I’ve been wanting to read Oliver Rackham‘s History of the Countryside since my smallholding adventures. Now comes springtime, my upcoming birthday, finally a day to breathe after possibly the most punishing period of my working life…
I miss my blog so much.
Reading Rackham I am filled with such a glorious and enormous weight of knowledge, centuries of human activity intertwined with these myriad ecologies of soil, water, rock, flora, fauna. The ability (still untested of course) to better read a thousand years or more in the landscape. This is mostly just a collection of delightful facts which are rather better interwoven in the book. But this is much shorter.
First, this delightful thought.
Insights may also come at random from travels made, or documents read, for some quite different purpose. I went to Texas to discuss Cretan archaeology, and what I saw made me revise my views on hedges.
Another — the argument for history’s continuity over brutal violent change, the roller coaster of civilization and darkness we were once taught:
Many recent excavations reveal a gradual changeover with little apparent effect on the landscape; sometimes, as at Rivenhall (Essex), it is not easy to tell at what point the Roman Britons turned into Anglo-Saxons. The ecological evidence strongly favours continuity. When the curtain is raised by Anglo-Saxon documents, much of what we now regard as the ‘classic’ English landscape was already there, had already acquired its regional differences, and as far as we can tell was not new. It increasingly seems likely that, at least since the Iron Age, every inch of the British Isles has either belonged to somebody or has been expressly set aside for communal use. Not just main roads but wide areas of fields and lanes are Roman (or earlier) antiquities, and survived the Dark Ages almost intact. (xiv)
He divides the lowland English & Welsh landscape into Ancient Countryside and Planned Countryside, with various uplands (where I live now) — I find this transforms how I see countryside and England itself. So it’s not just a string of delightful facts after all.
Hamlets & small towns
Ancient isolated farms
Hedges mainly mixed, not straight
Roads many, not straight, often sunken
Many public footpaths
Woods many, often small
Pollard trees, if present, away from habitation
Many antiquities of all periods
Open field either absent or of modest extent and abolished before c 1700
Most hedges ancient
Many though often small woods
Non-woodland trees oak, ash, alder, birch
18th & 19th C isolated farms
Hedges mainly hawthorne, straight
Roads few, straight, on surface
Woods absent or few & large
Pollard trees (except riverside willows) absent or only in villages
Antiquities few, usually prehistoric
Strong tradition of open-field beginning early and last into Enclosure Act period
Most hedges modern
Woods absent or few & large
Heaths rare; little bracken or broom
Non-woodland thorns and elders
I quite love these, simple, quite obvious ways of reading the landscape and of course they explain so much. The ridge and furrow I loved — not as old as I thought, went tearing through ancient landscapes and over burrows and standing stones…maybe I don’t love them quite as much. I can’t decide.
He challenges accepted views of deforestation with two quotations, one from John Evelyn talking about the ways that the new voracious Glass and Iron-works have destroyed the woods and another from Defoe about the inexhaustible woods all around. He writes
Unfortunately many historians confine themselves to the written word or, worse still, to the literary world; they are reluctant to put on their boots and see what the land itself, and the things that grow on it, have to say. (6)
It turns out that most of the iron- and glass-works managed for hundreds of years on coppiced woods and that in truth, there was no great loss of woods at this time. The woods that were lost were lost primarily to agriculture. This is a constant theme, that it is all well and good to write histories of what people thought about the landscape, but ‘let us not confuse this with the history of what people did with the landscape, still less with the history of the landscape itself or of what the landscape did with people‘. (23)
He describes the Anglo-Saxon charters, the perambulations used to delineate the boundaries — they are amazing. He gives this example:
First up from the Thames along the merfleot [=boundary creek]; to the pollard stump; so to Bulung fen; from the fen along the old ditch to Cowford; from Cowford up along teobern [the river Tyburn] to the wide army-road; from the army-road to the old post-built St Andrew’s church; so into London fen; along the fen south to the Thames to mid-stream; along the upstream by land & shore back to the merfleot. (from the year 959)
The wide-army road is High Holborn, the fen around Fleet Street. These details give me such happiness, seeing old lines of water and earth beneath the city I know so well.
He talks of the rural maps of the 1860s and 70s, ‘which attempt to record every hedgerow tree and the details of every building…the zenith of rural mapmaking in Britain and perhaps in the world‘ (19). Notes the various traditions of preserving the boundaries, like Great Gransden where they dug a hole in a certain spot and held the Vicar’s head in it. There is so much to love about England.
