To me the development at Land's End might be a ghastly complex of shops and visitor experiences. But it is at least honest in its intent. If you are in possession of its publicity leaflet you can be under no illusion as to what awaits you. But can the same be said for the unspoilt towns and countryside of the British coastline which I instinctively prefer?

Take the case of Aldeburgh, on the coast of Suffolk, which lays claim to being a Conservation Area set within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which itself is a part of a Heritage Coast. To me it seemed a pretty enough small town. But is it really such an important little town? How many layers of significance can one town bear before sliding inexorably into the sea, weighed down as much by its own self-importance as by the scouring action of the raging sea?

For seven months I have been cycling through the Heritage Areas of Heritage Towns in Heritage Counties on the Heritage Coast of a Heritage Britain. For six of those months I have been puzzling over the meaning of these phrases; whether in fact they mean anything at all; wondering from whence springs the feeling of queasiness when confronted by yet another piece of heritage clamouring for my attention. Is it nausea from over-indulgence in so rich a diet, or an allergic response to the meal on offer?

I have brought this dilemma upon myself. I set out on this journey to see parts of the country that I had not seen before; to travel through whatever was to be found along the coast of Britain; to explore the towns and countryside which lay in my path. Yet I did not embark with the impartiality such a quest demands. My mind was already predisposed by experience and inclination to seek out history. Nor was I alone for this has become the standard pattern of thought for traveller and tourist. Open any guide book and you will find that every village, town, region, and country is approached through its history.

It wasn't always thus. When Daniel Defoe published the three volumes of his Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain in the years 1724 to 1726 he wasn't much interested in history. Certainly he remarks on the decaying ruins of castles he encounters and reports in passing on trades which once thrived in certain towns but now no longer do. He recounts the historic battles and lineages which underpin the noble families who govern the counties and the country. And occasionally he passes on the accumulating knowledge of the antiquarians when the fancy takes him. But he is not interested in history for history's sake. Stately homes are of importance as modern seats of economic and political power; their former castles now lying ruined are as unremarkable as the skins sloughed off by growing snakes. He is interested in the quality of the soil and the crops and livestock which it supports, in the number of people employed in fishing and manufacture, in the cultured pursuits of the gentry, in the improvements being made to harbours, waterways and roads. But not history. And certainly not heritage.

Defoe would not have understood my journey nor my account of it. For he was interested in the present rather than the past. I could have carried out a similar project to Defoe's and reported on all the new housing estates and industrial estates which ring the hearts of our older towns but the thought never crossed my mind. Automatically I ignored the modern, the industrial, and the commercial and instead sought out the restorative powers of the picturesque, the pastoral, and the historical. Ironically, much of what Defoe reported on now exists only as heritage. The traveller and the tourist have resolutely turned their backs upon the present in favour of the past.

History was invented by kings to prove the legitimacy of their authority and priests to prove the authenticity of their prophecy. At Scone the enthronement of each Scottish king for forty generations was preceded by a recital of their paternity to demonstrate their right to exact loyalty from their subjects. At Windsor the present Queen derives her authority for ruling England from the Anglo-Saxon King Egbert crowned in AD 802 and whose bones still reside in a mortuary chest in Winchester Cathedral. The aristocracy too know their family history. The succeeding generations of the Duke of Northumberland and MacCleod of MacCleod have a legal need to prove their origins in order to inherit the estates from which derive their power, prestige, and wealth.

Similarly a major function of the Bible is to present a history of the Jews as the chosen people. Page after page of the Old Testament records the posterity of Adam, Noah, Abraham, and David. It continues into the New Testament where Matthew records the thirteen generations from Abraham to David and the twenty-six succeeding generations to Joseph the husband of Mary (though it's a little odd that the New Testament should seek to establish the male family tree of Jesus as Christians claim him as the son of God rather than the son of Joseph).

This aristocratic and religious history continues to the present day. Despite a rising tide of the social history of the common people, stately homes and churches still form the historical backbone of the tourist's day.

Every town in Britain, and most of the villages too, has a church. It will generally be the oldest building in the area and the most distinguished. For centuries it will have had as its incumbent the most educated person in the area, with time on his hands and the intellectual curiosity to trace the history of even the most humble church. And then came Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian. He set himself the task of recording and describing every building in England of any architectural or historical interest from the distant past to the present day. Starting in 1949, he visited more than 30,000 buildings in over twenty years and personally wrote 38 of the 46 volumes of The Buildings of England which resulted. Now tourists could drive through any county in England with the appropriate volume of Pevsner in their pockets, content in the knowledge that they could safely pick out the sights which really were worth seeing. Banished forever was the waste of time involved in the careful studying of buildings randomly encountered and the terrible stress of forming judgements about them.

