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Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle gives us a taste of the interesting trivia to be found in his new book…

I spent a lot of time looking into treacle earlier this year. Not literally. But, as it were, literarily. You see, there’s more to treacle than meets the eye. (If treacle ever does meet your eye, I recommend washing it out immediately.) Take Treacle Mines. They don’t exist. At least, not really. But in fiction, they do. It all began at St Frideswide’s Well in Binsey, Oxfordshire, a small village immortalised by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem ‘Binsey Poplars’. One notable visitor to this well was Charles Dodgson, who worked nearby at Oxford University. One of his companions was probably a girl named Alice Liddell, of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You see, Charles Dodgson was also Lewis Carroll. (Alice’s nurse, the wonderfully named Miss Prickett, came from Binsey.)

To locals, St Frideswide’s Well was known as Binsey treacle mine, from the original meaning of ‘treacle’ denoting any curative fluid or medicine. The word ‘mine’ was a sort of joke, conveying the idea that treacle could be ‘mined’ like gold or lead or coal. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), the Dormouse tells Alice a story about three sisters who live at the bottom of a well and subsist entirely on treacle. Probably inspired by Carroll’s reference, Terry Pratchett named one of the streets in Ankh-Morpork, the chief city in his Discworld novels, Treacle Mine Road. This remained the stuff of comic fantasy until a fan of Pratchett’s work campaigned to have his local Somerset town, Wincanton, twinned with Ankh-Morpork. The proposal was approved and in 2009 one of the new streets on a housing development in Wincanton was named Treacle Mine Road in honour of Pratchett’s fictional street.

This is the sort of thing you’ll find in my new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, which came out yesterday with the publisher John Murray.

When I began this Friday column back in the summer, I named it after my first book, which saw me go in search of some of the lesser-known but fascinating titles to be found among the world’s library shelves. The Secret Library is very much a historical tour charting the development of 3,000 years of Western civilisation through focusing on its finest invention: the book. My new book takes a different approach, being a geographical tour of Britain but with the same aim: to discover the surprising and little-known stories to be found lurking behind some of the great works of literature (and some not so great).

One of the great things about writing Britain by the Book, which sprang from the same instinct which drives this blog – curiosity about the obscure and forgotten, as well as an interest in looking more closely at the stories we take for granted about classic literary works – is the sheer number of times I came across things I didn’t know before I began researching it. It was also great fun to delve deeper into some of the things I’d previously unearthed, and to find even more surprising facts within those facts, like a sort of Russian doll of literary trivia. Here are just a few of the most fascinating and quite frankly baffling things which Britain by the Book explores:

The Dorset writer who was the first one to resurrect the old term ‘Wessex’ to refer to his beloved West Country (not Thomas Hardy);

The woman who wrote what Wordsworth considered the ‘best two lines’ in his famous daffodils poem (not his sister Dorothy);

The original location of King Arthur’s court (not Camelot);

Robin Hood’s original home (not Sherwood Forest);

How the poet William Shenstone managed to visit a Nando’s in eighteenth-century London (and complain about its ‘expensiveness’);

The famous bestselling book (and invaluable tool for many writers) which was compiled by a Manchester-based librarian as a means of coping with depression;

Why it took three attempts to get the date of Burns Night right;

What connects the ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ nursery rhyme to a Chinese takeaway in Devon;

What Dylan Thomas’s greatest legacy is besides his poems;

What the most widely copied and circulated poem was in medieval England (not anything by Chaucer, Langland, or the Gawain poet) and what connects it to a church window in York;

The churchyard which links Dracula to the poet who composed one of the first hymns written in English;

The futuristic novel set in 2000 (but written in 1892) written by a Scottish golfer, which accurately predicted television, digital watches, and British decimal currency;

How one man buying an old fire station in 1962, and naming his horse as Prime Minister in 1977, helped to transform Hay-on-Wye into the second-hand bookshop capital of the world.

Discovering such gems made researching and writing Britain by the Book a joy, and I hope that’s conveyed on the page. Many more surprising and little-known facts about Britain’s literary landscape can be found in the book.

Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape by Oliver Tearle is out now in hardcover, published by John Murray.

Image: by @SReadBooks on Twitter.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on November 3, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. This sounds JUST like my kind of book Oliver! I will get hold of a copy and review it on my writeoutloud site!

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