Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Making of the British Landscape

I’ve just finished reading the 800-odd pages of The Making of the British Landscape (ISBN 9781846142055) by Francis Pryor, who many will know from his TV appearances on Time Team, as well as Britain BC and Britain AD, which he adapted from his books of the same name for Channel 4 television. He was a field archaeologist for many years, specialising in the Fenland area of eastern England, and best known for his work at Fengate, Cat’s Water, and subsequently at Flag Fen, on the edges of Peterborough. Previously President of the Council for British Archaeology, he now divides his time circannually between writing, broadcasting, and sheep-farming.

The title echoes W G Hoskins’s The Making of the English Landscape, first published in 1953, which I read when I was a teenager. It made quite an impact on me, and I have been interested in the development of these countries’ landscapes (my interest is also in Wales and Scotland) ever since.

Hoskins wasn’t much help with towns and cities, and I sometimes struggled to apply the ideas from his book to the landscape I was looking at, it all seemed so much more complicated, the land being – that wonderful word – a palimpsest of thousands of years’ changes. To be fair to Hoskins, he was inventing a new discipline, in effect, making it up as he went along, and we know so much more, and have so many more scientific techniques, nearly sixty years later. Online resources now mean that some areas of the country can be researched using the Historic Environment Records, Extensive Urban Surveys, Historic Character Assessment Reports, or a more specific example, the Cornwall Industrial Settlements Initiative. But all this new information needs fitting into the larger context to fully understand it.

So a new book on the subject, a big fat one at that, is much to be welcomed. With the subtitle ‘How we have transformed the land from prehistory to today’, the book is arranged chronologically, and its scope is vast – starting with the retreat of the ice, Palaeolithic hunters, and rising sea levels in the Mesolithic flooding the plains and wetlands of Doggerland to create the North Sea and English Channel, taking us through to the present-day ‘Sat Nav Britain’. As Francis says, taking us from one time of major climate change to another.

There is a lot of historical and archaeological information to put things into context here; obviously very strong on the archaeology, but also covering, inter alia, architecture, industrial archaeology, garden history, geology, and planning policy. As usual, Francis doesn’t shrink from taking a polemical view, and if that stimulates debate, for example about planning or industrial agriculture (or soil-mining as I think of it), then so much the better.

Our modern landscape is strongly influenced by the underlying geology, soil, and what went before. Learning to unpick the details is enjoyable, making a walk an informative and interesting activity, rather than a pointless ramble. I’ll never have enough knowledge to be a Stewart Ainsworth, but this book provides the material to enrich any walk, urban or rural.

With its enormous breadth in time and subject matter, and covering the whole of Great Britain in varying amounts of detail, I can’t imagine anyone not gaining a lot from reading this book. It’s well-illustrated with maps, figures, colour plates, and monochrome photos (which could perhaps have been reproduced more clearly, but are far better than those in the proof copy I saw). There are copious endnotes, a ‘further reading’ section, a bibliography, a glossary and an excellent index. It’s a proper size, too, quarto rather than a large coffee-table book.

There is more information and a short interview with Francis on the Penguin website, and he’s at the Hay Festival on June the 3rd.

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