| Britons of a certain age, "Watford Gap" has come to represent
the Worst of England. Fairly or unfairly, the tawdry reputation of
motorway services (of which Watford Gap was the first) has assumed
almost mythical proportions, serving as a ready metaphor for the
decline of English morale in the Post-Imperial era. The fact that
most motorway services (Watford Gap included) are now relatively tolerable places will not expunge that reputation - at least until a few more generations pass.
We need these icons of awfulness because we need to feel that there must be better places.
Glastonbury, for instance. In that gently dramatic landscape,
gentle eccentricity cohabits comfortably with dramatic mythology.
The dreams of millennia have converged on this jewel of Arthur's
land and dreamers from all over the world have been drawn to the
Vale of Avalon. This, surely, is a worthy representative of the
Best of England. It is the English Dream.
These two seem far removed from one another; in different worlds, even. But, by road, they are but one hundred and thirty miles apart. By order of the Road Designation Department of the Ministry of Transport, this mystic path is known as the A361.
For more on roads, see Palimpsest.No more than a concatenation of local highways, the A361 has no pretensions of grandeur. It slips, almost unnoticed, across Southern England, visiting a series of towns, villages, landmarks and landscapes.
These are all real places, too, each with their own story to tell, each with their own contribution to make towards a broader vision - of what England is today, and how it got that way.
The deeds of individuals and the ebb and flow of peoples leave lasting marks on the landscape, as well as paragraphs in the history books, and such places retain resonances of those happenings.
Sometimes, it is the spirit of the place which influences and overshadows generations of human endeavour. In either case, a visit to one of these sites enables us to look at particular events and personalities with a significance far beyond the local.
"From Watford Gap to Camelot" is a deliberately narrow and episodic means of examining these matters. As it passes through the towns and countryside of Southern England, it will touch, lightly, on the broad sweep of English History, Geography, Geology, Demography, Economics, Mythology and anything else that seems appropriate at the time. Its purpose is to entertain the reader, enlighten him and entice her into further investigation into this strange and exotic country of England. And, perhaps, to re-examine the perspectives which make other fields seem greener.
And, wherever you are, look around you. There's an A361 near you; all you have to do is look.