Recently I wrote a piece on the ibooknet blog about the new book The Making of the British Landscape by Francis Pryor. It’s had some good reviews in the Guardian and both the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.
This is a subject that is very close to my heart, I get frustrated when I enthuse about some interesting feature in the countryside or in a town and no-one else seems very interested. Reading this book has made me think even more about our landscapes.
When I’m driving along a lane in the Weald (thorn hedged with wide verges, giving room to drive cattle) and see humps and banks in the coppiced woodland, I ponder on what they are or once were; and why that old neglected coppiced wood is still there, and for what purpose was it once managed? (In the Weald it may have been for fuel – either domestic, or for industrial iron working or glass making – or hurdles or fencing.) By the A24 near the Surrey/Sussex border (there was once a windmill on the other side of the road) there’s an apparently random pair of parallel lines of trees through a field, in the spring creating an avenue filled with bluebells – why is that still there? And a bit further south there’s Marches Farm – presumably once named for the border between the South Saxons and Surrey?
Why does the road bend so much, sometimes doing a series of right-angled bends (not, I imagine, Chesterton’s ‘rolling English drunkard’)? Why some highways did became modern roads while others stayed as footpaths, and why some settlements developed into villages and towns, whereas others remained as small hamlets or individual farmsteads, also often makes me wonder.
Not just the countryside, when in London I look at the roads and buildings and their names: for example, in Piccadilly Green Park underground station is under Devonshire House, an office block which also houses an M&S – it’s on the site of the Duke of Devonshire’s city house, a Palladian mansion by William Kent which overlooked Green Park but was demolished in the 1920s.
And in an area where the roads run in a rough grid-pattern you might see one road meandering through – if you look more closely, you can see several grid alignments respecting its route (so this was once the old lane through the fields) and each alignment might well be arranged within the old field boundaries. Marylebone Lane leading north from Oxford Street to Marylebone High Street springs to mind.
Place-names are interesting things in themselves, Marylebone for example. The area was originally Tyburn (‘boundary stream’), it changed to Maryborne (‘St Mary’s church by the stream’) and then by popular etymology to Marylebone (‘Mary the good’).
Our towns and countryside seem to be permanently threatened, often by piecemeal development nibbling away at the edges of things. It’s not just the very old. Two small buildings local to me have recently disappeared, both to housing. One was a small nondescript brick-built building in a the car park of a pub called ‘The Brewery’ – the little building was the brewhouse for which the pub was named; the other was a small wooden shed on the edge of an industrial estate, but it was the last remaining evidence of the town’s original railway station, and will the residents understand why their apartment block is called ‘Buffers Lane’ instead of Legoland?
Beside the main road near the foot of Reigate Hill there’s a small, rather nondescript concrete block. I wonder how many who walk or drive past it know that it’s all that remains of a World War II roadblock, or even notice it? I’m sure my children became resigned to me parking in a field gate to go and look at an obscure piece of World War II GHQ Stop Line in a field in the Somerset Levels, or walking up a muddy track to look at a (not really that impressive) stone circle in Shropshire, but because it’s something I’ve always done I assume they think it’s a normal activity. I must admit to being open to complaints of bias as Francis is my brother-in-law, but The Making of the British Landscape is an excellent book, and I think that once it’s read it will stay, and hiking across wet fields of grass to look at a Second World War anti-tank ditch or the ruins of a Georgian folly-tower will become second nature; and any car, train or foot journey, however short, will be seen with new eyes.