The making of the British countryside

On the evening of 18th September members of the Society were treated to a fascinating talk by retired historian Dr. David Vodden, which paid homage to the pioneering work of Professor W.G. Hoskins in researching the history of the British countryside.

David, backed by an admirable selection of colour slides, reminded us that the landscape which we enjoy, both in town and country, was indeed very much one which has been changed by human hand. There are very few nooks and crannies of the landscape which have not been affected in some way by the work of human beings. By way of introduction, he touched on the landscapes of the fox-hunting countryside of Leicestershire where the hedge patterns and careful planting of copses of trees for fox coverts reflected the needs of the hunting community. Indeed, this interesting man-made landscape was among those which first prompted W.G. Hoskins to explore the topic further.

Yes, of course the shape of the landscape - its hills and valleys - was created by geology but man has very much modified that geology by changing the surface of the land. David went back to the Bronze and Iron Ages to show us pictures of the ramparts and ditches which formed fascinating structures such as Maiden Castle - which are still with us today. Of course what we see today is essentially the foundations for the wooden stockades and other wooden structures which were built within the earth ramparts of forts such as Maiden Castle. But much remains for us to have a clue of the lifestyle of the inhabitants.

The landscape changed yet again as a result of the Roman invasion. We all immediately think of the sophisticated road network created by the Romans but fail to realise that much of it remains the backbone of our modern system of communications. And what about Hadrian's Wall? We have certainly one of the largest and oldest examples of engineering work in the British Isles.

Often the settlements of the ancient Britons were often taken over by the Romans and developed not as tribal capitals but as Roman towns. David put forward the theory that our Roman settlement at Wall was more than just a staging post on Watling Street. After all, research has shown that it extended over 25 acres and so it must have been a settlement as large as the Roman settlement of Bath.

He left us with a tempting thought that there is much to discover about Wall, for its hidden secrets have still not been given up. He also reminded us that the Romans occupied these islands for over 400 years. We forget that this was a very long period in time. In contemporary terms it stretches back from the present to Elizabethan times. No wonder therefore that the impact of Roman activity on our landscape is still very significant. They left us new towns, a farming system and a transport system.

Their decline was long and punctuated by recurring invasions of Angles, Saxons, Friesians, Franks and Picts. Why should these tribes seek to invade Britain? David explained to us that these tribes had a lifestyle based on primogeniture. This meant that families had to constantly seek out new land to occupy as the eldest descendant received all the family land. The pressure therefore to move further afield was irresistible; and we must also remember that East Anglia in particular was rich farmland - the granary of England. These new invaders continued to clear woodland, build new hamlets and farmed on the open field system, usually rotating crops between each large field. Each family of course occupied part of each of these great open fields and co-operation was clearly the order of the day in order to deliver food in a co-ordinated manner for the tribe. Of course the great enclosure movement of the 18th century swept away most of the open field system; but one good example still remains at Laxton in Nottinghamshire, now preserved with the support of the then Ministry of Agriculture.

The Norman invasion wrought further changes on the landscape. Many Saxon settlements included the construction of an earth mound upon which a motte and bailey was established for defensive purposes. These were taken over by the Normans and then stone castles were erected on them. David explored the development of the castle from the Norman invasion, through the medieval period, looking at Kenilworth (surprisingly once largely surrounded by an extensive lake?), Stafford Castle, Chartley Castle and at Caernarvon Castle, whose walls he told us were modelled on the city walls of Constantinople.

Caernarvon was particularly interesting not only as a castle but as a statement of princely control. It was indeed a palace for its times. The town, huddled below its walls, was in effect a military barracks where the townspeople owed allegiance to the King and formed his army; to suppress the Welsh in times of disorder.

David explained to us the relationship not only of castle to town but of church to town, explaining the many apparently idiosyncratic relationships between church and town. Sometimes the church inexplicably was not at the centre of the town, possibly because of the establishment of a new church outside the old town by the Normans with the new town growing up around it. Sometimes the town arose as a consequence of the church. Lichfield is certainly town planned by its Bishops.

We moved on briskly to encompass a brief examination of the evolution of the country house from fortified manor houses like Stokesey Castle through to Baddesley Clinton and Charlecote Hall. As times became more settled, so the defensive features disappeared, moats were filled in and decorative gardens started to appear. One of the earliest, David told us, was at Montacute House in Somerset.

David also had time to mention the impact of the Reformation on the landscape. Many ruined abbeys, together with associated groundworks, are all that remain of an extensive and rich network of religious buildings following the reforms of Henry VIII. Often our great houses such as Longleat were built on the site of dissolved abbeys. We briefly visited Bath to enjoy the splendour of the Crescent and the Circus; Quarry Bank Mill and the impact of the Industrial Revolution on Cornwall. We finished closer to home in the Shropshire Hills, where man's impact is no less subtle as a consequence of very extensive grazing by sheep.

A one-hour presentation could never do justice to this topic and David managed to range from pre-history up to the Industrial Revolution in one hour. He could do no more than awake us to the rich history which is there before our eyes if, as often is the case, we could only see it.

Roger Hockney
September 2001