Watling Street by John Higgs

History and anecdote along a Roman road: Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and its Ever-Present Past by John Higgs


Watling Street is a charming and readable history book that combines British history, popular culture, and observations on modern society, all centred around the ancient road from Dover to Anglesey. Chapters follow the road up along the A2, the A5, and the M6 toll to pinpoint specific locations and match them with historical fact and anecdote. Higgs links in his own travels on and around Watling Street, from a family trip to Bletchley Park to stories about his childhood. What results is an eclectic book that blends older and modern history, references pop culture from classic literature to recent music, and remarks upon the state of the nation in the post-EU referendum time.

The introduction about Milton Keynes will immediately draw in anyone who has ever visited or lived in that infamously grid-shaped concrete hub. Indeed, the book’s particular audience is likely to be anyone who lives or regularly visits places along the road, as there is a certain excitement on finding familiar locations and their history told in Higgs’ warm and interesting style. Some of the historical stories and figures will probably be well-known to many readers, but the way that Higgs connects these with physical location and with modern references and ideals adds a different twist. He explores and questions ideas and definitions of Britain, turning what could sound from its summary like an uncomfortably nationalistic book into one that priorities the variation in the country and wonders how Brexit will affect visions of Britain like Higgs’ own.

Watling Street is part popular history and part light-hearted state of the nation book, with personal anecdotes from Alan Moore sitting alongside information on how Romans built their roads.