Review: The Making of the British Landscape, by Nicholas Crane

Many hill walkers and trekkers will know Nicholas Crane as the man who — immediately after getting married  — set off on a two year walk across the watershed of Europe!  Other readers will know Crane as a contributor to the BBC factual series Coast.

This is a book that I’ve been wanting to read for a while and, finally, I was given it as a birthday present. I wasn’t disappointed!

If you think that a history of the British landscape might be difficult to pull off you would be right. But in many ways this book much more than a history of a landscape, it is a pretty good a natural history and societal history of Britain as well, for there is little that this book doesn’t explore. But don’t let this worry you! As ever Crane’s style is both engaging and fascinating to follow.

The book — written in distinct sections — starts with the ancient geographical and geological history of these islands (well even before we were a group of islands). We follow the footsteps of the earliest inhabitants. We are introduced to the impact and significance of past ‘ice ages’ and periods of warming. Of course, there is our separation from Europe when the confluence of the Thames and the Rhine deepened to become the English Channel and begin the sinking of Doggerland.

Ancient civilisations and cultures are covered in some detail. We follow the movement of hunter gatherers as they make their way from the South and Crane contrasts British development and society against that of Mesopotamia at the same time. Then there were the Romans, the defeat and exist of the Romans, the reversion back to a ‘British’ culture and society, the arrival of the Vikings, the Normans and so on. Each of these migrants or invaders left their mark not only on the society of the nation but on its landscape and its natural world. Readers may be surprised (as I was) by how quickly the British Wildwood was cleared.

Humans, of course, shaped our landscape, the most obvious example of that most readily seen by hillwalkers is how sheep grazing changed our world. But much of this book is concerned with the developing urbanisation of the nation and its impact on these islands.  Disease and natural disaster also had a big impact on population and therefore landscape.

As we move towards modern times we have the impact of the enclosure movement and the clearances in the Scottish Highlands. Britain was very quickly recognised as a land of riches by many, partially due to the abundance of natural materials such as lumber, iron, coal, copper and tin and by the variety of landscape in such a compact area and, of course, these natural advantages helped Britain become the world leader in industrialisation.

Crane deals really well with the conflict between the modernising of the world and tradition. There was the draining of the fens — in particular Englands largest inland lake — in order to maximise arable farming (the fenland was 30% more productive than other comparable farming areas). There was the development and introduction of fertilisers which changed crop production and therefore the landscape. The mechanised age brought with it canals that changed markets though supply and demand, the development of stream and the power-driven plough and, of course, trains and latterly cars.

International trade has also had a big impact on our landscape but Crane shows how even this can occasionally reflect on our past natural history. Agricultural markets collapsed at one point under the pressure of poor harvests and the growing ease of important crops and cereals from elsewhere in the world. Much arable land was abandoned and it took but thirty years for the wildwood to reassert itself, before the next wave of development took hold.

In modern times war, our links with Europe and the rise of new technologies continued — and continue — to shape our landscape. Crane ends the book considering the sustainability of our landscape and economy and the impact climate change is having on these islands.

This is not only a fascinating book but an absolute triumph. Like many of the best books on the natural world, and on history, the book doesn’t necessarily tell you much that you didn’t know already but it provides real insights through the context in which development is placed.

Thoroughly recommended.

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