Philip Marsden portrait pic

Philip Marsden

The levelling sea cover The Bare-Footed Emperor cover The Chains of Heaven cover The Main Cages cover The Spirit Wrestlers cover The Bronski House cover The Crossing Place cover

Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place

Rising Ground book cover
'‘Fascinating and hauntingly evocative... Philip Marsden has written a truly wonderful and enjoyable book

Jan Morris, Literary Review

'Equally entertaining and enlightening... Marsden’s references are glittering. This is a timely volume, describing in beautiful prose the opulence of our natural and human fabric. Guaranteed to fill the windows of Cornish bookshops, it is a superb and educative work which should be read everywhere'

Horatio Clare, Independent

Why do we react so strongly to certain places? Why do layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape? When Philip Marsden moved to a remote creekside farmhouse in Cornwall, the intensity of his response took him aback. It led him to begin exploring these questions, prompting a journey westwards to Land's End through one of the most fascinating regions of Europe.

From the Neolithic ritual landscape of Bodmin Moor to the Arthurian traditions of Tintagel, from the mysterious china-clay country to the granite tors and tombs of the far south-west, Marsden assembles a chronology of our shifting attitudes to place. In archives, he uncovers the life and work of other 'topophiles' before him - medieval chroniclers and Tudor topographers, eighteenth-century antiquarians, post-industrial poets and abstract painters. Drawing also on his own travels overseas, Marsden reveals that the shape of the land lies not just at the heart of our history but of man's perennial struggle to belong on this earth.

The Leveling Sea: The Story of a Cornish Haven in the Age of Sail

The Leveling Sea book cover
'‘This is a simply splendid book.... Marsden’s writing is delightfully honed as well as being profoundly well-researched. The Levelling Sea is a microcosm of British history, contained within its covers like a ship in a bottle.

Philip Hoare, Sunday Telegraph

'Outstanding... His pitch-perfect feel for a phrase, plus a gift as sublime as James Hamilton-Patterson or Jonathan Raban's for describing water lifts The Levelling Sea far above ordinary history towards a state closer to poetry.'

Bella Bathurst, Sunday Times

During the 1560s and 1570s, a maritime revolution took place in England that would contribute more than anything to the transformation of a small rebel state on the fringes of Europe into an imperial power.  Until then, it was said that only one man in the country was capable of sailing a ship across the Equator. Within ten years an English ship with an English crew was circumnavigating the globe.

At the same time in Cornwall, in the Fal estuary, just a single building – a lime kiln – existed where the port of Falmouth would emerge. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century, Falmouth would be one of the busiest harbours in the world.

The Levelling Sea uses the story of Falmouth’s spectacular rise to explore wider questions about the sea, its place in history and the imagination, and its effect on the lives of individuals. Through a dazzling parade of Elizabethan privateers, merchant seamen, naval heroes, religious dissenters and outsiders, award-winning author Philip Marsden presents Falmouth and its harbour as a crucible for the modern world.  Drawing on his own deep connection with Cornwall, he writes unforgettably about the power of the sea and its ability to push enterprise to extremes – with piratical greed, brilliant innovation, or courage and endeavour on a grand and tragic scale.

‘Marsden’s outstanding new book....his pitch-perfect feel for a phrase, plus a gift as sublime as James Hamilton-Paterson or Jonathan Raban’s for describing water, lifts The Levelling Sea far above ordinary history towards a state closer to poetry. This is the best of our island’s tale, told the way it should be.’

Bella Bathurst, Sunday Times

‘An invaluable and immensely readable book. Phlip Marsden’s gifts as a travel-writer and novelist, a scene-setter and storyteller combine remarkably in his adventurous and adventuring new book.... a maritime history of Britain as observeable between two celebrated headlands.. ‘

Andrew McNeillie, Country Life

‘Landlubbers will find much to be enthralled by in this biography of a port: a triumph of the author’s deep learning combined with his passion for the sea.’

