Watling Street (book)

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Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past
Watling Street.jpg
Cover by Steve Marking for
the first edition hardback
Author John Higgs
CountryGreat Britain
Subject History
Publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publication date
July, 2017
Media type Hardcover, paperback, Kindle
ISBN 978-1-4746-0347-8

Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past [1] is the fifth book by the British journalist, novelist and cultural historian John Higgs. The book charts Higgs's journey along Watling Street, one of the oldest roads in Britain, from Dover to Anglesey, during which journey he records the so-called hidden history of this ancient path from its first creation up to the present day. As well as recording the historical figures and their stories surrounding the road, Higgs also meets up with and interviews contemporary figures along the way such as Alan Moore and Alistair Fruish. The author describes the history of the road as, "Watling Street is a road of witches and ghosts, of queens and highwaymen, of history and myth, of Chaucer, Dickens and James Bond. Along this route Boudicca met her end, the battle of Bosworth changed royal history, Bletchley Park code breakers cracked Nazi transmissions and Capability Brown remodelled the English landscape.

John Higgs

John Higgs is an English writer, novelist, journalist and cultural historian. The work of Higgs has been published in the form of novels, biographies and works of cultural history.

Watling Street ancient trackway

Watling Street is a route in England that began as an ancient trackway first used by the Britons, mainly between the areas of modern Canterbury and St Albans using a natural ford near Westminster. The Romans later paved the route, which then connected the Kentish ports of Dubris (Dover), Rutupiae (Richborough), Lemanis (Lympne), and Regulbium (Reculver) to their bridge over the Thames at Londinium (London). The route continued northwest past Verulamium (St Albans) on its way to Viroconium (Wroxeter). The Romans considered the continuation on to Blatobulgium (Birrens) beyond Hadrian's Wall to be part of the same route, leading some scholars to call this Watling Street as well, although others restrict it to the southern leg.

Dover town and major ferry port in Kent, South East England

Dover is a major ferry port in Kent, South East England. It faces France across the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the English Channel, and lies south-east of Canterbury and east of Maidstone. The town is the administrative centre of the Dover District and home of the Dover Calais ferry through the Port of Dover. The surrounding chalk cliffs are known as the White Cliffs of Dover.



John Higgs is an English writer, novelist, journalist and cultural historian. Higgs' work has been published in the form of novels (under the pseudonym JMR Higgs), biographies and works of cultural history. [2]

In particular, Higgs has written about the so-called counterculture, exemplified by writers, artists and activists such as Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Alan Moore and the British group The KLF. As a journalist, Higgs has written for The Guardian , [3] The Independent , [4] The Daily Mirror [5] and Mojo magazine.

Counterculture Subculture whose values and norms of behavior deviate from those of mainstream society

A counterculture is a subculture whose values and norms of behavior differ substantially from those of mainstream society, often in opposition to mainstream cultural mores. A countercultural movement expresses the ethos and aspirations of a specific population during a well-defined era. When oppositional forces reach critical mass, countercultures can trigger dramatic cultural changes. Prominent examples of countercultures in Europe and North America include Romanticism (1790–1840), Bohemianism (1850–1910), the more fragmentary counterculture of the Beat Generation (1944–1964), followed by the globalized counterculture of the 1960s (1964–1974), usually associated with the hippie subculture and the diversified punk subculture of the 1970s and 1980s.

Timothy Leary American psychologist

Timothy Francis Leary was an American psychologist and writer known for advocating the exploration of the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs under controlled conditions.

Robert Anton Wilson American author and polymath

Robert Anton Wilson was an American author, novelist, essayist, editor, playwright, poet, futurist, and self-described agnostic mystic. Recognized by Discordianism as an Episkopos, Pope, and saint, Wilson helped publicize the group through his writings and interviews.

