noted in two pieces written on behalf of the Trust in the 1920s and 30s, that the “inexorable rise of bricks and mortar” and the “full development of motor traffic” were laying waste to the English countryside. In the face of this assault on England’s heartland, the National Trust provided “an ark of refuge” safeguarding the nation’s cherished physical heritage and preserving its human cargo from the rising waters of materialism and despair (qtd. in Cannadine 231-2).

Despite the extension of the road network and increasing private ownership of cars (up from 200,000 registrations in 1918 to “well over one million” in 1930), physical distance and economic hardship denied the majority of the urban population access to the countryside (Taylor 217). For the urban working classes recently or distantly displaced from the land, the dream of a return to rural roots was never more than a fantasy. Ford Madox Ford observed that “the poor and working classes of the towns never really go back” (Ford 58).

Through the later nineteenth century the rural nostalgia once most prevalent among the working classes was increasingly noted as a feature of middle class sensibility. Better educated, with more leisure time and money at their disposal, these sentimental ruralists furnished a ready market for a new consumer phenomenon—the commodification of the English countryside and the packaging of the values it notionally embodied. As Valentine Cunningham observes, this was not always an edifying spectacle. By the late 1920s, “the terrible sounds of ‘Ye Olde England’ can already be heard, just off-stage, knocking together its thatched wayside stall where plastic pixies, reproduction beer-mugs, relics of Shakespeare and corn-dollies would soon be on sale” (Cunningham 229). Alongside the standard tourist tat, and the fiction and poetry that romanticised the rural world, a new kind of travel writing emerged around the turn of the century. Through an analysis of early-twentieth century notions of Englishness, this paper considers how the north struggled to find a place in H.V. Morton’s In Search of England (1927).

In Haunts of Ancient Peace (1901), the Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin, described a journey through “Old England” as a cultural pilgrimage in quest of surviving vestiges of the nation’s essential identity, “or so much of it as is left” (Austin 18). Austin’s was an early example of what had, by the 1920s and 30s become a “boom market … in books about the national character, traditions and antiquities, usually to be found in the country” (Wiener 73). Longmans began its “English Heritage” series in 1929, introduced by the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, with volumes on “English humour, folk song and dance, the public school, the parish church, [and] wild life”. A year later Batsford launched its series of books on “English Life” with volumes featuring “the countryside, Old English household life, inns, villages, and cottages” (Wiener 73).  There was an outpouring of books with an overtly conservationist agenda celebrating journeys through or periods of residence in the countryside, many of them written by “soldiers like Henry Williamson and Edmund Blunden, who returned from the First War determined to preserve the rural England they’d known” (Cunningham 229; Blunden, Face, England; Roberts, Pilgrim, Gone ; Williamson). In turn, these books engendered an efflorescence of critical analyses of the construction of England (Hamilton; Haddow; Keith; Cavaliero; Gervais; Giles and Middleton; Westall and Gardiner).

By the 1920s it was clear that a great many people thought they knew what England was, where it might be found, and if threatened, which parts of it needed to be rescued in order to safeguard the survival of its essential identity. By the same point, there were large numbers who felt, in Patrick Wright’s words, that “Some areas of the nation had been lost forever and in these no one should expect to find the traditional nation at all” (Wright 87).

A key guide to the nation’s sacred sites in this period, an inventory of their relics, and an illustration of how its lost regions might be rescued for or erased from its cultural map, was provided in H.V. Morton’s In Search of England (1927). Initially published as a series of articles in the Daily Express in 1926, In Search of England went through nine editions in the two and a half years after its appearance in book form in 1927. With sales in excess of a million copies, as John Brannigan notes, the book went through a further twenty editions by 1943,  and has remained continuously in print since (Brannigan).

In his introduction Morton proposes In Search of England is simply “the record of a motor-car journey round England … written without deliberation by the roadside, on farmyard walls, in cathedrals, in little churchyards, on the washstands of country inns, and in many another inconvenient place” (Morton vii). As C.R. Perry notes, “This is a happy image, but also a misleading one” (Perry 434) for there was nothing arbitrary about Morton’s progress. Even a cursory glance at the map of his journey confirms, the England that Morton went in search of was overwhelmingly rural or coastal, and embodied in the historic villages and ancient towns of the Midlands or South.

