The United Kingdom, like the United States, is essentially an urban and suburban nation. And, also like the United States, there's some kind of deep-seated voice that whispers, irrationally but compellingly: "but the small-town/village is the real America/England."
But one big difference is that the UK has managed its dense population centers much differently. Fly over Britain and you'll see a pattern: cities and towns cluster densely around a center, radiate outward, and then, at a certain point, just ... stop. Here, we get sprawl without end. There, the countryside—the actual, working, non-Disneyfied rural landscape—is within easy reach even of the big cities.
Standing stones in Avebury
That tension, I think, is at the heart of The Green Road Into the Trees. Hugh Thomson traces the path of the ancient Icknield Way across southern England—never far from the madding crowd, yet curiously insulated from it. There's some nice descriptive writing, but the book ultimately isn't about the landscape; it's about the relationship that the English have with the landscape. In some cases that takes the form of correcting old shibboleths: Thomson, in walking this Bronze-age path, does a nice job bringing that ultimately unknowable time into his present picture.
So Thomson divides his book among Bronze- and Iron-Age land use, his own personal reactions, and a series of encounters with people who are on, in, or of the English countryside—farmers, festival-goers, Travelers, pub owners, conservationists, would-be Druids, archaeologists, and just ordinary folks. It's an odd but appealing journey, without any overt direction or focus or message. American readers, at least, will be struck by the extraordinary persistence of English rural mores; many (though not all!) of the people Thomson meets would sound perfectly at home in an Agatha Christie novel.
Rather like The Wind in the Willows (a book Thomson references many times) some of the best passages are not about anything except the experience of being there. For anyone who has walked or biked the English countryside, The Green Road Into the Trees is an exceedingly evocative book. And yet ... even more than his archaeological musings, Thomson's conversations with the locals—something that we Yanks can't carry off in quite the same way—makes me think that there are a lot of layers beneath that beautiful surface.