Book review: Clarissa's England, By Clarissa Dickson Wright

Black pudding, red herrings – and lots of fruity detours

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The Independent Culture

There's something wrong with the cover. Not so much the picnic, though it's a bit too prim for this gutsy character, but the Morris Traveller where CDW perches with the dog Kipper. Somehow the author doesn't look at home in this staid jalopy. Sure enough on page 288, she spills the beans: "Despite its appearance on the book jacket, please don't think it is a car I have ever liked or driven. " Her inability to dissemble may be one reason why CDW is an ex-lawyer.

Her engaging county-by-county ramble is seasoned with memories, snatches of poetry and salty opinion. In Cumbria, she announces, Kendal Mint Cake is "singularly unpleasant". In Cornwall, she asserts, "I have an intense dislike for the carrot. The great delight to me is that a true Cornish pasty does not contain carrots." We're also treated to revelations such as that concerning a pavilion outside a grand house in Bucks, once occupied by John Gielgud (a devotee of CDM's chocolate cake) and now owned by Tony Blair. No fan of the former PM, CDW gleefully discloses that he only discovered after purchase that no changes are allowed to the listed building to accommodate security staff.

The book's idiosyncratic historical detours are reminiscent of 1066 and All That. We learn that "the levies of the Cinque Ports had wonderful names such as infangtheof and outfangtheof… blodwit and fledwit" (Kent) and "Robert Carr, catamite of James I… was ill-educated but had wonderful legs" (Warks). Gruesome details are not eschewed.

Equally sanguinary but more edifying is her recommendation of the black pudding made by Stuart Higginson of Grange-over-Sands (Cumbria). Occasionally, CDW's gusto for a good yarn gets the better of her. In the chapter on Leicestershire, we learn about "a fruit called the chequer from which the word 'exchequer' apparently comes." Unfortunately, the OED says that this spotted fruit takes its name from the chequerboard, as did "exchequer" somewhat earlier. Still, in a book so diverting and chatty, scrupulous attention to the facts should be a minor consideration.

Hodder, £9.99. Order for £9.49 (free p&p) from Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030