The Secret Commonwealth

By Jane Stevenson

History and folklore collide when a 17th century alchemist discovers there are supernatural forces at work as England slides towards Civil War

Monday, 5 December 2016


I had to research all kinds of odd stuff for this book. One thing which was surprisingly difficult to imagine was a world without good roads. Roads are one of the most dramatic features of the landscape, the most taken for granted, and central to the way we experience it. In the 1640s, there were mostly routes, some of them very ancient, which isn’t at all the same thing. The Romans had made a network of engineered roads, but they were mostly in bad shape by the seventeenth century; medieval long distance transport consisted of big wagons drawn by teams of horses; as the roads got worse, people put knobs on the wheels to give them better traction, which damaged the road surface, which deteriorated further, etcetera. In theory, parishes were responsible for maintaining the part of any main route which passed through their territory; human nature being what it is, the result was frequently that nothing happened. There were areas where ‘the road’ was a couple of miles wide, where people had contemplated the churned mud and picked out a route parallel to the worst of it. Herefordshire, where I set part of my story, was impassable to carts for several months each winter.  Yet the troops and materiel of war were effectively moved around the landscape, which must have involved impressive, unrecorded feats of logistics. Of course people also moved goods by sea where possible, and that also featured in my tale; there’s a wonderful little book I found, A Description and Plat of the Sea-Coasts of England, 1653, which tells you how to work out where you are. ‘To saile into the River of London coming from the northwards, you must come neer the coast to the northwards of Orfordness …. Covehit is a sharp steeple like as also Leystaffe, but Sowle and Walderwyke, Albrough and Orfordness are all flat Steeples, … Dunwich is the best to be know of all these foresaid places, it hath two flat steeples, and on both sides some trees.’  It makes it very easy to imagine a skipper sailing along the coast of East Anglia, which is pretty flat, squinting at these little towns, all of just a few buildings around a church, and recognising them by their steeples.

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jo gibson
 jo gibson says:

For as long as we have been around, we have been making, following and repairing paths and roads. It must be an innate thing in humans. We want to travel along the same 'lines' and we want to repeat the experience. We talk of making routes better or easier to use - but for anyone who has walked or cycled long distance across the UK or Europe - it is a darned sight harder than it need be! I think we humans have a talent for complicating things...
Pilgrimage too - is an urge to follow in the footsteps of others to a particular place of significance. As any pilgrim finds out - the journey is as important as the arriving...

posted 4th January 2017

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