Harry Ritchie, Mail on Sunday

‘I feel as though I’ve been sitting at the feet of a master storyteller... Philip Marsden knows and loves Falmouth, sailing and the sea, putting that love into this most satisfying of books.’

The Bookseller

‘The best non-fiction expands the particular to the general, and perpetually discovers the marvellous in the ordinary. Marsden pulls this off every time. Read this book for a closer acquaintance with Falmouth. Read it for an account of British sea power, or British shipbuilding. Read it for a good story and beautiful, unpretentious writing. Read it for its introduction, a brillant essay on seagoing, or for no particular reason. But read it.’

Sam Llewellyn, Marine Quarterly

‘Had Philip Marsden simply used his travel-writing skills to create a hymn to our surrounding seas, and had he decorated it with this magical vocabulary alone, the book would have surely been a flawless triumph. But Marsden has done a great deal more than that......’

Simon Winchester, We Love this Book

‘Captivating...scenes of well-crafted history intercut with subjective seaborne reminiscences.....Marsden has always had a knack of linking the local and the global’

Boyd Tonkin, Independent

‘This delightful book.... Marsden has unearthed some fascinating characters.’

Literary Review

‘Beautifully crafted, an enticing and gripping read from a proper wordsmith,’

Western Morning News

‘The book is superb, by turns informative, inspirational and poetical....a tour de force of marine meditation’

Alex Wade, Cornwall Today

The Barefoot Emperor: An Ethiopian Tragedy

The Barefoot Emperor book cover
‘A spell-binding work of historical biography’

Sunday Telegraph

‘There are few, if any, historians who can match the wit, pace and flair of Philip Marsden. It reads less like history than a rip-roaring novel with a cast of chatracters as extraordinary as any fiction-writer could devise.’

Mail on Sunday

Towards the end of 1867, Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia burnt his own capital, took his vast mortar - named 'Sevastopol' - and began a retreat to the mountain stronghold of Mekdala. For months thousands of his followers struggled to build a road for the great gun, levelling the soil of the high plains, hacking out a way down into mile-deep gorges. At the same time, a hostile British force, under General Napier, was advancing from the coast. It was the climax to the reign of one of the most colourful and extraordinary rulers in African history.

Discovering traces of the road in the highlands, and drawing on years of involvement with Ethiopia, Philip Marsden recounts the story of Tewodros. From his spectacular rise - camel-raider to King of Kings - Tewodros was a man who combined a sense of Biblical destiny with personal charisma and military genius. He restored the fortunes of the ancient Christian kingdom, introduced reforms to his army and to the church, and dreamed of an alliance with the great powers of Europe.

But as his reforms stalled and the British Foreign Office lost his letter to Queen Victoria, Tewodros's behaviour became more and more violent and erratic. When he imprisoned the British consul, years of negotiation culminated in one of the most bizarre - and expensive - campaigns of the Victorian age.

'The Barefoot Emperor' is history at its most thrilling and dramatic. Using narrative skills proven in such acclaimed books as 'The Bronski House' and 'The Chains of Heaven', Philip Marsden recreates scenes and characters of glittering intensity - and the intriguing paradoxes of a central figure grappling not only with his own people and his own demons, but with the seductive and unstoppable approach of the modern world.

‘Marsden has combined his outstanding skills as a travel writer – his intimate knowledge of a foreign clime, his instinctive sympathy for a lost culture, his wonderfully evocative, almost poetic prose style – with the research talents of a first-rate sleuth’

Saul David Sunday Telegraph

‘It is Philip Marsden's achievement that he has made Theodore central to his theme…as always, Marsden manages to handle his research material with a light touch and lets the story develop its own momentum. This is imperial history told without an imperial perspective.’


‘Philip Marsden is a wonderful writer who tells the tragic story of Tewodros with sympathy, elegance and a knowledge of Ethiopia that few Western writers can match.’

