The East is South of the West

Like most other countries, the “United” Kingdom is divided into regions for convenience, and as far as England is concerned we have the North, the South and the Midlands. This works fine until you consider East Anglia.

East Anglia consists of at least Norfolk and Suffolk, and some people would extend it to cover other counties such as Cambridgeshire, the north of Essex and perhaps Lincolnshire. Going by the traditional borders this last one takes it all the way up to the Humber, which borders Yorkshire, and this illustrates the problem. By that larger definition, East Anglia is a region stretching all the way from Yorkshire to Greater London, which seems to make it practically meaningless, and the question is then, where is East Anglia? Is it in the North, South or the Midlands?

This is Britannia, from the fifty pence piece although she’s gone now, an anthropomorphic personification of Britain whom I’ve heard is based on the goddess Pallas Athena. She represents the island of Great Britain, although for some reason she faces the wrong way. East Anglia is her shield. For completeness’s sake, the left side of the base represents Kent, the lion’s paw Cornwall, the lion’s head Wales (which has always looked like a pig to me), the head and helmet mainland Scotland, the olive branch the Outer Hebrides or perhaps the Southern Uplands, and the trident the Shetlands. Other parts of the British Isles aren’t represented on this image, which is a mixed blessing to them.

A significant part of this figure is the diagonal course of the trident. Perhaps unintentionally, this marks the approximate division between the upland parts of Great Britain to the North-west and the South-eastern lowlands. Geographically this is referred to as the “Tees-Exe” line, named after two rivers, and is drawn between the mouths of those two rivers. A similar division in Scotland is Glen Mòr, the glen along which Loch Ness runs, separating the bulk of the Highlands from the rest of the mainland. Moreover the border with England is also slanted, with the westernmost and thus southernmost part on the latitude of Teesside.

Moreover, the whole of Great Britain leans to the west as it extends north. This puts the relatively eastern capital Edinburgh on the same longitude as Dorset and entails that Scotland is a western country compared to England as well as northern. Technically, Rockall is the furthest West but if that’s ignored that accolade goes to Soay, which is Scottish. On the mainland, Ardnamurchan Point is the most westerly well-known location, with the nearby Corrachadh Mòr being the actual record holder.

In other words, rather than being a straightforward North-South divide, Great Britain and many of its associated islands are more accurately separated into regions via lines which would run roughly diagonally on an Ordnance Survey map. For this reason, East Anglia kind of feels more like the South of England than, say, Birmingham does, even though it’s equally far North. Cornwall suffers similarly from its remoteness from London as parts of the English North. Furthermore, the cliché of using a Black Country accent to represent someone from the Midlands, and incidentally claiming that it’s “Brummie”, i.e. from Birmingham, is only accurate for a small area of the West Midlands and not at all for my home county of Leicestershire or the rest of the East Midlands, and this is partly because the main divides between pronunciation of English don’t run longitudinally or latitudinally. For instance, the border between rhotic (pronouncing all Rs) and non-rhotic (dropping R before a consonant) runs North-East to South-West, meaning that Lancashire and Yorkshire accents may differ in this respect.

In other words, the East of Great Britain is further South than the West even if it’s geographically further North. Some of this is just accidental local geography, partly resulting from the uplands being North-West, but it’s also substantially the result of the “march of civilization”, as it were. I could equally have said the march of imperialism.

Zooming out from Great Britain in a Google Earthen kinda way, a notable features of the history of the West is that in the Old World, cultural, technological and political change has tended to migrate towards the North and West, a trend which began at the latest in Bronze Age Mesopotamia and the Fertile Cresent. Being on the edge of Eurasia, the British Isles reflect this change especially well. Although the Neolithic began in the Levant at the end of the last Ice Age, it spread to Anatolia, North Africa and Mesopotamia over the next few centuries. Writing began in the Balkans, Mesopotamia and Egypt and spread north-west. Bronze and iron working and smelting also spread in the same way. The first European city-based civilization was the Minoan one, in Crete, north-west of the Levant, from 2600 BCE. The Ancient Greeks were next, north-west of Crete. Then came Rome, again to the west and north,which proceeded to work its way around the Mediterranean and extend its power to the north and west, though also to the east. I see this as a fairly local phenomenon. The British Celts persisted for longer than those of Continental Europe, again to the northwest, and the Normans invaded England in a northwesterly direction.

When the British Empire came to dominate the planet, it was again from a concentration of power to the northwest of its predecessors, this time able to take advantage of being near the centre of the Hemisphere of Land and therefore being able to sail most easily to other lands compared to other cultures.

Why does this happen? I don’t think it’s my imagination. It seems to be down to the availability of time apart from agriculture. It’s notable that the Neolithic didn’t spread in that direction but more concentrically, maybe because there are swings and roundabouts with the adoption of agriculture itself. Once farming was more widespread, though, territory became more important along with the inheritance of property, which drove hierarchies to invade and conquer. To do that, they needed to have enough time and surplus labour, and that depends first on a climate and soil suitable for agriculture and secondly on increasing efficiency in that area of life, which was practically all of it for a long time. This meant that it got easier to do it in relatively colder and less sunny circumstances and meant it was possible to have a belligerent imperial power increasingly far from the tropics.

This explains the northward movement in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s less clear to me why there would also be a westward one. I wonder in fact if Asia saw a movement towards the northeast, but I must confess that I simply don’t know. I also wonder about the likes of the ancient Zimbabwe and Inca, southern hemisphere civilizations, and how they spread.

Once these waves of influence reached Great Britain, they tended to move in the same direction, and the differences were amplified by the trend here for land to become higher in that direction and for the island to tilt to the west as it goes north. All of that taken together leads to a drier, sunnier and warmer climate in the southeast, from which the waves of influence also come, and therefore Western Great Britain is more northerly and Eastern Britain (which is all England incidentally) more southerly.

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