Morton’s biographer, Michael Bartholomew suggests that the “nodal points” of Morton’s journey are the “cathedral cities” (Bartholomew 105).

Despite claims to the contrary, his book was written with deliberation and according to a specific cultural objective. Morton’s purpose was not to discover his homeland but to confirm a vision that he and millions of others cherished. He was not in search of England so much as reassuring himself and his readers that in spite of the depredations of the factory and the motor vehicle, it was still out there. These aims determined Morton’s journey; how long he spent in differing parts, what he recorded, and how he presented landscapes, buildings, people and material culture.

Morton’s determination to celebrate England as rural and ancient needed to negotiate the journey north into an industrial landscape better known for its manufacturing cities, mining and mill towns, and the densely packed streets of the poor and working classes. Unable to either avoid or ignore this north, Morton needed to settle upon a strategy of passing through it without disturbing his vision of the rural idyll.  

Narratively, Morton’s touring through the south and west of the country is conducted at a gentle pace. In my 1930 edition of the text, it takes 185 of the book’s 280 pages to bring him from London via the South Coast, Cornwall, the Cotswolds and the Welsh marches, to Chester. The instant Morton crosses the Lancashire border, his bull-nosed Morris accelerates through the extensive northern counties in a mere thirty pages: Warrington to Carlisle (with a side trip to Gretna Green), Carlisle to Durham, and Durham to Lincoln. The final sixty-five pages return to the more leisurely pace of the south and west through Norfolk and the East Midlands, before the journey is completed in an unnamed village somewhere between Stratford upon Avon and Warwick. Morton spends 89 per cent of the text in the South and Midlands (66 per cent and 23 per cent respectively) with only 11 per cent given over to his time in the north.

If, as Genette has pointed out, narrative deceleration results in the descriptive pause, it is no coincidence that this is the recurring set piece of Morton’s treatment of the south and west as opposed to the north. His explorations take dwelling moments on river banks and hill tops, in cathedral closes and castle ruins to honour the genius loci and imagine earlier times. On Plymouth Hoe he sees, in his mind’s eye, Sir Walter Raleigh’s fleet set sail to take on the Armada; at Tintagel it is Arthur, wild and Celtic, scaling the cliffs, spear in hand; at Buckler’s Hard amid the rotting slipways he imagines the “stout oak-built ships which helped to found the British Empire”, setting out on their journeys of conquest (Morton 39). 

At the other extreme, Genette observes, that narrative acceleration produces ellipsis, where details are omitted in order to render a more compact and striking expression.  It is the principle of ellipsis, of selective omission, which compresses the geography of Morton’s journey through the north with the effect of shaping reader experiences. Morton hurries past the north’s industrial areas—shuddering at the sight of smoke or chimneys and averting his gaze from factory and slum.

As he crosses the border from Cheshire into Lancashire, Morton reflects that “the traveller enters Industrial England”—not that you would know it from his account (Morton 185). Heading north towards the Lake District, he steers a determined path between “red smoke stacks” rising on one side and an “ominous grey haze” on the other, holding to a narrow corridor of rural land where, to his relief, he observes men “raking hay in a field within gunshot of factory chimneys” (Morton 185-6). These redolent, though isolated, farmhands are of greater cultural moment than the citadels of industry towering on either side of them. While the chimneys might symbolise the nation’s economic potency, the farmhands embody the survival of its essential cultural and moral qualities. In an allusion to the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea from the Book of Exodus, the land that the workers tend holds back the polluted tide of industry, furnishing relief from the factory and the slum, granting Morton safe passage through the perils of modernity and into the Promised Land–or at least the Lake District. In Morton’s view this green belt is not only more essentially English than trade and industry, it is also expresses a nobler and more authentic Englishness.

The “great industrial new-rich cities of northern England—vast and mighty as they are,” Morton observes, “fall into perspective as mere black specks against the mighty background of history and the great green expanse of fine country which is the real North of England” (Morton 208). Thus, the rural land between Manchester and Liverpool expands into a sea of green as the great cities shrink on the horizon, and the north is returned to its origins.