Literary Review

‘A masterly account…Marsden's compelling narrative is full of gems… “The Barefoot Emperor” 'warms the insides' in specifically Ethiopian ways. It's a triumph; a work of entirely unpredicted necessity.’


‘Compelling…a balanced, full-bodied account…of these extraordinary events…Marsden, an expert on Ethiopia, is also a gifted storyteller and his narrative has pace and, above all, suspense.’

Sunday Times

‘Marsden has done an amazing job of reconstruction… wonderfully strange.’

Daily Express

‘An amazing story…a page-turning narrative of a sort I haven't read in years.’


‘Marsden first visited Ethiopia in the 1980s; his understanding of the country is manifest on every page. His narrative … is beautifully paced, and his story is incredible.’

Daily Telegraph

The Chains of Heaven: An Ethiopian Romance

The Chains of Heaven book cover
'Utterly transporting'

Sunday Times

Walking hundreds of miles through a landscape of cavernous gorges, tabletop mountains and semi-desert, Philip Marsden encounters monks and hermits, rebels and farmers, people whose spiritual passions reveal a reckless disregard for the material. In spare and glinting prose, The Chains of Heaven celebrates the ageless rewards of the open road and a people for whom the mythic and the everyday are inextricably joined.

‘Wonderful... Philip Marsden is one our very finest prose stylists’

New Statesman

‘The first thing I wanted to do after reading this wonderful book was buy a ticket to Addis Ababa and head north. Such is the power, precision and passion of Phlip Marsden’s writing...The Chains of Heaven is a must’

Justin Marozzi, Geographical Magazine

The Main Cages

The Main Cages Cover
‘The Main Cages’ is quite simply a joy to read. It is at once a memorable adventure, a moving love story, and an intriguing portrait of a changing way of life – and on every level, it succeeds magnificently.’

Mail on Sunday

‘Marsden brilliantly evokes the everyday life of a Cornish village…a gripping yarn.’

Evening Standard

The acclaimed novel by one of Flamingo’s most gifted young writers, author of ‘The Bronski House’ and ‘The Spirit Wrestlers’.

Philip Marsden’s brilliant first novel is set in the 1930s, in the small Cornish fishing village of Polmayne. A newcomer to the village, Jack Sweeney, buys a boat and establishes himself as a fisherman, gradually winning the respect even of the village elders.

But times are changing, and a new kind of visitor is beginning to appear in Polmayne. A bohemian colony of artists offends some sensibilities, while a hotel is opened to accommodate the summer tourists, and pleasure steamers mingle with the fishing boats in the harbour.

Yet, despite the superficial changes, the old ways and the old hazards of Cornish life endure. Offshore, just below the surface of the waves, lie the Main Cages, a treacherous outcrop of rock where many ships and many lives have been lost.

Firmly rooted in a particular place and time, yet recalling in its universality such books as Graham Swift’s ‘Waterland’ and E. Annie Proulx’s ‘The Shipping News’, ‘The Main Cages’ is a gripping story of love and death, and a remarkable fictional debut.

‘Philip Marsden’s luminous first novel is an elemental tale of man and nature and the profoundly skewed relationship in which they are locked…Underpinning all this is Marsden’s lean, exact and beautiful prose. Even the details of the nautical world acquire a poetry. Like a seashell it contains the various music of the sea within it.’


‘Like a latter-day Dylan Thomas peeping through the windows in ‘Under Milk Wood’, Marsden charts the changes and observes the constants of [Polmayne’s] communal life.’

Sunday Times

‘The world of Polmayne is so sharply observed that its [characters] stay etched in the mind like old photographs.’


The Spirit-Wrestlers: and Other Survivors of the Russian Century

Winner Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year Award

The Spirit Wrestlers book cover

In Moscow, a man is looking at a map of the Caucasus. He is a Doukhobor, a ‘spirit-westler’, member of a group of radical Russian sectarians. ‘Here,’ he says. ‘I was born here. On the edge of the world.

