… was my thought when I turned to page 6. Been there several times, done that, heard the bells (once) and remember fondly the people who lived not so far away.

This book “I never knew that about England” (illustrated edition) has another feature that also drew my approval: the counties. No metropolitan boroughs or new-fangled unitary authorities in the chapter headings – which one may take or leave. However, there is Middlesex (not London) starting on page 183 so we’re off to a good start. I can’t claim to be an expert reviewer but I noted with a little satisfaction that I have visited all bar 6 of the 39 counties – and my total includes all of them if one does not insist on having stayed at least one night in the county somewhere. The reason given for following a county-based framework for the book (and the “traditional” ones at that) is that they are based on natural boundaries and still “inspire loyalty”.

Having glanced at the book, I suppose I ought to read a bit of it and decide whether it is any good after all that. The first thing to note is that Mr Winn does not attempt to include central London on the grounds that it “would make a book in itself”. The second thing to note is that this book is not a comprehensive guide – it is intended to highlight people and places that are not at the top of the list of what you might already know.

And to be fair, there is much in the book that is new to me. I think I already knew that the composer Ralph Vaughn Williams waw born in Down Ampney – I didn’t realise that that was near Cirencester in Gloucestershire. Nor did I realise that the author of Thomas the Tank Engine stories lived in Rodborough near Stroud. I had heard about the Torrey Canyon tanker disaster in Cornwall but had not realised that Lizard Village is the only mainland British Village south of 50° N. I have heard of Frank Hornby manufacturer of model railways but discover that he was born in Liverpool (in this book decidedly in Lancashire, not Merseyside!).

Then in Yorkshire, we are told of Cundall, which is described as a Thankful Village. I think I have mentioned these before elsewhere. They are a handful of places where they do not have a war memorial. No, not because they are staunchly pacifist or making a particular political point. War memorials were erected in memory of those who lost their lives in the first and second World Wars. In the Thankful Villages no memorial was put up because all their sons came back. I find it moving, to say the least, that there are only a couple of dozen of them. They are listed on page 321 in the book.

In this season of Remembrance, we honour the memory of “the fallen”, but let’s also take a leaf out of these villages’ book and be grateful for those who do come back – and do right by them too.

Meanwhile in Middlesex, my home county, we note that the “territory of the middle Saxons” is the second smallest English county (by area). But we do not learn much else. I could tell you that London’s first airport was at Hounslow Heath (before relocating to Croydon) for instance. I wonder if it is assumed that everything else is pretty much well known – but under a London heading. Did you know that Twickenham Rugby Ground (and RFU headquarters) is actually in Whitton (both in Middlesex)? Or that Hampton Court (recently glimpsed as the backdrop for road cycling during the 2012 Olympics) is in Middlesex? Or that the inventor Trevor Baylis lived on an island on the Middlesex side of the River Thames? Or that the baseline for Ordinance Survey maps was first laid out on Hounslow Heath? Or maybe you did. I just felt a bit shortchanged there.

Having said that, I expect we could all pick holes on behalf of our home and/or favourite county. Overall this is a fair coffee table book – not a book of reference. Three stars or 6/10.

“I never knew that about England” by Christopher Winn, illustrations by Mai Osawa, published by Ebury Press, 2008
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