What Morton cannot speed past or ignore, what he is compelled or chooses to confront, he transforms, through the agency of history, into something that he and England can bear to own. Tempted into Wigan by its reputation as a comic nowhere-land, a place whose name conjured a thousand music hall gags, Morton confesses that he had expected to find there another kind of cliché, “the apex of the world’s pyramid of gloom … dreary streets and stagnant canals and white-faced Wigonians dragging their weary steps along dull streets haunted by the horror of the place in which they are condemned to live” (Morton 187).

In the process of naming what he dreads, Morton does not describe Wigan: he exorcises his deepest fears about what it might hold and offers an incantation intended to hold them at bay. He “discovers” Wigan is not the industrial slum but “a place which still bears all the signs of an old-fashioned country town” (Morton 188). Morton makes no effort to describe Wigan as it is, any more than he describes the north as a whole: he simply overlays them with a vision of them as they should be—he invents the Wigan and the north that he and England need.

Having surveyed parks and gardens, historical monuments and the half-timbered mock-Tudor High Street, Morton returns to his car and the road where, with an audible sigh of relief, he finds: “Within five minutes of notorious Wigan we were in the depth of the country,” and that “on either side were fields in which men were making hay” (Morton 189).

In little more than three pages he passes from one set of haymakers, south of town, to another on its north. The green world has all but smoothed over the industrial eyesore, and the reader, carefully chaperoned by Morton, can pass on to the Lake District having barely glimpsed the realities of industry and urbanism, reassured that if this is the worst that the north has to show then the rural heartland and the essential identity it sustains are safe. Paradoxically, instead of invalidating his account, Morton’s self-evident exclusions and omissions seem only to have fuelled its popularity.

For readers of the Daily Express in the months leading up to and immediately after the General Strike of 1926, the myth of England that Morton proffered, of an unspoilt village where old values and traditional hierarchies still held true, was preferable to the violently polarised urban battlefields that the strike had revealed.  As the century progressed and the nation suffered depression, war, and a steady decline in its international standing, as industry, suburban sprawl and the irresistible spread of motorways and traffic blighted the land, Morton’s England offered an imagined refuge, a real England that somehow, magically resisted the march of time.

Yet if it was Morton’s triumph to provide England with a vision of its ideal spiritual home, it was his tragedy that this portrait of it hastened the devastation of the cultural survivals he celebrated and sought to preserve: “Even as the sense of idyll and peace was maintained, the forces pulling in another direction had to be acknowledged” (Taylor 74).

In his introduction to the 1930 edition of In Search of England Morton approvingly acknowledged that a new enthusiasm for the nation’s history and heritage was abroad and that “never before have so many people been searching for England.” In the next sentence he goes on to laud the “remarkable system of motor-coach services which now penetrates every part of the country [and] has thrown open to ordinary people regions which even after the coming of the railways were remote and inaccessible” (Morton vii).

Astonishingly, as the waiting charabancs roared their engines and the village greens of England enjoyed the last hours of their tranquillity, Morton somehow failed to make the obvious connection between these unique cultural and social phenomena or take any measure of their potential consequences. His “motoring pastoral” did more than alert the barbarians to the existence of the nation’s hidden treasures, as David Matless notes it provided them with a route map, itinerary and behavioural guide for their pillages (Matless 64; Peach; Batsford).

Yet while cultural preservationists wrung their hands in horror at the advent of the day-tripper slouching towards Barnstaple, for Morton this was never a cause for concern. The nature of his journey and the form of its representation demonstrate that the England he worshipped was more an imaginary than a physical space, an ideal whose precise location no chart could fix and no touring party defile. 


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Author Biography

Kevin Foster, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics Monash Universiry

Dr Kevin Foster is Head of the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University in Melbourne. Educated in the UK, Canada and Australia he has conducted original research with the Australian, British, Canadian, Dutch and US militaries. He has published widely on war, cultural history and national identity and his work has appeared in a range of national and international journals. He is the author of Fighting Fictions: War, Narrative and National Identity (1999), Lost Worlds: Latin America and the Imagining of Empire (2009), the editor of What are we doing in Afghanistan? The Military and the Media at War (2009) and The Information Battlefield: Representing Australians at War (2011). His most recent monograph is Don’t Mention the War: The Australian Defence Force, the Media and the Afghan Conflict (2013).