New Welsh Review

Secret Britain: Unearthing Our Mysterious Past

Mary-Ann Ochota

Amy Aed discovers worlds and wonders right beneath her feet

PUBLISHED ON: 27/01/21

CATEGORY: Reviews

TAGS: Britain, archaeology, female, historical, nonfiction, staycation, travel

PUBLISHER: Frances Lincoln

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Secret Britain: Unearthing Our Mysterious Past is an informative, immersive book, into which the author weaves poetry, dusting old stories with magic. It educates, whilst simultaneously leaving you with a newfound desire to discover these myths and legends for yourself.

Flick to a random page and uncover something new. Within minutes of looking through the book, I learnt an incredible amount about local Welsh history, such as the fact that Stonehenge actually features blue stones from Preseli, the Pembrokeshire mountains a little way south of where I am living. There’s an unexplained but clear link between the community in Wiltshire and the community in Preseli, and perhaps we will never know why they travelled such distances for the stones.

Secret Britain makes you look at things in an entirely different way. Mary Ochota writes:

 

Every step you take in Britain treads on the past. A street now filled with shops and houses might once have been a royal palace. An anonymous farmer’s field glimpsed from a car window might have borne witness to the last gasps of a bloody battle, an event so terrible the people swore it could never be forgotten. An eroded mound under a stand of trees might once have been the holy of holies, a sacred place worth travelling weeks to reach, for generations of ancient people.

 

I had never found myself awfully invested in British history as I felt it paled in comparison to those in far-away lands… until now. As the book states, ‘Britain is full of ancient wonders: strange places and objects that hint at a deep and enduring relationship with the mystic.’

The book takes you through the ages, through the eras. I learnt for the first time how to differentiate the centuries:Palaeolithic (early stone age) was followed by Mesolithic (middle stone age) by Neolithic (late stone age), then Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Early Medieval (includes the Anglo-Saxon and then the Viking periods), Medieval, Post Medieval, and then Modern. I for one am now better informed.

The paper in the book is super thick and lovely, and the photographs are such high quality, I almost feel as though I’m there looking at the artefacts myself. Mix this with the beautiful writing, and it becomes a truly engaging guidebook to the small world around us.

Secret Britain is full of interesting tidbits, and shows how British myths and legends inter-relate with other European cultures, such as when it talks about Odin, the chief of the Norse Gods, representing wisdom, honour, battle, and magic. In Saxon traditions, Odin is equivalent to Woden, and lends his name to the middle of the week, Woden’s Day, AKA Wednesday. Frigg, his wife, has Friday.

 Many local British monuments feature the Old Norse illustration of the three goddesses of fate. Known as the Norns, they represent the past, present, and future, and are said to spin the threads of life itself, deciding the fate of all living beings. When a baby is born, the Norns are always nearby and through their spinning, they create a web that binds us inextricably into one another’s lives.

 More than thirty Runic inscriptions have been found inside the prehistoric tomb of Maeshowe on Orkney. They say things such as ‘Haermund Hardace carved these runes’ and ‘Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women.’ I guess that some things really do never change.

 This book is really is packed with some truly mind-blowing stuff, and makes some really good points, too.

 

Most of the things our ancestors coloured red – their skin, their beads, their bones, their rocks – will never be seen by us. The pigment washes away almost as easily as it is applied, and 30,000 years and an Ice Age can do some hefty damage to archaeological remains. But if you ever stumble across an outcrop or nodule of red ochre, take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the blood dust. Rub it on your skin and transport yourself into the world of the ancestors.

 

Seemingly mundane things that you would unknowingly walk past are full of the most interesting stories – as Ochota says, when you stop and look, magic happens.

 The book ends on a slightly bittersweet mode, however. ‘As everything dries, archeology disappears. Several places will do the opposite and drown, some will rot in other ways. But at the end of the day, all will be lost.’ So we must see it, if possible, before it becomes hidden once more. And learn all we can about the wonders secreted beneath our feet.

 

 

This is the latest in Amy Aed’s series of reviews on travel and adventure nonfiction titles.