Think of Modern Britain and if you’re a fan of fiction, there should be some very British hotspots on your reading radar right now. Towns and cities up and down the country have undoubtedly changed over the years but how can you see these changes, see the pages of history being turned in real life?
Three cities, three historical journeys
Edinburgh - Then - Alanna Knight
The city has always been known for its gothic overtones, castle looming over the city and the narrow cobbled lanes but Alanna Knight has written the historical character of the city into a series of books which act like a faded photo if you read them in the city today:
Arthur’s Seat - Inspector Jeremy Faro, Edinburgh’s Victorian Detective visits and investigates around Arthur’s Seat, the iconic ancient volcano at the centre of the city – there were said to be many feral cats around these parts at the time.
The Innocent Railway - This sits on the edge of the sprawling Queen’s Park in Edinburgh, and on the far side ran the “Innocent Railway’ (proudly so-called since no lives had been lost in its history) Originally it was a single track horse-drawn freight line between St Leonards and Musselburgh but with the advent of steam locomotion, it became an imprint of the past
Edinburgh - Now - James Oswald
The city now of course is largely known as Ian Rankin country for the many murders and crimes he’s committed to paper in the streets of the capital.
But there is a writer who also puts the city on the modern map of crime fiction with his supernatural blend of murder and mystery. James Oswald has set novels in Morningside and invented a police station in the popular area of Newington - right at the heart of old Edinburgh, in the shadows of Arthur’s Seat.
In Prayer for the Dead, there’s a mystery and murder in the city’s underground caverns. Now, to find out about the present and future, you have to look back to the past. This book proves this and more.
Manchester - Then - Elisabeth Gaskell
Manchester is a modern thriving and bustling city nowadays, home to a great music scene but has always been a place of industry - you can tell a lot about a city from its past. To delve into that past, Elizabeth Gaskell’s book Mary Barton evokes a time when Manchester was a mill town and looks at the actual murder, in 1831, of a progressive mill owner. As it’s set between 1837-42, it paints a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England
The Museum of Science and Industry there is a good place to visit to experience Manchester of the past but the must-see place to go has to be Elizabeth Gaskells’ House at 84 Plymouth Grove – her home from 1850 until her death in 1865
Manchester - Now - Marnie Riches
For more of a modern take on the city, if not a more gritty view of it, Born Bad by Marnie Riches is a good place to start. It might be a gritty reflection of the city’s underbelly but it is firmly set in the streets in and around its famous and modern sights. The Old Trafford cricket ground for example “ the space-station-like construction of the Emirates cricket stadium” features proudly as does the “blue dome of the Trafford Centre in the distance” Shopping is of course a good sport to take part in here.
Not surprisingly the Strangeways prison features but with the Marnie sense of humour ” “He could see the sun hitting the dreaming spires of Strangeways prison.” It gives a warmth to the city and is a major landmark in the centre of the city.
Norwich - Then and Now - Elly Griffiths
Elly Griffiths has certainly put Norwich and Walsingham on the map with her novels about digging up the past as well as forensic finds.
In The Chalk Pit, bones are found in an underground tunnel under Guildhall, the very spot, architect Quentin Swain is hoping to build a swanky new restaurant.
The Guildhall is now council offices but it has, in its past, been a toll house, a court and a prison. The most dangerous prisoners were kept here, in underground cells. Quite a mix of past and present in plain sight right at the heart of the city
In another of her novels The Woman in Blue - the village of Walsingham is often referred to as ‘England’s Nazareth’. The village is famed for its religious shrines in honour of the Virgin Mary and as a major pilgrimage centre. It also contains the ruins of two medieval monastic houses. Past and present once again making the city what it is today.
The city which perhaps has the most traces of past and present. You only have to walk along one of its streets - Pudding Lane for example to see where past and present merge. One statue marks the spot where the Great fire of London started and now brought back to life in The Ashes of London by Andrew Smith
So the city might have been largely burned to the ground but it rose from the ashes in to the city it is today - a city with one of the best and biggest libraries in the world - The British Library
This library has its own publishing arm linking past and present, shining a light on Britain over the years. From the old ways of life, the grand old days of the theatre in Quick Curtain to the evocation of when the steam train ruled the landscape “Death in the Tunnel” these books are a showcase of Britain past and present
And it also plays a part in a few modern novels itself - In Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper, one of the characters goes to great lengths to uncover the secrets of the past here, opening the door on to life in the city during wartime.
Visit Britain and see where past and present mix - with a book, you can preserve those memories on the written page for ever.
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