I have been delving a lot more into non-fiction this year, partly for writing research, partly because it turns out I like non-fiction audiobooks, and today I wanted to review two titles that I happened to read simultaneously and which ended up having a lot of cross over themes and topics: The Ship Asunder by Tom Nancollas and Shadowlands by Matthew Green. So, here we go!
The Ship Asunder by Tom Nancollas
If Britain’s maritime history were embodied in a single ship, she would have a prehistoric prow, a mast plucked from a Victorian steamship, the hull of a modest fishing vessel, the propeller of an ocean liner and an anchor made of stone. We might call her Asunder, and, fantastical though she is, we could in fact find her today, scattered in fragments across the country’s creeks and coastlines. This extraordinary book collects those fragments for a profound and haunting exploration of our seafaring past.
In his moving and original new history, Tom Nancollas goes in search of eleven relics that together tell the story of Britain at sea. From the swallowtail prow of a Bronze Age vessel to a stone ship moored at a Baroque quayside, each one illuminates a distinct phase of our adventures upon the waves; each brings us close to the people, places and vessels that made a maritime nation. Weaving together stories of great naval architects and unsung shipwrights, fishermen and merchants, shipwrecks and superstition, pilgrimage, trade and war, The Ship Asunder celebrates the richness of Britain’s seafaring tradition in all its glory and tragedy, triumph and disaster, and asks how we might best memorialize it as it vanishes from our shores.
Thank you to NetGalley and Penguin for the ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
As someone writing about a sea-voyage, I was immediately attracted to the cover and topic of this book because of the knowledge and understanding of sailing that it could give me, and so I picked it up thinking I might flick through it, focusing only on the parts that might interest me, trying to navigate topics I might not have the vocabulary for. However – though it took me a while – I found myself taking in everything of this fascinating history, thanks especially to the way Nancollas goes about telling it. Starting from the unearthed prow of a Bronze Age ship found in Dover, he reconstructs the seafaring journey of Britain, all the way to our modern times, in which the ocean seems to exist mainly for pleasure in the lives of most people.
There was a lot that surprised me, and a lot that inspired me, so I am very glad I decided to pick it up. Nancollas’ tone is light, and you can tell he cares deeply for the topic, and while he goes in depth into certain elements, one doesn’t need great experience to follow him. He also doesn’t shy away from the great evils of Britain’s maritime history, and urges often that we should not forget this legacy, for good and bad. I would say that if you have an interest in sailing, history, engineering, and social history, this is a great book to read – each chapter deals with a part of the ship, and it’s an easy book to pick up and put down each chapter at a time.
Shadowlands by Matthew Green
Drowned. Buried by sand. Decimated by plague. Plunged off a cliff. This is the forgotten history of Britain’s lost cities, ghost towns and vanished villages: our shadowlands. Britain’s landscape is scarred with haunting and romantic remains; these shadowlands that were once filled with life are now just spectral echoes. Peering through the cracks of history, we find Dunwich, a medieval city plunged off a Suffolk cliff by sea storms; the lost city of Trellech unearthed by moles in the Welsh Marches; and the ghostly reservoir that is Capel Celyn, one of the few remaining solely Welsh-speaking villages, drowned by Liverpool City Council.
Historian Matthew Green tells the extraordinary stories of how these places met their fate and probes the disappearances to explain why Britain looks the way it does today. Travelling across Britain, Green transports the reader to these places as they teeter on the brink of oblivion, vividly capturing the sounds of the sea clawing away row upon row of houses, the taste of medieval wine, or the sights of puffin hunting on the tallest cliffs in the country. We experience them in their prime, look on at their destruction and revisit their lingering remains later as they are mourned by evictees and reimagined by artists, writers and mavericks.
I always forget how changeable the past was. Even though I look back and see how everything has evolved to get us where we are today, the idea is that of snapshots, where things stay the same forever until suddenly they’re different. Foolish, when so much has already changed in the world during my brief life… Shadowlands really brings that forth, especially when it comes to such enduring things as towns and cities. I am so glad that Matthew Green has brought back to life the history that is forgotten beneath our feet, and it was fascinating to read about the rise and fall of these now-abandoned places. My favourite was the first chapter, which deals with a Neolithic settlement in the Orkney islands, which was preserved for centuries beneath the sand
Shadowlands is a great book to pick up, though perhaps it is best read with breaks between each chapters, or it can start to all blend together. It is also, despite its focus on the past, very relevant to our current situation. Throughout the book, and very earnestly in his conclusion, Green shows that this phenomenon of lost places is far from over; between economic disasters, rising seas, and the shifts in climate, in 50 years there may be plenty more settlements to add to the list. It’s certainly eye-opening, and important to understand the shifting nature of this – and other – countries.