Bringlish Landscapes

“That’s a classic,” said the man in the Oxfam shop, tapping the front cover of the little paperback.

I nodded in agreement. “I thought it was about time I bought a copy.”

There was a pregnant pause.

“That’ll be one ninety-nine,” he intoned.

And so it was that I bought a copy of a true classic in the field:

Hoskins, W.G. 1955. The Making of the English Landscape, originally published by Hodder & Stoughton – but my copy is a 1983 reprint of the 1970 Pelican edition.

I’ve finally read it, along with a natural – and much more recent – companion volume, already cited once or twice in previous posts:

Pryor, F. 2010. The Making of the British Landscape, Allen Lane but my edition is the Penguin paperback.

Here they are together, apparently sunbathing.

Bringlish Landscapes old and new: from Hoskins to Pryor

Many readers of this blog will be familiar with one or both of these books – even if only by reputation. Their subject isn’t exactly “farming unearthed”, but nonetheless they make crucial reading for anyone trying to get a handle on the broad sweep of British agricultural history.

It’s the broad sweep, in fact, that made Hoskins’ classic such a pioneering work in its day: examining, apparently for the first time, how the modern landscape(s) of England were shaped not only by parliamentary enclosure acts around the 18th century, but by processes stretching back into medieval times – if not earlier. This is the pioneer world of 1950’s landscape history, focusing very much upon the visible landscape. It is – explicitly – not an archaeological study, and so anything pre-dating the Anglo-Saxons is dealt with in a single, fairly brief chapter. It’s probably the least readable chapter, but the rest of the book sets the bar pretty high. The academic might bemoan a dearth of footnotes, but the narrative is brimming with both erudition and character. Hoskins quotes extensively from the likes of Dickens, Wordsworth, and John Clare, and gets quite literary himself – passionate, even, in a way that you just don’t expect after years of student reading. On 17th century England:

“Few boys lived beyond easy walking distance¬† of thick woodland, or of wild and spacious heaths, where they could work off freely the animal energies that in the twentieth century lead too many of them in the foul and joyless towns into the juvenile courts.” (p.139)

“No industrial smoke, nothing faster on the roads than a horse, no incessant noises from the sky… how infinitely more pleasant a place England then was for the majority of her people!” (p.139)

Coming to the industrial revolution: “in the Potteries and the Black Country especially, the landscape of Hell was foreshadowed.” (p.222)

And the modern landscape of 1950’s England? “It is a distasteful subject but it must be faced for a few moments.” (p.298)

Half a century later, and Francis Pryor offers a not-too-dissimilar reading experience. Like Hoskins, Pryor is an adept communicator both in print and on-screen; his writing can be passionate and characterful, too. And he’s more sympathetic than Hoskins towards 20th century developments (bungalows notwithstanding). In terms of content, there are differences: Pryor covers Scotland and Wales, for instance, and has much more on recent and maritime landscape history, including e.g. Palmerston forts in the Solent, 20th century wartime defences, and 21st century shopping centres. But the biggest difference, perhaps, is that Pryor is an archaeologist and a prehistorian at that. Add to this the fact, noted already in Hoskins’ 1976 preface, that archaeological research has been (and still is) transforming the subject, and we have Pryor’s narrative progressing in detail from Ice Age to Iron Age before covering the same chronological ground as Hoskins. We finally enter the Anglo-Saxon period on p.209; by the same page, Hoskins has just about finished with parliamentary enclosure. Pryor’s book is more comprehensive in a way, covering a bewildering array of sub-topics (pylons, seaside resorts, “polite landscapes”…); these make for accessible reference points, in articles that can usually be read out of context if desired. Consequently, the overall narrative flows somewhat less smoothly than that of Hoskins, but that’s a very minor point given the ambitious scope of the book.

So I’d say: have them both. Read them cover to cover, and refer back to them, especially if you need to branch into a period/topic that’s unfamiliar.

And pretty soon, British readers at least, you’ll be reaching for your walking boots and loving your local landscape!


3 comments / Add your comment below

    1. especially :
      Rackham, Oliver (2006). Woodlands. New Naturalist series. London: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-00-720243-1.

      Rackham, Oliver (2003). The Illustrated History Of The Countryside. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-84335-4.; and its predecessor

      Rackham, Oliver (1986). The History of the Countryside: The full fascinating story of Britain’s landscape. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. ISBN 0-460-04449-4.

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