This is a delightful book, nostalgic, slyly witty, perceptive and at times flirting — deliberately — with old fogeyism.
Tom Fort, a BBC radio journalist, starts from the assumption that ‘many of us have a road that reaches back into our past’. For him, this is the 92 miles of the A303 — as he subtitles his book, the ‘Highway to the Sun’.
At first glance I imagined there might a be a sort of literary suicide in store; but I quickly discovered that Fort had much more in mind than an anorak’s guide to a road. By looking closely at the history of the A303, the surrounding villages and historical sites, and by examining our love affair — cooling — with the motor car, he has in fact written a plain man’s state-of-the-nation book. It is about England, and a small tranche of England at that, but it achieves an admirable universality in its insights into travel, holidays, agrarian longing, conservation and the general sense that things were better some time in the past.
In fact, Fort has discovered the A303 quite late: on his journeys to various chalk streams, famous for their trout and grayling — the Test, the Avon and the Wylie — and onwards, when he had a family, to the liberating and bracing holidays of the south west. The A303, he says, is a road of ‘magical properties’.
Like him, I have driven the roundtrip on the A303 for an afternoon’s trout-fishing on the Avon many times, and I, too, am deeply affected by the magic of the chalk streams and the surrounding villages they flow through. But I have not noticed things the way Fort has. He misses nothing, from pig farms by the side of the road to roadkill; from ancient burial mounds to the Little Chef, which Heston Blumenthal tried to update at Popham services. Fort says that only two of Heston’s unloved innovations survive on the menu. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that Fort has little time for posh food; bacon butties, the full English, four pints of bitter in the pub with steak and kidney are often commended.
He is also obsessed, in a good way, with cars, traffic, maps, roads, routes, planning and byways. He particularly likes bridges — the older the better. What he doesn’t say — he has foresworn fish for this book — is that big trout often lie under bridges. He also discourses amiably on cafés in caravans, ancient milestones, extravagant monuments like those at Stourhead, and Fat Charlie, the emblem of Little Chef. (Not the same outside all Little Chefs, you will be surprised to hear.) ‘Little Chef has changed, the sign proclaims. It hasn’t, not really. It can’t. It can only go on as it is, or disappear.’
Fort is also good on transport ministers and the various half-baked and half-finished schemes they have championed over the years. Half-forgotten names emerge from the opaque waters of relatively recent history: Ernest Marples, Richard Marsh and Barbara Castle among many who had a go, with their grand and invariably neutered plans. Transport is not a ministry the ambitious should accept: no transport minister has gone on to be prime minister. Barbara Castle couldn’t even drive.
Fort’s interest in Stonehenge, clearly the star attraction of the whole strip, and the powerhouse of magic, is irresistible to his eye as he drives and walks around it. One of the best views, he says, is actually from the A303 itself. (You can always go once round the ‘Solstice’ roundabout for a second look from the other direction). He gives a wonderfully ironic account of Stonehenge’s ups and downs in the hands of the Antrobus family, the military and — since l918 — the nation. He particularly loves the eccentrics — ‘a multitude of antiquaries, historians, archaelogists, visionaries, prophets and crackpots who have studied it, speculated on its origins and promoted their accounts of its meaning and purpose.’ Inigo Jones, sent by James I, decided it was a Roman temple.
And the truth is nobody knows. Digs have produced shards of pottery and some bones, but the people who built it are beyond the reach of science. The druidical claims for Stonehenge seem to belong to that bonkers but persistent strand of Englishness that believes there is something particularly mystical about the English themselves, who were clearly a chosen people. But, as Fort writes, ‘the fact is, there are almost no facts about Stonehenge’.
This is a wonderfully charming book. It is also stealthily profound.