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Book Review: Two Degrees West by Nick Crane

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Crane, N. (1999) Two Degrees West Viking ISBN 0 670 87928 2

In 1494 the first prime meridian was drawn through the Azores islands by the crowns of Portugal and Castile under the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas, as the two kingdoms wrangled over possession of the globe in the aftermath of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America. This artificial division of the earth became a feature of the subsequent trading of territories between rival kingdoms. By 1884, as a result of the British Empire’s commercial pre-eminence, the globe’s prime meridian was definitively drawn through Greenwich. By 1938 the line two degrees west was chosen as England’s prime meridian running as it did through most of the country, from Berwick-Upon-Tweed on the Northumbrian coast to the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. Guided by his Ordnance Survey map, Nicholas Crane’s book Two Degrees West walks the longitudinal tightrope of this most manmade of geographical lines, stretching nearly 600 kilometres from north to south, never deviating more than a a kilometre either side of the meridian. The result is a dissection of England in the late 1990s, from bleak, agrarian Northumbria to urban hybridity of the Black Country. Two Degrees West is an idiosyncratic, offbeat travel book, offering a unique view on the state of the nation at the end of the 1990s. From a review by Jerry Brotton, author of Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World

In the late eighties my sister Tracey, with her then boyfriend Miles, had through some complex chain of events been befriended by Nick Crane’s dad, Hol, and they’d joined the family’s mid-Winter excursions into the ice fields of the Cairngorms. It’d been Hol’s irrepressible passion for all things outdoors that had triggered Nick Crane’s passion for nature, for walking, for climbing, and for cycling; and sowed the seeds for a successful career that would see him become a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a professional geographer and cartographer, as well as journalist, broadcaster, author of nine books and veteran of TVs The Map Man and Coast.

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However, back in 1997, when this book was written, much of this still lay ahead. Nick was by no mean a first time written, as he’d recently completed Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk Across Europe a book recounting a gruelling 8-month solo journey, walking 10,000 kilometres from Cape Finisterre to Istanbul which won theThomas Cook Travel Book Award. In 1997, equipped with his trademark umbrella and trilby hat, he was off again. This time his aim being to cross England from north to south following the meridian line of two degrees west, from the north-east coast at Berwick-on-Tweed, to the south coast on the Isle of Purbeck west of Swanage.

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Crane gave himself strict boundaries of 1km either side of the line (the line which coincides with the Ordnance Survey’s Central Meridian). As well as private land there were lakes to cross, and rivers and motorways with no bridges, in his two kilometre corridor.

Crane’s route took him across the open spaces of Northumberland, the Cheviots, and the high Pennines, through small villages (but few towns), past isolated farmhouses, to the industrial townscapes of the Black Country. Emerging into the south of England he passed through gentler arable valleys and over bleaker chalk downs – including a crossing of Salisbury Plain – before negotiating Poole Harbour and finally reaching the end of his line at the English Channel.

It was a 578km walk, happily, the account of the walk, though chronological, it is not a dry diary – in fact days and dates are hardly mentioned – instead there is a wealth of historical detail balanced with Crane’s self-confessed passion for being a “harvester of stories” (p.304). He talks to anyone who will give him the time of day, he listens to what they have to say, and their stories become an integrated part of his own.

Snapshots of conversation and vivid description enrich every page, in fact to illustrate the point, if I turn to any page at random you can find examples:

A bridge over the disused railway at the top of Middle Town led into a listless semicircle of crescents and cul-de-sac. Somebody had named their home AR OUSE; a caravan rested on jacks; a boy kicked a ball. (p.123)
The dog walker pointed to a tree. ‘Only time I heard a bird in here was when the IRA put bombs under the motorway and stopped the traffic. Lovely, it was. A woodpecker.’ (p.207)

The result is a delightfully visual verbal collage of a book.

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In the late 1990’s few walking books described the streets, canal-sides, and waste ground of urban England, but Crane was as interested in the landscapes beneath motorways, the canals crossed on iron bridges, the dank passages under railways as he was in the dramatic fells, hills and coastline.

“Straight-line walking is a triumph of faith over expectation; believing in the unexpected rather than expecting the unbelievable”, says Crane (p.175).

His unusual journey, linking people and places with nothing else in common except geographical accident, provided a sympathetic and intriguing picture of pre-Millenium England. 15 years on, it’s still well worth a read.

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