There is also a real sense of how much has been lost by the rise of mass agriculture of the 1950s and 60s — he writes of four kinds of loss.
There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. The loss of freedom [of highways, movement across the landscape]…The loss of historic vegetation and wildlife…the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us. (26)
All due to big agriculture, ‘the makers of chemicals, fertilizers and machinery‘. I sometimes worry about the touches of nostalgia to be found here, but he’s not wrong about this. He’s also quite entertainingly curmudgeonly. Like his footnote complaint about the historical accuracy of producers of historical films: ‘they do not allow Charles I to fly in a plane, but they do let him ride among Corsican pine plantations or Frisian cattle!‘ (31)
There is a list of extinct animals — the aurochs, sad they are gone, and wolves. Even sadder. But this is fascinating:
In Anglo-Saxon times, unpersons (!) and men on the run were declares wulvesheafod (wolves-head) and if caught ended on a wolves-head tree. (34)
Then there is this partial list of what Henry III had for his Christmas dinner — him wot finished off the last of the wild swine in England (his demands for immense amounts of all kinds of things we no longer eat recur throughout the book, though at times contrasted with similar if not such extensive demands of lesser gentry)–200 wild swine from Dean and 100 from Pickering–he ordered the last remaining wild swine, found in the forest of Dean, killed for a friend (what a friend!) in 1260.
The polecat was also known as the foulmart. Amazing. Except that it is not actually a cat, though it is cute and endangered.
There is also the remarkable information about rabbits, but I might do a separate post about them. I had no idea rabbits were so interesting.
Another fabulous footnote (though you know I disagree utterly):
The horse-chesnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is quite unrelated (and poisonous) introduced in the sixteenth-century from Albania. It is still unmistakenly exotic and has not become wild. It is a sad example of a once glamorous species, associated with oriental romance and spectacle, being deprived of its meaning through being made the universal tree of bus-stations. (54)
God I know so much about woodland now. Also forests, which often had no trees at all, only deer. I know about coppicing, pollarding and all things brilliant about managing woods as a renewable resource. This chart, ah this chart:
The first evidence (he says in the world but I am not holding my breath) for woodsmanship — those amazing early Neolithic causeways across the Somerset levels, oak structures with underwood poles of ash, lime, elm, oak and alder. The causeways…my heart beats faster, wooden walkways across the fens now buried but how I wish I could have seen them.
Some lovely stuff about the local vernacular of building, the differing fashions not always dependent on local materials — thus Cambridge built primarily in wood (apart from the colleges) despite the presence of easily worked stone. He writes
‘The only generality is that, where a region has not much timber building, it will be urban…Timber was an architectural medium: a ‘wealth of exposed beams’ looked picturesque and expressed prestige; it was not necessary to hold up the structure’. (86)
And was of course plastered over again as fashion changed. He continues:
Most medieval buildings are made from large numbers of small oaks; ever timber, large or small, is made from the smallest tree that will serve the purpose. The carpenter chose trees of the sizes required and squared them up, usually leaving the corners rounded (‘waney’). Oaks, then as now, were crooked and carpenters made ingenious use of the irregular shapes into which they grow. This was from choice: carpenters could saw big oaks lengthwise into several beams when they had to….(86)
Again we return to errors of economic historians, who describe woods destroyed for fuel, particularly for the iron industry between 1550 and 1700. But it didn’t happen, they never touched timber trees only underwood, and drew this from their own woods managed over long periods of time. He even describes the ways that merchant ships were built of timber, but HM Navy preferred to scrounge from the wood-pastures. He writes ‘H.M.S. Victory, built 1759-65, is ingeniously put together from great numbers of the smallest, and therefore cheapest, practicable oaks (91).
The myth evolves from the big shift in rural society and economics — when wood became understood as primarily timber and not as energy. This shift, partly due to the rise of cheap coal, is is when the sustainable management and harvesting of woodlands shifted to purely timber production. And oh the damage that that has caused.
I hadn’t realised that most older woods will have earthworks along their boundaries, built to keep animals out and protect tender young shoots and leaves. These remain, though sometimes they have been overtaken by secondary wood expanding outwards and across the boundary. Things to look for I never knew to look for. And a splendid note: ‘(no Forest was complete without a resident hermit).’ (147)
We come to older ways of parceling out and working the land. Reaves…I had never heard of reaves, yet my love of Dartmoor is great.
