A Wide-Angled Long View of the British Isles

The Making of the British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present 
Nicholas Crane
Weidenfeld and Nicholson 579pp £20

In The Making of the British Landscape, Nicholas Crane takes us on a remarkable journey through the deep history of these isles. En route, he takes us back to W.G. Hoskins and his Making of the English Landscape (1955). I was fortunate to have been taught by Hoskins and to know Maurice Beresford, author of The Lost Villages of England. I have also been stimulated by those with whom I have worked, and they are all here: David Palliser, Alexandra Walsham, Tom Williamson, Robert Wilson-North, Angus Winchester. These are just the early modernists, but Crane’s research has taken him all the way from prehistorians to industrial historians. 

This well-structured book starts with ‘Edge Land’ and ‘Wood Land’ stretches from 10,000 to 8000 bc, while ‘Sacred Places’ considers 4050 to 1500 bc, and ‘Altered Earth’, brings us the first human impact. With ‘Temenos’, we have the watershed between the basins of the Avon and the Thames filled with earthworks, and the appearance of ‘social enclosures’, such as Stonehenge and Silbury Hill. Crane estimates the worker-hours required for their construction. For Windmill Hill, he estimates 62,000 worker-hours. Here ‘large groups shared a common interest in cohesiveness’; here were stages for ‘worship, feasting, remembrance of ancestors, settling issues of grazing, water or crime’. Pastoralists left ritual monuments on the landscape, which endure today. Only in the second millennium were ‘gods and ancestors usurped by the plough’. 

One of Crane’s most arresting passages is where the Uffington White Horse gallops the Ridgeway, as it has done for perhaps 3,000 years: ‘Mid-stride, with quick knees and flying fetlock … it’s a memory horse, a fleeting image … two legs are detached … it’s a graphic abbreviation … its creation may have been a ritual ... it’s been well groomed’, so we still have it today. This is prose of the highest order.  

In chapter 11, we meet Pytheas, the Greek seafarer who made the first recorded circumnavigation of Britain in c.320 bc. In chapters called ‘Oppidum’ and ‘Urbe in Rus’ we are in Roman Britain. Albion’s real people now increase: Julius Caesar, Emperor Claudius, Boudicca, Julius Agricola and Hadrian. In the brilliantly entitled chapter ‘Scattered Tesserae’, we move from ad 200 to 550. Later, canal fever appears as ‘Unnatural Geographies’ and  ‘Chained Earth’ move us through urbanisation and industrialisation, where transport and communications take over. The chapter reaching the present opens with Pathé’s 1920 newsreel about the first ‘Roadside Petrol Supply Station’. Hoskins, Crane reminds us, was an economic historian overwhelmed by nostalgia, who ended in the mid-1950s ‘with an erudite howl of anguish’. Crane ends in 2016, uncertain about our future: ‘Despoilers of our habitat do so in the knowledge that they are sabotaging Britain’s future.’ 

Anthony Fletcher is Emeritus Professor of English Social History, University of London.

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