As an author, Higgs has written the novels The First Church on the Moon and The Brandy of the Damned; biographies of Timothy Leary and The KLF; and works of history and cultural analysis. [6] [7] [8] [9]


Described as 'A journey along one of Britain's oldest roads, from Dover to Anglesey, in search of the hidden history that makes us who we are today,' Higgs traces the footsteps of ancient travellers along the full 276-mile length of Watling Street from beginning to end. Higgs attempts to reveal the forgotten stories and hidden histories of the past that have formed and been told along the thoroughfare, as well as relating ancient histories to modern day Britain. [10]


The book was generally very well received with positive reviews. Caroline Sanderson of The Bookseller wrote, "One of those books where you constantly find yourself underlining pithy quotes, it's a compelling study of the origins of our national identity, at a time when it's becoming more complex than ever"; the Financial Times's Melkissa Harrison said it was "Mischievous and iconoclastic . . . [Higgs's] is a systematising imagination, able to harness disparate elements and find the patterns that animate them; that he does so in a more socially inclusive manner than many enriches his theories enormously"; [11] and Ian Samson of Times Literary Supplement called it "A new vision of England . . . full of magic, mystery and bits of William Blake." [12]

The Bookseller is a British magazine reporting news on the publishing industry. Philip Jones is editor-in-chief of the weekly print edition of the magazine and the website. The magazine is home to the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year, a humorous award given annually to the book with the oddest title. The award is organised by The Bookseller's diarist, Horace Bent, and had been administered in recent years by the former deputy editor, Joel Rickett, and former charts editor, Philip Stone. We Love This Book is its quarterly sister consumer website and email newsletter.

<i>Financial Times</i> Daily broadsheet business newspaper owned by Nikkei Inc. and based in London

The Financial Times (FT) is an English-language international daily newspaper owned by Nikkei Inc, headquartered in London, with a special emphasis on business and economic news.

It was also named Book of the Day by Ian Thompson in The Guardian, [13] with Thompson describing it: "Higgs, who has previously written about Timothy Leary and the KLF, is drawn to off-piste, countercultural subjects. Watling Street, a hybrid of travel journalism and pavement-pounding sociology, is a journey by car, train and on foot along the ancient Watling Street... In chatty, entertaining pages, he excavates Britain for myths and stories that might “serve us better” as we prepare to leave the EU.... The journey opens near St Margaret’s Bay, where Ian Fleming lived in a cottage he bought in the early 1950s from Noël Coward, and ends in the wilds of Anglesey. Higgs hopes that his journey might provide some insight into the strange, dark mood that 'hangs over our seemingly divided country'."

Podcast version

Watling Street was released with a four-part podcast series by John Higgs and the writer/broadcaster David Bramwell in which the two revisit places along Watling Street and features talks, poetry, music performances and conversations with the various guests they are accompanied by and meet up with, including: Alan Moore, Salena Godden, Iain Sinclair, Miranda Kane, C. J. Stone, John Constable, Andy Miller, Daisy Campbell and Lord Victor Adebowale. [14] [15] [16]

Publication details

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  2. "John Higgs" . Retrieved 8 January 2019 via www.orionbooks.co.uk.
  3. "John Higgs - The Guardian". the Guardian. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  4. "Who actually created Marcel Duchamp's 'Fountain'?". The Independent. 8 September 2015. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  5. "The Daily Mirror". mirror.co.uk. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  6. "The Quietus - Features - Tome On The Range - Bonfire Of The Sanities: KLF - Chaos, Magic, Music, Money". The Quietus. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  7. Thomson, Ian (31 July 2017). "Watling Street: Travels Through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past by John Higgs review – the road to enlightenment" . Retrieved 8 January 2019 via www.theguardian.com.
  8. "John Higgs - The Guardian". the Guardian. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  9. "John Higgs". www.thistlepublishing.co.uk. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  10. Amazon Books: Watling Street
  11. "Subscribe to read". Financial Times. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  12. "Whither England? Psychogeography, walking and Brexit". TheTLS. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
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  14. "Watling Street by Watling Street on Apple Podcasts". Apple Podcasts. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  15. "Watling Street - Book and podcast launch". jmrhiggs.blogspot.com. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  16. "Watling Street Podcast by John Higgs (Podcast Series 1/4)" . Retrieved 8 January 2019 via soundcloud.com.