There is a very special kind of evening sky you may get to see in Farnham. To find it you have to make your way to the upper reaches of the great old park on the northern edge of the town; and there, in the late afternoon, on a clear day in January, if you look to the east, the sky will be lilac-mauve before shading into a cool soft grey on the horizon. But if you look west, the sky will be a crisp steel-blue before turning to a clear creamy yellow as it touches the earth. The sky to the east is sober and quietly romantic. The sky to the west glows as sharp as a computer screen. It’s a wonderful sky.
I was walking through the park under that same January sky when I passed a group of ramblers; lots of them had grey hair. They were studying the maps of the park and I could see that they were busy identifying some of the park’s history – the locations in which interesting things used to happen.
I walked on – and there, up ahead of me, I saw two men standing on the path. They were talking to each other. Beside the two men were two dogs. One dog looked down the path towards me. The other dog ambled around the two men; it didn’t look at anything in particular. As I approached the men I was able to overhear a fragment of their conversation. It had something to do with history. Then as I passed them I heard one say to the other:
‘Back in those days, you know, the days of the civil war, there was a bit of a battle here between the, what d’you call them, between the roundheads and the cavaliers.’
‘Yes,’ said the other man, ‘They’ve found lines of shot where the muskets were, where the muskets were firing …’
I continued walking. When I looked back the men were still talking. They were still talking about the civil war and the battles.
Then, at the end of my walk I came to a small building; it was near to the cricket pitch and it was called the ‘Park office and information centre’. Outside the office was a display telling me about the history of the park (dating back to 1376). There were maps and notes about the flora and fauna of the park as well as references to the fact that a skirmish had indeed taken place during the civil war. There was a display case inside the park office that had, within it, a few skulls, a few animal skulls – but, as far as I could see, no skulls of the civil war soldiers were on view.
My walk in the park under the January sky reminded me of how much the English love their history. But why exactly? What is the allure of history? And, more specifically, what is the allure of English history? I suppose that part of the answer lies in the fact that history is a kind of story-telling and as the historians’ stories are told they evoke, in the reader, earlier worlds of heroes and villains, romance and wonder. Meanwhile, the diverse and often terrible facts of reality are submerged. I walked on – thinking about the civil war soldiers – thinking about their fear and discomfort – thinking about their stories, stories that never got to be told.
Footnote: The photograph does not show the different colours of an evening January sky. Instead, taken in January 2014, it shows a part of the uniformly leaden grey sky above the river Wey – the river that flows through the town of Farnham in Surrey.