Since returning to Britain at the end of June we have been travelling around visiting family and friends. We have been to a garden party at Eton College, an ordination service at Winchester Cathedral and watched salmon-fishing on the River Tay. We have stayed in a leafy Surrey village that epitomises staid Middle England and delighted in the picture-postcard Oxfordshire villages that don't seem all that much different than they were 100 years ago. At the moment we are staying in the delightful village of Shroton in Dorset.
I have been fortunate to travel to many parts of the world, but still, each time I return to the UK, I am struck by the beauty and diversity of the countryside and the amazing richness of history of its towns and villages. However, having been wonderfully cocooned in the 'now', in the present moment, travelling on our magic carpet in the form of our catamaran, returning to Britain has also been a shock. I don't think either of us realised just how severely the recession is biting: the riots being a manifestation of the hurt and grievance felt as a result of it.
Wherever we have stayed in the last few weeks, it has been great to find out something of the local history. Having spent the afternoon in the Georgian town of Blandford Forum, with its well-proportioned buildings built of yellow sandstone, tonight I walked up to the Roman Fort and watched a stunning sunset. Yesterday we walked in the opposite direction along a Neolithic causeway to a large Iron Age fort, which was probably operational in 500 BC.
Each place has its contribution to our historical fabric. In the village in which we are staying one of the daughters of the Freke family, who owned the Manor, married into the Washington family. The 'stars and bars' depicted on their family shield were incorporated into the shield of George Washington. These are said to have in turn inspired the flag of the United States. In 1756 a military camp was set up here and the men were trained under the leadership of Colonel James Wolfe, who was later General Wolfe, mortally wounded during the storming of Quebec in 1759, which led to the end of the Seven Years War and Britain's control of Canada.
A few miles up the road is Shaftsbury. The Abbey here was founded in 888 by Alfred the Great; King Canute died here in 1035. In 1312, the wife of Robert the Bruce of Scotland was held here in captivity and Catherine of Aragon stayed in Shaftesbury on her way to marry Henry VIII. In 1631 Thomas Mayhew left Shaftesbury for Massachusetts - he purchased Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. The following year Christopher Wren, architect of St Paul's Cathedral and many churches, was born in a nearby village.
Just a few snippets of our past can allude to how we have been fighting each other and causing disturbances for centuries. We visited Dunkeld Cathedral in Scotland. Here there is an epitaph to the son of King Robert II of Scotland: Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan (born C1372). He deserted his wife for another woman and as a result he was excommunicated. He was so cross that in revenge he burned two towns and sacked Elgin Cathedral. In the same town Thomas Telford built a wonderful bridge over the Tay (1809). The local Duke did very well for himself collecting tolls for using the bridge, but eventually the locals rioted in protest and the tolls were dropped. In 1645, here in Shroton, Dorset Clubmen were ordered to submit by Oliver Cromwell. 4000 men refused to do so and stood to fight. In the nearby town, when a dispute broke out with the monks, the townsmen set fire to the tower of the Abbey.
Perhaps what I am trying to illustrate is that we have always lived with change, which is an inevitable cause of civil unrest. We also have traditions and institutions that provide stability. When the Earl of Buchan burned two towns and sacked a cathedral, he was eventually forced to submit and make reparation, doing public penance in sackcloth and ashes. David Cameron hasn't metered out such justice to the rioters of a week ago, but many have received prison sentences and attempts at better social reform are being put in place. Despite the terrible recent events, each day since our return I have had many wonderful reminders that Britain is not only steeped in history, but is still a green and pleasant land.