Country Life Every Week - - Books -

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

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