On Something/A Unit of England

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On Something by Hilaire Belloc
A Unit of England

England has been lucky in its type of subdivision. All over Western Europe the type of subdivision following in the fall of the Empire has been of capital importance in the development of the great nations, but while these have elsewhere been exaggerated to petty kingdoms or diminished to mere townships in Britain, for centuries the counties have formed true and lasting local units, and they have survived with more vigour than the corresponding divisions of the other provinces of Roman Europe.

That accident of the county moulded and sustained local feeling during the generations when local government and local initiative were dying elsewhere; it has preserved a sort of aristocratic independence, the survival of custom, and the differentiation of the State.

It is not necessarily (as many historians unacquainted with Europe as a whole have taken for granted) a supreme advantage for any people to escape from institution of a strong central executive. Such a power is the normal fruit of all high civilizations. It protects the weak against the strong. It is necessary for rapid action in war, it makes for clarity and method during peace, it secures a minimum for all, and it forbids the illusions and vices of the rich to taint the whole commonwealth.

But though such an escape from strong central government and the substitution for it of a ruling class is not a supreme advantage, it has advantages of its own which every foreign historian of England has recognized, and it is the divisions into counties which, after the change of religion in the sixteenth century, was mainly responsible for the slow substitution of local and oligarchic for general, central, and bureaucratic government in England.

Not all the counties by any means are true to type. All the Welsh divisions, for instance, are more or less artificial and late, with the exception of Anglesey. And as for the non-Roman parts, Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland, it goes without saying that the county never was, and is not to this day, a true unit. The central and much of the west of England is the same. That is, the shires are cut as their name implies, somewhat arbitrarily, from the general mass of territory.

When one says "arbitrarily" one does not mean that no local sentiment bound them, or that they had not some natural basis, for they had. They were the territory of central towns: Shrewsbury, Warwick, Derby, Chester, Oxford, Buckingham, Bedford, Nottingham. But their life was not and has not since been strongly individual. They have not continuous boundaries nor an early national root. But all round these, in a sort of ring, run the counties which have had true local life from the beginning. Cornwall is utterly different from Devon, and with a clear historic reason for the difference. Devon, again, is a perfectly separate unit, resulting from a definite political act of the early ninth century. Of Dorset and Hampshire one can say less, but with Sussex you get a unit which has been one kingdom and one diocese, set in true natural limits and lying within these same boundaries for much more than a thousand years. Kent, probably an original Roman division, has been one unit for longer still. Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex are equally old, though not upon their land boundaries equally denned; but perhaps the most sharply defined of all - after Sussex, at least - was Southern and Central Lancashire.

Its topography was like one of those ideal examples which military instructors take for their models when they wish to simplify a lesson upon terrain. Upon one side ran the long, high, and difficult range which is the backbone of England; upon the other the sea, and the sea and the mountains leant one towards the other, making two sides of a triangle that met above Morecambe Bay.

How formidable the natural barriers of this triangle were it is not easy for the student of our time to recognize. It needs a general survey of the past, and a knowledge of many unfamiliar conditions in the present, to appreciate it.

The difficulty of those Eastern moors and hills, for instance, the resistance they offer to human passage, meets you continually throughout English history. The engineers of the modern railways could give one a whole romance of it; the story of every army that has had to cross them, and of which we have record, bears the same witness. The illusion which the modern traveller may be under that the barrier is negligible is very soon dispelled when for his recreation he crosses it by any other methods than the railway; and perhaps in such an experience of travel nothing more impresses one in the character of that barrier than the loneliness.

There is no other corresponding contrast of men and emptiness that I know of in Europe.

The great towns lie, enormous, pullulating, millioned in the plains on either side; they push their limbs up far into the valleys. Between them, utterly deserted, you have these miles and miles of bare upland, like the roof of a house between two crowded streets.

Merely to cross the Pennines, driving or on foot, is sufficient to teach one this. To go the length of the hills along the watershed from the Peak to Crossfell (few people have done it!) is to get an impression of desertion and separation which you will match nowhere else in travel, nowhere else, at least, within touch and almost hearing of great towns.

The sea also was here more of a barrier than a bond. Ireland - not Roman, and later an enemy - lay over against that shore. Its ports (save one) silted. Its slope from the shore was shallow: the approach and the beaching of a fleet not easy. Its river mouths were few and dangerous.

This triangle of Lancashire, so cut off from the west and from the east, had for its base a barrier that completed its isolation. That barrier was the marshy valley of the Mersey. It could be outflanked only at its extreme eastern point, where the valley rises to the hundred-foot contour line. From that point the valley rises so rapidly within half a dozen miles into the eastern hills that it was dry even under primitive conditions, and the opportunity here afforded for a passage is marked by the topographical point of Stockport.

By that gate the main avenues of approach still enter the county. Through this gap passed the London Road, and passes to-day the London and North-Western Railway. It was this gate which gave its early strategic importance to Manchester, lying just north of it and holding the whole of this corner.

Historians have noted that to hold Manchester was ultimately to hold Lancashire itself. It was not the industrial importance of the town, for that was hardly existent until quite modern times: it was its strategic position which gave it such a character. The Roman fort at the junction of the two rivers near Knott Mill represented the first good defensible position commanding this gate upon the south-east.

To enter the county anywhere west of the hundred-foot contour and the Mersey Valley was, for an army deprived of modern methods, impossible: a little organized destruction would make it impossible again.

Two artificial causeways negotiated the valley. Each bears to this day (at Stretford and at Stretton) the proof of its old character, for both words indicate the passage of a "street," that is, of a hard-made way, over the soft and drowned land. Stretford was but the approach to Manchester from Chester - and Manchester thus commanded (by the way) the two south-eastern approaches to the county, the one natural, the other artificial. The approach by Stretton gave Warrington its strategic importance in the early history of the county; Warrington, the central point upon the Mersey, standing at a clear day's march from Liverpool, the port on the one hand, and a clear day's march from Manchester on the other. It was from Warrington that Lord Strange marched upon Manchester at the very beginning of the Civil War, and if by some accident this stretch of territory should again be a scene of warfare, Warrington, in spite of the close network of modern communications, would be the strategic centre of the county boundary.

So one might take the units out of which modern England has been built up one by one, showing that their boundaries were fixed by nature, and that their local separation was not the product of the pirate raids, but is something infinitely older, older than the Empire, and very probably (did we know what the Roman divisions of Britain were) accepted under the Empire. So one might prove or at least suggest that the strategical character of the English county and of its chief stronghold and barriers lay in an origin far beyond the limits of recorded history. To produce such a study would be to add to the truth and reality of our history, for England was not made nor even moulded by the Danish and the Saxon raids. The framework is far, far older and so strong that it still survives.