29 AUGUST 1992, Page 42

Long life

History from the air

Nigel Nicolson

One way to view a country, not neces- sarily the best way but an original and extravagant way, is to charter an aeroplane and fly slowly in circles over it. This is what I did in Kent last week, having a houseful of children and their parents and wishing to devise a sufficiently dramatic alternative to the video, the badminton, the table- tennis and the rowing-boat. To charter a plane for nine people and a 45-minute flight is not expensive beyond the dreams of avarice. I'll come clean about the cost: it was £270, from the London Flight Centre at Lydd, from where you can fly in 15 min- utes to le Touquet.

We did not fly to le Touquet. The joy of chartering is that you can direct your plane like a taxi, with the difference that the air is untrammelled by traffic and there are no one-ways. So we flew up the coast over the great tunnel-workings to Dover, turned inland to Canterbury, from there circled three castles, Leeds, Bodiam and Siss- inghurst, and returned by Rye to Lydd. It was a bright and perfect day.

We played the fame of guessing how we would know, if we didn't know, that it was England below us and not some foreign country. We decided that the fields would be the first clue, the neat patchwork formed by hedges and ditches, some brown, some green, but mostly `patines of bright gold' in the harvest sunlight, and marvelled that the open countryside should have been kept free from the incongruous development you would find in America, in France, or Italy. Then there is the evidence of England's social system, unlike that of any other country and best deciphered from the air — the nuclear village with its manor-house, its church, its parsonage and cottages, the 18th-century park being a refinement of the surrounding fields and its lake the village pond writ large, all settled into folds of the low hills without fuss and a minimum of arrogance.

Someone suggested that we would know it was England from the fact that nearly every house in town or country has its gar- den. And I, hoping that the children would be impressed, said that in no other country (or perhaps I meant no other county) would you find its greatest secular and ecclesiastical monuments sited within five minutes' flight of each other, Dover Castle and Canterbury Cathedral. The whiteness of the mediaeval stone, as at Leeds and Bodiam, contrasts with every subsequent material, and these great edifices gleam like historical stepping stones across the land. But this argument was not accepted as true of England alone, nor was the tight- ness of the old town centres, like Sandwich or Rye, thought to be any different from Boulogne or Amiens. Still, I do believe that centuries are peeled away when you discover the Englishness of England from the air. Even in so thickly populated a county as Kent, 85 per cent of it is still rural, and that has not much changed since the enclosures. Even the coast, which one would expect to find most altered by fortification, docks, bunga- lows and le Shuttle, would be recognised by Julius Caesar viewing it from the sea as the same coastline that we saw from the air. But how did his legions find their way from Deal to Canterbury by night through the uncharted country which we overflew in five minutes?

It was history from the air, well worth the £270.

`My God — I'm married to a pervert!'