The Making of the British Landscape
Nicholas Crane (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)
Landscape and Englishness
David Matless (Reaktion, £9.95)
To offer the story of the British landscape from the Ice Age to The Shard is an enormous undertaking, yet Nicholas Crane is an engaging writer who handles his vast canvas with confidence and clarity. Perhaps rather overenamoured of the unusual word—an unnecessary reminder of his prodigious scholarship— he is nevertheless remarkably capable of making some of the most distant moments of our history come alive with a present relevance and dramatic understanding.
The story of the Doggerland of Britain being overwhelmed by a tsunami and our island losing its connection with the Continent couldn’t be more topically illuminating. This event also marked the coming of the end of the first 6,000 years of our landscape and it astonishes that very little was left of the inhabitants when we were already halfway through our story.
History began again with the coming of settlers from northern france, who appeared to have crossed the Channel at its narrowest point and then sailed up to the mouth of the Medway, where the earliest square house was found. from then on, we are led through the centuries by an intriguing mixture of personal observation, historical understanding, and geographical anecdote.
It’s no surprise that Mr Crane won the royal Geographical Society’s award for popularising geography. He carries the reader through some of the most complex periods, never losing the thread nor becoming too simplistic and always clear about the climatic changes that so affected agriculture.
Nor is the story one told in isolation: throughout, we see the British landscape as it is affected by the rest of europe and beyond. Inevitably, the sheer amount of information available for the more recent years makes the author increasingly more selective, but his choice is judicious and his conclusions sympathetic. Most effective is the way that the earlier overwhelmingly rural story morphs into the mixed picture of the past 200 years as the influence of canals, rail and roads dominates an increasingly urban landscape.
Mr Crane’s eye for the unusual but immensely illustrative example is unerring. The early building of roman London, King Alfred’s youthful visit to rome, Huthersfield’s route to becoming Huddersfield, the silent Pathé newsreel reporting the opening of the first petrol filling station in 1920 and the detailed description of the making of a prefab: all these are pictures that draw together so many strands of the story in an entirely memorable way.
Indeed, that is the real strength of this book. To have covered so large a canvas, embroidered it with such detailed illustration and personal anecdote and still produced a coherent and living picture of the landscape of Britain is a significant triumph.
It could, however, profitably be read in tandem with David Matless’s much praised Landscape and Englishness, now reissued and brought up to date to cover the past two decades in a particularly perceptive preface. Prof Matless sought only to cover the period since the first World War, which therefore enables him to be much more detailed than Mr Crane.
Always fascinating, the story of what we have done with our countryside, the towns we have expanded and the places we have plundered is well told and extremely well referenced. The author is less personally involved in the telling than is Mr Crane, and much more sociologically aware, but he tells a good story and marshals his enormously rich research so that it is immediately accessible.
What is particularly impressive is the range of his sources and his willingness to take as seriously the evidence of a travel brochure as the view of a wellknown commentator. He is also able to take the reader inside the campaigns for the countryside, for better architecture, even for courtesy and politeness. He takes us through pre-second World War, wartime and postwar england in a way that is always authentic and not distorted by hindsight.
We owe him a great deal for letting us understand so much more clearly what has more recently made us english. John Gummer
‘To offer the story of the British landscape is an enormous undertaking
Silbury Hill in Wiltshire is the largest prehistoric manmade mound in Europe. It is part of the Avebury complex of Neolithic monuments