So begins Nick Crane, in his magnum opus, where he describes in scholarly detail the evolution of Britain’s countryside and cities responding to successive climate fluctuations and waves of civilisation.
This is his greatest work for those curious to understand the geographical layers that have shaped Great Britain. From diminishing ice to the peak of our London urban Shard, Crane has captured the chronology of change of our landscape, full of facts, imagination and archaeology. Britain’s waking has the underlying theme of climate warming, increased greening and the successive arrival of European farmers and Roman gladiators. But as our world warmed, nature has been restless. Take a couple of incidents around 6,200BC, both a function of the retreating ice and a warming world. An enormous ice lake dam bursts into the North Atlantic, shuts down the Gulf stream, temperatures plummet by five degrees, hazel, elm and alder die and sea levels rise by half a metre. Two hundred years later, a landslide off Norway causes a 20-metre tsunami drowning the Shetland Islands, the Orkneys, the coastal dwellers of northern and eastern Britain and the people of Doggerland.
As a young geographer, Crane was influenced by economic historian Professor WG Hoskins, the ‘spokesperson for 1950s England’ with his The Making of the English Landscape. This Crane knew by heart. It was an attempt to study the development of the English landscape much as though it was ‘a piece of music to understand the logic that lies behind the beautiful whole’. This influence has now given us a spokesperson for ‘Landscape Britain’ – the combination of Crane’s diligent research and intimate knowledge of our Isles, has created a classic that equals Hoskins. Woven throughout, Cranes adds the human dimension with gifted prose. Caesar’s initial invasion with 800 vessels in 54BC followed by 40,000 soldiers gave Britain both a fighting force and an ‘army of psychopathic builders’ as Romans laid the foundations of forts, bridges and roads across the landscape.
“Like Crane, getting outdoors at an early age will strengthen the goal to cherish our cultural and natural heritage”
Crane’s encyclopaedic and vivid story is deeply enriched by Britain’s diversity. 500 miles of latitude of varying altitude, our three billion-year old geological heritage and biodiversity-rich ‘wildwoods’ create a varied land, attractive to explorers and immigrants. 11,000 miles of coast and 6,000 islands gives additional enormity to our home. The exposed coastal waters of Britain ‘snagged with tide races, ferocious capes, sandbanks, fogs and fickle winds’ challenged those seeking new lands. Throughout the 12,000-year journey, Crane covers the successive drivers of change with gifted prose. The Mesolithic adventurers and the passion for sacred places, the ‘manic hacking and burning’ of the industrial revolution, fuelled by rich raw materials, the wars and impact of 74,000 tons of bombs and more recently the loss of our 10,000 playing fields. The pace never stops and layers of geography are uncovered on every page.
Crane ends on a reassuring note. If we add the urban green space to the countryside, the natural cover in England, Scotland and Wales is between 98 to 99 per cent. But there is a warning about the continuing decline of our wildlife and we have just passed the 400 parts per million for the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Within the book, there is an underlying message that landscape matters because it is our habitat and a reminder for our future guardians: to care about a place you must know its past and the direction it is heading.
Students, teachers, academics, business leaders and policy makers will find this an accessible reference as we look ahead to pending drivers of change: some we know and some we don’t. Like Crane, getting outdoors at an early age will strengthen the goal to cherish our cultural and natural heritage. And being better informed about the 12,000-year story of our land, will give civil society confidence to make balanced decisions about the future, especially if we want to retain the essential ingredients that make our British landscapes truly great.
THE MAKING OF THE BRITISH LANDSCAPE: From the Ice Age to the Present by Nicholas Crane; Weidenfeld & Nicholson; £20 (hardback/£10.99 (ebook)
This review was published in the December 2016 edition of Geographical.