Monday, 18 June 2012

Dorset - England and the Celtic Dawn

It's 6,333 miles (more than 10,000 kilometres) from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to Dorchester, the county town of Dorset, the next place that I have decided to blog about.

Blogging about Dorset and England will be a bit unusual for me, as England is where I currently live and most of the places I've blogged about are in countries I've not yet had the chance to visit.  With a population of just over 700,000, it's also one of the smaller places I've blogged about, slightly bigger than Luxembourg and smaller than Rhode Island. 

Dorset was the home of Thomas Hardy, one of my favourite writers, when I was younger.  I'm looking forward to learning more about Hardy during the next few weeks.  I'm also interested in Dorset's role in the development of modern Trade Unionism, with the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.  I also want to learn about the fossil collectors of Dorset's Jurassic coast and the development of palaeontology. 

Ramparts at Maiden Castle, Iron Age fort in Dorset
I've been to Dorset twice - once to Portland and Weymouth and once, on one of my 'Chester' trips (see my partner walking blog), to Dorchester.  During my trip to Dorchester, I was really impressed by Maiden Hill, a famous Iron Age fort, just 15 minutes walk from the town centre.  On most of my 'Chester' trips I've seen Roman ruins and discovered a lot about Roman Britain, but Maiden Hill got me thinking about 'Celtic Britain' and the people who lived here before the Romans, Vikings, Angles, Saxons and Normans arrived. 

It's quite common to see a 'retrospective' or exhibition about 'Roman Britain' or 'The Vikings in Britain' or 'The Normans in Britain', but I can't remember ever seeing any major exhibitions about Celtic Britain and it makes me wonder what it is about Celtic culture that Britons find hard to embrace. 

When we think of Celtic culture and Britain these days, we mostly think of Scottish music, the Welsh language or Cornish ghost stories.  But I'm curious to find out what happened to Celtic culture in other parts of the island of Britain - whether it's the Durotriges of Dorset and Somerset, or the more famous Iceni of East Anglia, or the Brigantes of Northern England.  Like most people, I know very little about the people who lived in Britain (south of Hadrian's wall) before it was conquered by the Romans. 

Information board at Maiden Castle, Dorset
The use of the term 'British' is a controversial one and there is an ongoing debate as to what it means to be British.  I guess in the strictest sense, British describes anyone born on the island of Britain.  In a much narrower way, British could describe the descendants of those pre-Roman tribes, if that is at all meaningful in the 21st century.  It's interesting to compare the use of 'English' and 'British'.  The concept of 'English' feels much more tangible and defines England as a Germannic (not a Latin or Celtic) nation.  But that might also explain why the word 'British' somehow feels more inclusive and less dependent on the values of white, Anglo-Saxon culture?

The term 'Celtic' is equally problematic.  What we think of as Celtic in the 21st-century is very heavily influenced by a 19th-century resurgence of interest in pre-Roman Britain that romanticised the freedom and creativity of the Celts.  Nowadays, Celtic is synonymous with Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Cornish, but I doubt that many English people would acknowledge much of their Celtic heritage.  Although the word 'British', in its strictest sense, could also mean 'Celtic', I don't think many people see it this way and, certainly where I grew up, on the border with Northern Ireland, British and Celtic are seen as polar opposites. 

So is there any Celtic blood running through English veins?  I find it hard to believe that the subsequent cultures that influenced Britain (Romans, Saxons etc) completely replaced the cultures that already existed on this island.  To me cultures can be piled one layer on top of the other and, through centuries of time, I wonder if we still can't find whispers of Celtic Britain in the misty dawns over Hampshire fields or the anarchic eccentricities of English people?

When we think of Celtic music, we think of fiddles and harps and a ceilidh, but I wonder if there isn't a hint of Celtic sensibility in the music of Kate Bush or PJ Harvey.  I hear it when I listen to Florence and the Machine.  Not just the music and lyrics, but also the wild, red-haired, pagan image of Florence, who looks like she has stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting, seems to herald a Celtic revival in England.  Perhaps the cultures that exist on this island aren't that different after all?

I'm going to leave you with a Youtube video that shows one of my favourite Florence and the Machine songs, Shake it out - I've chosen a version with lyrics, so you can decide for yourself!

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