But, if we stood back from Pevsner's reputation as a scholar, his encyclopaedic knowledge, his enormous energy and powers of observation, we might see him instead as the Chief Anorak of Architecture. A strange word, anorak. Scott and Shackleton wore anoraks in the Antarctic, and Tensing and Hillary wore them on Everest. The anorak was the garment of choice for the heroes of Empire and Commonwealth and is still universally worn by mountaineers and explorers. Yet it has become a term of contempt for the anorak-clad figures to be seen at the ends of railway station platforms assiduously noting down the numbers of the locomotives and carriages which pass by. From here the use of the term has been extended to apply to any enthusiast bound up in the subject of their enthusiasm. Popularly believed to be a symptom of sad and lonely characters, this behaviour is in fact widely spread throughout modern society.

The birdwatchers I saw at Bempton Cliffs and the Farne Islands are classic examples. Birdwatchers, who of course do wear anoraks, note down every bird they see. They produce day lists, year lists, and lifetime lists of the numbers of species they see. Many are doing it not just for personal enjoyment but form networks of recorders contributing to the production of regional and national lists and maps of the distribution of species and their migration patterns. Other enthusiasts produce statistics on the distribution of spiders and ferns. Anything which exists in the natural world will have people recording its presence or absence throughout the year and at all times of the night and day. Some of these people are university professors.

If you are a sports enthusiast you will have friends who can recite the name of every goalkeeper who ever played for Sheffield Wednesday, or can recall the occasion on which the highest number of runs was scored by the opening bat in a minor counties cricket match. Some of these people have respectable jobs with the BBC.

The world is full of collectors. It started off with the landed gentry collecting paintings, classical sculptures, and purses made from the hair of executed monarchs. But now everybody collects. Bicycles, lamps, Clarice Cliff pottery, clocks and watches, record players, Dinky Toys, thimbles, chairs, cups and saucers, ikons from the Orthodox Church, postage stamps from the Summer Isles, agricultural implements, lacework, shoes and petticoats (though possibly not at the same time), saucy postcards from Blackpool, ice skates, knives and forks, jet carvings, sporting prints, truncheons, railway tickets, Royal Worcester porcelain. The list is endless. I know somebody who collects the pistons from the insides of car engines, though admittedly that is an unusually specialised field. Most of these collectors are ordinary people pursuing innocent pleasures and in correspondence with a wide circle of like-minded friends. There is virtually no product or human activity which does not have a body of avid collectors.

All these collectors might be written off as mere anoraks were it not for the fact that we often applaud their eccentricities and take delight in their collections. For their enthusiasm means they become highly skilled in the power of observation and in the drawing, counting, listing, cataloguing, and classifying of objects. And in the process they become knowledgeable in the history of their subjects. If they go on to acquire the ability to exercise discrimination and to judge the difference between the significant and the unimportant, then we would allow them the accolade of scholarship.

But behaviour which seemed acceptable in the museum world, collecting and interpreting objects for the benefit of an enthusiastic public, seems now to have a disturbing quality. For my aerial view of the entire country reveals an intensity of interest in its history bordering on the obsessional. I have become ambivalent about the extraordinary quantity of preserved history which I have seen on my travels and I seem to see a country revelling in the Autism of History. The skills the collectors use to such good effect are exactly those evidenced by some autistic children. The clinician Oliver Sacks suggests their behaviour indicates there is something lacking in the cerebellum, the region of the brain which co-ordinates incoming and outgoing movement, sound, speech, and vision in order to render the environment manageable. The obsessional behaviour of autistic children is a strategy for controlling a small part of their environment and thereby shutting out the chaos of the outside world. This leads them to develop exceptional drawing, counting, listing, cataloguing, and classifying skills for focusing their obsession. For this analogue to be useful in accounting for an obsessive interest in history its exponents must be desperately trying to shut out some fearful aspect of their lives. But what could it be?

Could it be that people are turning to the certainties of the past to escape the chaos of the present? With the collapse of religion and the breakdown of family life the past might seem a more stable place in which to dwell. Yet it is not obvious that the civil wars of the past, the dislocation and starvation of the enclosures and clearances, the cholera epidemics, and limited life expectancy were any less unsettling than present uncertainties. In any case, it is my experience that most enthusiasts for the past are just as enthusiastic about the present and the future. Steam locomotive freaks care just as much about the future of the railways as they do about the preservation of the past; old car nuts are also new car nuts. The general public may not like modern architecture, modern art, and modern concert music but they can largely ignore it. They can enjoy the old arts of old buildings, old masters, and classical music, ignore their more modern versions, and jump straight to the new arts of film, television, and electronics for which they have enormous enthusiasm.

Nor is a passion for old things necessarily indicative of an obsession with the past from which the objects come. People who collect the stuff of history are more interested in the stuff itself than in its history. They like the shapes, colours, and textures, the process of design, the techniques of manufacture. If they yearn for the past it is only in the sense of mourning the passing of craftsmanship. And that is precisely the point of much of the preservation movement: the exercise of craftsmanship. The preservationists are the new Arts and Crafts Movement.