The Answer Lies in the Soil

When we moved to the country in 1996, my small children were “townies”. In the first weeks of their new life, they came running to me in dismay. Our neighbour was felling hornbeam in the nearby wood. “Doesn’t he know,” they said sorrowfully, “that cutting down trees is wrong?” They had learnt at nursery school an environmental song (chorus, with gleeful pointing of childish fingers: “Shame! Shame! Shame on YOU…”) and absorbed the unthinking belief that Nature is Good and everything man does to it Bad. Many, perhaps most, nature programmes promulgate the same view, where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.

Francis Pryor’s fine and warm-hearted book bucks this depressing modern trend. Man in Pryor’s view is, in general, trying only to make an honest living. And, in Britain at any rate, every prospect is actually man-made, or at least man-altered — and not necessarily for the worse, either aesthetically or environmentally. (My neighbour coppicing for firewood was certainly encouraging biodiversity, including such species as bluebells and nightingales.) For Pryor, indeed, landscape is enhanced by understanding its history; and the history of a landscape is the history of the men who shaped it.

His interest in the landscape of Britain is deeply humane. “The archaeology and history of landscape is the story of day-to day-decisions made by ordinary people. They may well have been organised by Church authorities, powerful landowners or industrialists, but it was they who did the actual work of hedge-making, ditch-digging, house-building and so forth. And when one excavates, or carries out a detailed field survey, one has to get into the minds of the people who worked on the land, if one is to understand why they adopted particular solutions to the day-to-day problems that confronted them.”

Pryor knows about hedges and ditches. He is a working farmer as well as a first-rate archaeologist (the numinous Bronze Age ceremonial site at Flag Fen, near Peterborough, was his extraordinary discovery). The two trades combine beguilingly in this book. Those 18th-century agricultural improvers were, he informs us, wrong when they advocated grazing grass so close that “you could whip a mouse across it”: that would expose their stock to clostridial (soil-borne) diseases. But he brings more than just professional expertise: there is the sympathy that comes from common experiences. He writes feelingly, for example, of how the poor peasant farmers in the Middle Ages must have felt when their crops were ravaged by doves from the dovecots of the local monasteries and manors — rather, he says, as his brassicas are wrecked by semi-farmed pheasants from the commercial shoot next door — though he, at least, can go to a supermarket to stave off scurvy.

Pryor’s sympathies are quick and generous, and make this book an engaging read. They extend from pre-history to the present day and encompass towns, villages, suburbs, seaside resorts and industrial and military complexes. This book, indeed, is as much about townscapes as rural landscapes, as much about roads and railways as fields and hedges. All testify to “the many achievements of ordinary people”. Though his sympathies, as this suggests, are chiefly with the toiling masses, they readily extend to lords and landowners too. He has, rightly, a particularly soft spot for Victorian squires.

“How We Have Transformed the Land, from Pre-history to Today”, in the full title of the book, is an impossibly huge undertaking. Any account is bound to be partial. The sheer scope of Pryor’s research is impressive; yet his book is, as he himself cheerfully admits, bound to be “a landscape of the mind”. “True objectivity can never be achieved”: our thoughts are “a product of our upbringing, reading and research, and in these things we tend to follow our instincts and inclinations”. 

This recognition adds congenial warmth to The Making of the British Landscape.

Pryor’s own instincts and inclinations are allowed to shine through, without, however, becoming too dominant. His love of prehistoric sites is particularly infectious. It goes, perhaps, with his instinctive preference for the gardens of Stowe in their unrestored state, when there was a richly suggestive space in which his imagination could work. Pryor’s imagination tends to fill prehistory by investing everything with ritual significance, which is fascinating (though I did wonder whether the mysterious alignment of all the hearths in one settlement might have as much to do with prevailing winds as with religion).

Generally, his inclination is to debunk all the Horrid History type of historical myths. His prehistoric people are more civilised than one imagined (it is fascinating to discover that hedges were being laid in the Bronze Age). 

Even the Vikings, he urges, have had an unfairly “poor press”, though he admits that this “was not helped by the Vikings themselves choosing names like Thorfinn the Skullsplitter and Eirik Bloodaxe”. The Viking digs at York (Jorvik) unearthed fragments of silk, probably imported from the Near East, which seem to be the offcuts of a silk-worker. “In a cold climate,” as Pryor points out, “silk is still the warmest fabric you can wear.” Early thermal underwear perhaps. 

Pryor eagerly revises myths such as the appalling mud of the Middle Ages (roads were good and bridges often excellent), the existence of a uniform Open Field system in feudal days, and speedy, invention-led 
Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions.

He is also adept at challenging the prejudices of those of us who love the countryside. “Urban sprawl”, he argues, is good: a giant conurbation is actually an extremely efficient way of housing and employing the huge population of Britain. More than 90 per cent of the population lives in just 8.3 per cent of the total land area, leaving, in theory at least, 91.7 per cent as countryside. And suburbs, as environmental studies show, “encourage biodiversity much better than intensive arable farming”. (That, however, is either encouraging or depressing, depending on how you look at it.) Pryor loves railways and believes that we will in time come to love roads in the same way, “as magnificent engineering works that enhance rather than diminish the landscape.” He likes wind farms, and even the Millennium Dome (now the O2 Arena).

Of course, even he hates some things. “Anyone interested in history must be prepared for anger as much as for pleasure”; and the wholesale desecration of historic town centres in the Sixties and Seventies has nothing to recommend it, except as a stark lesson for the future. But Pryor continually reevaluates even his own prejudices, often with wry humour: “I find the suggestion that pylons serve to liven up and add interest to the dreary grain plains of eastern England rather hard to accept.” He tries to imagine how his pet hates — multi-storey car-parks and steel-clad distribution warehouses — might one day in the far future be discovered by archaeologists.

The Making of the British Landscape is a generous-hearted as well as admirably knowledgeable book. It should help many readers to use their eyes and perhaps enlarge the sympathies of countryside curmudgeons.

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