In youth I attended a boarding school in a remote Cumbrian village (coincidentally the one where I now live). The daily cycle of dormitory, refectory, classroom, playing field was starkly constrained and meant my imagination only slipped its bonds when I looked up to the hills and experienced the landscape of the village and its surroundings in a way as inward and intense as that of (one imagines) a medieval estatesman or the monks that had once occupied the priory church. Nowhere was this connection more vividly expressed than in the school’s compendium of cross-country runs, a psychological geography of a few square miles of Cumbria that invested agony, imaginative liberation, physical escape and ecstatic transports of achievement in afternoon exercise. The routes’ names – Three Sisters, Triangle Wood, Peck Mill – were talismanic, loathed and embraced. So it was with the pleasures of memory and discovery that yesterday, in the course of delivering election literature to a remote house accessible only by an obscure bridleway, I found myself retracing the long-expunged route of what was once the legendary lung-breaking Trees Triangle and parts of the practically mythic Railway Ramble. The names and the places they represented had the power of involuntary memory, but also the dislocation of time. In boyhood the Three Sisters route was named after a trio of cottages on the road to a neighbouring hamlet. When I returned to the village in adulthood time and housing development had relocated this toponym into the row of fields between the houses and the beach. The signifier had floated, careless of memory and meaning, several furlongs to the south.
This, inevitably, made me think of the challenges a historical novelist may face when trying to ensure that a landscape is not only recognisably authentic to the present-day reader but also credibly invested with the memories and associations of the historical protagonists. No place on earth presents a greater challenge in this regard than Jerusalem - a city razed to the ground in antiquity and entirely rebuilt two centuries before an imperial enterprise devoted to the location and memorialisation of authentic pre-destruction ‘holy places’. When researching The Judas Case I was unsurprised to discover that the presumed location(s) of the Crucifixion migrated some distance in the Old City between the 4th and 12th centuries – and relocated to the suburbs in the 19th. The Golgotha of The Judas Case is located with one eye on the Constantinian localisation – and another on the practical and public challenges of conducting executions on what we know was sometimes an industrial scale. (Spoiler alert – the neighbours are appalled by the noise, the smell and the crowds).