In the Steps of the Anglo-Saxons

In the Steps of the Anglo-Saxons

By Leighton Houghton

Reading this little book which is interesting on two counts, first the author takes to the road twice to see for himself, as a pilgrim the sights of Anglo-Saxon Britain and the story they tell, and at the time, which was the later part of the Second World War what life was like in this dark time, although the sunrise had begun for a bright future with the coming end of a very hard fought battle, to see and hoped for better future for so many people in this country of ours, I have looked for more about this man, but could only find about his other books, so with no further ado, I will let the writer of this book tell of his journey around Anglo-Saxon Britain and what he saw and felt, whilst at the same time what daily life was like, not knowing that this would become history in its own right, so off we go to tread the path he trod as he describes his pilgrimage,

Who was Leighton Houghton? His full name was Reginald Leighton Houghton, but he dropped his first name in many records, born in 1910 in Warwickshire, the family moved within the year to Weston-Super-Mare, near Bristol.

He was the vicar of St. Mary`s church, Benfleet, Essex, from 1942-1950 and during that time he married Laura J. Tuffield, Laura was an Essex girl born in Rochford in 1922 and was married in Colchester in 1948, the surname Tuffield being familiar to Benfleet ears, for the family ran the general stores (now the Benfleet Tandoori) in the high street.

He wrote several books between 1939-1973, children`s novels and factual books.

He passed away in 1999 at the age of 89 years in Shrewsbury, Shropshire.


It was His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury who made the original suggestion. It was, of course, quite unwittingly made. For when Archbishop Plegmund sat at his Episcopal palace at Canterbury in the year 891 A.D and at the request of Alfred the King compiled the `Saxon Chronicle` he little knew that that ancient manuscript would, a thousand years later, send a pilgrim forth upon a tour of Britain.

I found my copy of the `Chronicle` in a second-hand bookshop down a twisty street at Bath. An old gentleman, with crooked pince nez and a halo of white hair, who seemed to have read every volume which crowded the walls and floor of his dim-lit shop, peered at the copy short-sightedly and nodded approval.

“Quite the best translation available,” he said; “and interesting – most interesting. No other country in the world has its early history so thoroughly recorded.” He darted suddenly at a shelf and drew out two books. “Bede, for instance. . .”

“Yes,” I said, “I`ve read it.”

“But what about Nennius?” He flourished the second book triumphantly before me.

“I have never heard of Nennius,” I confessed.

“He also wrote the history of the Britons, though, mind you, much of it is just a repetition of Bede. The ninth century was his time – earlier than the `Chronicle` by over a hundred years.”

“And who,” I asked, displaying my ignorance, “wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?”

“Ah! A number of people. Plegmund, the Archbishop of Canterbury, began it. His copy is at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and goes up to the year of his death in 924 A.D. Like Nennius, he copied Bede`s `History` almost word for word and then he added a record of his own times. After him, other people took up the work: Dunstan the Archbishop was one – he was born shortly before Plegmund died – and successive hands continued until fifty years after the Norman Conquest.”

So I purchased the `Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,` and `Ecclesiastical History` of Bede, and Nennius`s `History of the Britons`. And that was the beginning.

For the remainder of the summer the three volumes lay idle on my shelf, disturbed only when Miss King, my housekeeper, flicked them with a disapproving duster. Then, one autumn evening I walked with a friend up the hill above my pleasant, grey-stoned house to where there is a sudden, spreading view of the Thames and the coast of Kent beyond the brown swell of a ploughed field. A belated crow, black against the dusk of evening, flew lazily into the shadowing trees which top the Rabbit Warren, and far below, the waters of the river were steel-blue and silent in the fading light. My friend pointed towards the jutting tip of the flat, walled island which lies between the Essex mainland and the Thames and which, three centuries ago, Dutchman drained and made habitable.

“That,” he said, “is where Alfred defeated the Danes.”

“Did he?”

“My dear fellow, you`re not going to tell me that you`re living here in Beaumefloete – for that`s what the Saxons called it, meaning `Wooded Settlement by the Water` – and have never read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?”

“I have a copy, but so far . . .”

“Good heavens! and you`re mentioned in it. Come back and I`ll show you.

At home again I took down the volume and he turned over the pages.

“There you are,” he said, “894 A.D. `The fortress of Bamfleet` – that`s here, where you live; funny how names get altered – `had been ere this constructed by Hasten` – Hasten was a Dane – `and he was at that time going out to plunder, and the great army was therein. Then came they thereto` – meaning King Alfred`s men – `and put the army to flight.` You see. And there are other references later on. . .”

When he had gone and I sat alone before my fire I took up my three volumes again and began to read them, and out of the far centuries of Saxon England these three men – Plegmund the Archbishop, Bede the monk and Nennius the scholar – came back from their distant past and told me the story of England`s making.