So begins Philip Marsden’s journey into a strange and ambiguous world – a world where nothing is quite as solid as belief, where miracles are a part of everyday life, and where the Russian steppe gives way to the hostile Caucasian scarp.

‘A fascinating, horrifying and inspiring journey – praise seems scant reward for his efforts. The man deserves a medal.’

Harry Ritchie, Mail on Sunday

‘So otherworld, so strange and so fabulous are the characters who people The Spirit-Wrestlers that the reader might be forgiven for imagining he had dipped by mistake into some ancient book of fairy tales.’

Teresa Waugh, Literary Review

‘What’s really seductive about this book is not its sense of being in at the end of something important, nor the battery of ‘characters’ that it assembles, but rather Marsden’s own lovely errancy, the kind of Brownian motion that tosses him from collision to collision’.

Alex Ivanovitch, Observer

Having turned the last page of Philip Marsden’s book, I sincerely regretted it was my first encounter with this excellent travel writer. The Spirit-Wrestlers charmed me with its genuine spirituality – Marsden himself deserves to be called a spirit-wrestler’

Vitali Vitaliev, Daily Telegraph

The Bronski House

The Bronski House book cover

A remarkable, multifaceted story made up of journal accounts, memories, conversations and personal experience, The Bronski House is a paean to Poland, a landmark in travel writing, and a family history – tied together by the unique experience of returning from exile.

In the summer of 1992, accompanied by Philip Marsden, the exiled poet Zofia Hinska stepped into the Belorussian village where she had spent her childhood. The Bronski House is in part the remarkable story of what she found. It is also the story of her mother, Helena Bronska – of her coming of age during the Russian revolution, her dramatic escapes from Bolsheviks, Germans and partisans, of her love and loss in a now vanished world. It brilliantly reconstructs a world which vanished in 1939 when Soviet tanks rolled into eastern Poland.

‘Splendidly imagined.... part novel, part reverie.... Marsden has a dazzling gift for poetic evocation – and for reminding us that Britain is not an island. The book I’ve savoured most this year.’

John Fowles, Spectator

‘An extraordinary, multi-faceted narrative. From diaries and memories it recreates the true story of two polish women – mother and daughter – amid the destruction of a whole culture’

Colin Thubron, Daily Telegraph

‘He is an exquisite writer, with the elegant style, light historical touch and detachment of a storyteller … incandescent … the best travel writing I have read on Poland.’

Simon Sebag Montefiore, Sunday Times

‘A tragic, uplifting elegy to a remarkable family. Philip Marsden's work will invigorate travel literature by helping to propel it over the boundary into unexplored territory.’

Rory Maclean, Times Literary Supplement

Magnificent… a Polish Wild Swans meets Dr Zhivago’

William Dalrymple, Sunday Times Books of the Year

‘A tragic story, beautifully told.’

Colin Thubron, Daily Telegraph Books of the Year

The Crossing Place

Winner - Somerset Maugham Award

The Crossing Place book cover

'The Crossing Place' is the account of a remarkable journey through the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, a quest to discover the secret of one of the world’s most extraordinary peoples. Caught between opposing empires, between warring religions and ideologies – at the crossing place of history – the Armenians have somehow survived against the odds.

“An interest, then an obsession, then a quest – and eventually a book, 'The Crossing Place', in which Marsden’s fine and unostentatious travel writing is criss-crossed with traces of politics and cultural history … This is a beautifully written book, with enough incident and observation to convey the unpredictabilities of real travel.”

Noel Malcolm, Daily Telegraph

“One of the best young travel writers in search of the elusive, enigmatic Armenians … A wonderful journey recounted with knowledge, humour and a beautiful elegiac sadness.”

Nicholas Wollaston, Observer

“Perfectly placed in mood and sympathy … A determined and passionate book.”


“A fascinating journey.... a lone and absorbing quest for what stubbornly survives a holocaust – a people, a landscape, a language, a religious vision. It is an admirable book.”