As we drive about England on our regular visits, we marvel at the landscape. For such a tiny island, England certainly has some amazing visual contrasts.
Mostly we travel by car and this gives us a great opportunity to enjoy the scenery as we cross from one county to the next. As we pass each county sign, we always celebrate a new stretch of countryside with a high five, driver to passenger. Sometimes the change is subtle, as when the rolling chalk Downs of Sussex give way to the open heath of Hampshire and the New Forest. Often it is dramatic, as when the fertile Derbyshire Dales lead up to the bleak and windswept Peak District of Yorkshire, good only for scattered hardy sheep.
I’ve spent so long visiting and writing about stately homes, the seacoast and food, that I’ve almost ignored the great space inland. Driving from Oxford to Chelmsford, the undulating soft hills of the Cotswolds lead us to the farmlands in the valleys below. The views of an apparently untouched countryside are enough to bring a tear to the eye.
Near the tiny village of Rudgeway, a few miles to the south, my uncle shows me a stretch of Roman road which makes up part of a historic bridle path. A strange walled depression has me guessing. He explains it’s where Roman and medieval bullock carts wet their axles, an early piece of drive-in-drive-out engineering that predated axle grease. The main road now hugs the ridge above, but standing in the valley, there’s no sign of mankind, except in the ordered fields and hedgerows. On the high ground, one very old hedge, he tells me, was dated by experts from Cambridge University and was found to be over a thousand years old. Today, it has been rescued from a golf course, returned to nature, and acts to keep sheep penned in.
Further north, through the flat prairie of Lincolnshire, which seems greener than ever, through Nottinghamshire’s forests and finally home near the central spine of the Pennines, the landscape seems to change every hour. We seldom stop to wonder why the English countryside is so iconic, but this is what you get from several thousand years of mostly peaceful cultivation.
Farming came to England with the arrival of grain at the beginning of the New Stone Age, or about seven thousand years ago. With grain cultivation came the need to hack down more of the native forest. Hunting wild-life and gathering what grew naturally took second place to mixed farming, with cattle, sheep and pigs being reared in conjunction with primitive mixed cereals, and gardens of vegetables. As these pioneering farmers exploited the land, meadows and ploughlands were heavily cultivated, while woodlands and open heaths were set aside for hunting. The organizational skills required to construct giant stone circles and vast earthen barrows dispel the image of the inhabitants as primitive savages. The unglamorous and repetitive cycles of early agriculture became increasingly efficient. Climate change, outbreaks of deadly plague and famine, and other disasters swept the land and kept the population in check.
The arrival of the Romans in AD 43 ended the prehistoric era and stimulated new waves of settlement. They pushed their straight roads far to the east, west and north from their landing places in the south, and opened up the countryside. After a few good years, all that collapsed when their occupation ended after 500 years, creating a new cycle of retreat and decay during the Dark Ages. Invaders like the Vikings tried to keep things in check, but by the 9th and 10th centuries the countryside had recovered. In response to population pressure, more efficient methods of organizing the arable land were introduced, such as strip farming. This was the land recorded in the Domesday Book by the last great invader, the Norman William the Conquerer.
The most enduring memory of the open field system are the thousands of small villages which were established during these and the following couple of centuries, and which still exist today. In South Yorkshire, our own village of Thorpe Salvin, in the now green farming land, dates from this time, with parts of the church being dated to the 11th century. Around the village, as far as the eye can see, fields of canola (or rape, as the Brits still name it) paint the landscape bright yellow.
During a pleasant climate interlude in the Middle Ages, the population increased and new upland ploughlands were opened to feed them. Then a series of outbreaks of the Black Death reduced the numbers of rich and poor alike until the end of the Middle Ages. Quite unintentionally, generations of hard-working peasants imposed themselves on the landscapes of southern and middle England, to create the evolving pageants of rural beauty which modern farming methods are so swiftly destroying. Today, vast fields are being created by the destruction of hedgerows and isolated woodlots, which defined the original small holdings, as the land is turned into prairie.
The highways and byways that link the small communities that make up the English countryside are frequently some of its oldest features. Ancient footpaths and winding lanes were laid down in prehistoric times, as our ancestors walked, rode and hauled their goods to communal markets. Some celebrated Stone Age routes remain, more were imposed during the Roman era. Each added distinction to the varied landscape. Larger villages or even towns grew up around places where the rivers could be forded or bridged. Direct routes upon which armies marched hither and thither, were either Roman or based on their superior engineering and surveying methods. Unfortunately, no medieval monarch managed to create a maintenance system for these roads and they eventually decayed beyond repair. Turnpikes arrived in the mid-1600s, which led to more cohesive efforts to create post roads, less dependent on local efforts. A hundred years later, following the Enclosures Act, the shape of the landscape around small collections of farms was set.
Throughout these times, village life was very much determined by the needs of the Lord of the Manor. In all parts of England, he (very rarely she) imposed their desires for crops, cattle, or sheep, on the landscape. In our own family history, one ancestor records clearing the land around his manor in Kilmington, near Bath, of acres of invasive gorse, to enlarge the grazing land for his dairy herd. The much improved farm and manor are there today, though long passed out of our family’s ownership.
Titled aristos gathered vast estates and created huge hunting lands: witness our neighbours in Nottinghamshire’s Dukeries, where five regal dukes divided up what was left of Sherwood Forest between them, for their exclusive use for hunting. In the tiny villages, serfs farmed small plots for their own benefit. The Lord demanded his share or tithe, and the Church another. With the manufactured parks of the very wealthy, this patchwork of fields, woodlands and forests created the landscape we think so English today.
We must not forget the Industrial Revolution, which changed the landscape in predominantly the Midlands and the North. First canals and then railways spread over the land, to carry mostly goods and eventually passengers. The labour of thousands of predominantly Irish navvys once again changed the landscape for ever. I am reminded of this when I take a rare country walk with my daughter, who now lives in Oxford. We strolled along an ancient right of way down to the restored Chesterfield Canal, a wood filled with bluebells on one side and nascent sprouts thrusting through the rich earth on the other.
“Stop,” she commanded. “Dad, you look like a dandelion puff ball,” she continued as she took my photograph. And I did.
Around our South Yorkshire village, the air is clear as far as the eye can see and not a colliery hoist breaks the horizon. In nearby Sheffield, as throughout the area, the steel mills have closed, and shopping malls sit on what was once an industrial wasteland. Now that the mines and most of the “dark Satanic mills” are gone for ever, this countryside too is returning to it’s former “green and pleasant land.”
I’m quoting, of course, from Blake’s anthemic poem Jerusalem, about which I wrote in 2014 in “Oh to be in England, now that spring is here,” from another great poem by Robert Browning.
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