I made my decision that same night. With Bede for guide I would become a pilgrim, visiting the scenes of the events which he recorded, finding once more the places where the first Christians lived and worked, tracing the sites connected with the early British saints whose personalities are enhanced by a fascinating mixture of truth and legend. It would be a far pilgrimage, for the first Italian missionaries landed in Kent, St. Columba the Irishman had come to the Western Highlands and in the north of England the Faith had been centred at Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland.

And when winter was gone, I packed my haversack, put five pounds in my pocket and set out.


Actually my pilgrimage was accomplished in two parts. I completed it in the only way which I could afford – by hitch-hiking; and to those who imagine that there is no more in hitch-hiking than to stand by the roadside and signal passing cars, let me bring early disillusionment. Hitching is the most uncertain method of travel in the world; it is full of surprises and disappointment. In the morning you may travel a hundred miles/169.93km with ease, only to be stranded at nightfall twenty miles/32km from your bed. Or you may tramp wearily until noon along roads filled with unheeding traffic and in the afternoon have so fortunate a succession of lifts that you find yourself at your destination in time for supper. But there is fascination in it. The very uncertainty flavours it with the spirit of adventure, and you go forth free as the wind, excitingly uncertain of what each day may bring. Before you lie the roads of England. There is no town, or village, or city too remote to lie beyond your reach. You may wake in Bristol and sleep next in Aberdeen. As a Canadian airmen with whom I had tea at York, remarked, “I guess you`ve gotta small country, an` half of you folk seem to spend your vacations goin` round it.”

But, best of all, when you go hitch-hiking you meet people – all sorts of people, of every conceivable calling, class and age, each with a new variety of conservation for your entertainment. I set out to seek only the ghosts of a forgotten England, but almost immediately I found myself discovering the living people of my present generation. There was the lad at Lindisfarne who rescued my lost shoes, a most engaging young lady in Manchester who appointed herself my guide, the brave little Welsh woman at Llanelly who showed me the portrait of her soldier-son mounted in her brooch, a delightful Highland family at Iona who told me the island stories of pixies and the long-dead kings and saints as we sat till long past midnight round a leaping fire, with the music of quiet waters caressing silver sands beyond the cottage door, and many others. As Aristotle remarked in different words, discovering people is the most human study of all.

I completed the first part of my pilgrimage during September, going through Somerset, round South Wales and up the coast to Aberystwyth. Here I cut through the George Borrow country to Yorkshire and Durham; then, by the Roman military road from Newcastle to Carlisle, down into New Galloway and northward to Loch Lomond, Mull and Iona. From Iona I travelled to Edinburgh, then south again to Lindisfarne and Lincoln, London and Canterbury.

The second part, much shorter in length, was accomplished after Easter and occupied five days. I went across the Midlands, then, over the Cotswolds to Evesham and Malvern, and by way of the Wye Valley to Bath and the Great West road.

In this manner I visited practically all the sites connected with the earliest history of the Church in this land as recorded by the Venerable Bede.


Bede was a monk of Jarrow and the foremost scholar of his time, and the five books of his `Ecclesiastical History` are the priceless heritage of British Christians. Although he rarely left the vicinity of his monastery, kings and statesmen, beside the leading Christians of his day, were among his intimate acquaintances, and he was able to call to his aid an host of documents both from the papal library at Rome and the great centres of Church life in England, which combined to array before him the whole story of Christianity from its introduction into this land to the year of his own death, 735 A.D. When I set out on my pilgrimage it was to the history confined within the years which Bede`s work records that I gave my attention.

Yet as I progressed something other than the ancient sites, the half-forgotten legends and the illustrious names connected with those early centuries, began to grip my attention. There were a host of little adventures which befell me and a hundred and one interesting facts and stories which I gathered from the people whom I met, it has grown into a chronicle of my experiences. Perhaps it has gained from that a humanity which otherwise had been lacking.

I trust I may be forgiven for including in the name of Saxon the three peoples who came from the continent and settled in this land after the Romans evacuation; The true Saxons settled only south of the Humber; Kent was conquered by the Jutes and the north by the Engles; under these the country was divided into eight kingdoms. However, the royal houses frequently intermarried and, on at least one occasion, Bishop Wilfred of York, who was of Engle blood, described himself as a Saxon. Rightly the invaders should be called Anglo-Saxons, but that is a clumsy title and throughout these pages I have used the word Saxon to denote all three peoples.

So much for introduction. It remains merely to record my grateful thanks to all who have contributed to make this volume: the libraries which have loaned books and given much useful advice; the authors named in the Bibliography from whose works I have culled my facts, for I would be the last to make any personal claim to original research; the kindly folk who gave me accommodation late at night on those occasions when I failed to reach my intended goal; and the numerous drivers of lorries, private cars and army vehicles who bore me on my way and entertained me with pleasant conversation.