Forget boosting St George's Day and government directives on Englishness. Relishing the home country is already happening – if it ever went away. Writers in a typical 1910 issue of The Tramp magazine included Edward Thomas, Hilaire Belloc and Arthur Ransome; they wrote of their rambles through England's coverts and byways with all the enthusiasm that would be shown by HV Morton's In Search of England, the Batsford books and the Shell Guides.
There was admittedly a lull between the 1960s and the 1990s, when foreign holidays ruled. But the new austerity, coupled with baby-boomer nostalgia, has changed all that. Camping and rambling up hill and down dale are all the rage, and nothing attracts audiences like Englishness, be it in documentaries like Coast, soaps like Doc Martin and the brand-new The Dales, or endless murders most foul in Oxford, St Mary Mead and (notoriously) Midsomer. Significant, too, is Alexandra Harris's seminal book Romantic Moderns, which gives cultural cohesion to the artistic and literary world of Betjeman and Paul Nash, Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh, John Piper and Eric Ravilious, and convincingly argues for its enduring importance.
Until the happy advent of Peter Ashley's Cross Country it has, ironically, been foreigners who have been best at celebrating Englishness. It took the German refugee Nikolaus Pevsner to point out the Englishness of English Art, and to traipse round every notable building in England, and another German, Peter Sager, to write magnificent in-depth guides to the regions of England. It was the American anglophile Bill Bryson who offered that enthusiastic hymn to our traditions, Notes on a Small Island.
Why? Perhaps we just like to keep these things to ourselves. When Leslie Thomas wrote his The Secret Places, a good many people muttered "fancy telling everyone about them". Perhaps we just don't like to gush. Peter Ashley is first and foremost a photographer, and Cross Country is so lavishly illustrated with his marvellously atmospheric images that its text could almost be described as one long picture caption. It may be this crabwise approach which enables him to shed the habitual English reserve and simply enjoy telling us about eight ambles through parts of England that he particularly loves.
This is a thoroughly modern series of tours, for all their concentration on churches and pubs, cricket pavilions and restored steam-railway lines. Ashley prefers humble lodges to great mansions, such weird relics as the Greatstone-on-Sea sound mirrors to castles, and makes as many references to film sets as to literary associations. He avoids the tourist hotspots, going to Furness and Cartmel rather than Windermere, the north Cornwall coast rather than Penzance, Romney marshes and the Essex estuaries, a little patch of Wiltshire around the Wylye river, and finally what he calls High Leicestershire: his own beloved home patch: "deserted drovers lanes billowing with creamy cow parsley on a May morning, woods and spinneys busy with rooks, evening sun lighting up redbrick barns – an unspoilt, very English, working landscape."
Many of his photographs have an awesome simplicity: sharp spring green grass edges Norfolk's Peddars' Way as it winds up towards a stormy sky; the tawny colours and rings of a peacock butterfly are echoed in the stained-glass window against which it lazily flaps. And he has a nice line in description: the massive piebald flints in a wall "look like they have fallen to earth as meteorites from another planet"; the red brick patch on Blakeney's stone church tower "looks like a sticking plaster". This is a book that will give you itchy feet. Don't quell the urge. After all, April's here.
Christina Hardyment's 'Malory' is published by HarperCollinsReuse content