Reaves tell a story of country planning on a gigantic scale: of an organization able to parcel out tens of square miles as it pleased, and which set its rules of geometry above the practicalities of dealing with gorges and bogs…(156)
They seem to have been in full use from the Bronze Age — and similar systems have been found elsewhere, including Nottinghamshire and Berkshire. Splendid.
This chart that shows how lynchets are created, some of them from the neolithic:
So after all the open fields, and the effect they had on the landscape aren’t quite as exciting as I once thought. Still, they do reflect a degree of collectivization of land and organisation of labour, which makes them really interesting. Rackham describes 7 cardinal features:
- Divided into a multitude of strips, with each farmer’s strips distributed regularly or randomly throughout the field
- These strips aggregated into furlongs and those into fields. All farmers grew the same crop in each furlong, each 3rd field left fallow
- Animals of all farmers released to graze the stubble and the fallow field
- farmers shared in labour of cultivating each others strips
- Hedges few, and no enclosed circuits
- Strips ploughed to form ridge-and-furrow
- Regular meetings held to decide cultivation practices, fine dissidents
There is so much there to love.
Along with this diagram of how ridge and furrow are made:
Interestingly enough there’s no clear date for when it started. Some believed the Anglo-Saxons brought it with them, but there is apparently no evidence in Germany that it was in existence there earlier than in England. Some date it to after the Norman conquest. The largest concentration of them is at Uffington Scarp, and Rackham argues that attention to the Anglo-Saxon charters shows convincing evidence that the open-field systems existed at the time — and therefore this distinction between planned and ancient countryside already existed — through their descriptions though there is no specific reference to open-fields. He also notes that similar systems can be found in Scandinavian, Welsh and Gaelic cultures in the UK and French, Germanic, Slavonic and Greek cultures in Europe.
He writes ‘Open-field, with its rapid spread, has all the marks of a Dark Age invention.’ (178) I don’t know why, but wondering just how that happened gives me chills.
We go on to hedges. I love them. There is some evidence of the Roman management of hedges of hawthorne and occasionally they were given names in the Anglo-Saxon records (ealden hegestowe – old hedge-place). Lovely.
Not so lovely, the great enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries required so many plants it became a big business and initiated the founding of several nurseries. They mostly used hawthorne and only hawthorne for speed and cheapness, unlike earlier hedges planted with various trees and shrubs.
I love, of course, the knowledge that hedges can be dated fairly well by identifying the number of species of plant present there — from among a certain list of plants. Some have been identified as 1000 years old, with up to ten of these present. He gives a number of exceptions as well, so you always want your hedge to match clues from the surrounding countryside.
A wonderful chapter about individual trees, in farmyards, villages, woods. Trees with names. The splendid black poplar which I shall seek out. The long life of stag headed trees.
Another chapter on Elms — there are more elms than we have name for as they primarily reproduce through suckers but occasionally something new altogether is produced through seed. He writes:
Without the restraining influence of sex on evolutionary change, elms (like dandelions and brambles) have produced a multitude of different forms. The taxonomist, devising Latin names, cannot keep up with this process). (232)
I quite love that.
Highways — and not modern car-filled horrible highways, but the ways that people cross the land. He contrasts England with Greece and writes
The much more stable road system of Britain is partly the consequence of our climate and multitude of rivers, which require paths and roads to be structures and not mere routes; it also reflects English and Welsh, rather than Scottish or continental, attitudes to rights of way. The idea that ownership of land includes rights to keep the public off it and to be rude to well-behaved trespassers is partly due to the general increase in landowners rights in the last 200 years; but traces of this idea can be found in documents from earlier periods and in the landscape itself. (248)
Again, a fascinating mention of the wooden trackways across the Somerset levels, but not enough. A bit about Roman roads — like they weren’t all completely straight, just the ones the army was building. Though they are mostly straight, to be fair. I love the idea of traveling old roads.
A little about purprestures — or people building into roads. A little about the trenches of Roman roads and the trenches and open spaces built along medieval roads to stop the predations of highwaymen. All of these histories can be seen now in varying forms — primarily the alignment of current roads, fields and parish boundaries. The formation of heath, with its stripes and polygons, and of moors and grasslands.
The fact that moles were once called moldywarpes.
There is more documentation of villagers coming together to undertake the work of irrigating meadows — not as at home to water them primarily, but to carry fertilizer in the form of calcium leached from the springs. Curious. A whole section on ponds, dells and pits. I was losing steam a bit at this point, but when I next encounter such a thing I shall remember. Or know where to look. Like marshes, fens and the sea.
There is so much more of course, a splendid book.