The Making of the British Landscape

We regard our British countryside as precious and ‘natural’. After all, that’s where we find ‘nature’. In truth, almost the entire landmass of the British Isles above the geology is an artefact of human intervention.


It all starts, in this context, with the European climatic spasm of 9,700BC and the end of the last ice age. The Cotswold glaciers retreated, Doggerland warmed and hominids walked into the waking land along the Thames. It was this thermal window that enabled the British Isles to be habitable.


From diminishing ice to 21st century urban London, Crane has captured the chronology of change in our landscape by means of facts, imagination and archaeology. Britain’s awakening has the underlying theme of climate warming, increased greening and the successive arrival of European farmers and Roman colonists. Nature too has been restless. Take a couple of incidents around 6,200 BC, both a function of the retreating ice and a warming world. An enormous ice lake dam burst into the North Atlantic, shutting down the Gulf stream. Temperatures plummeted by five degrees, hazel, elm and alder died and sea levels rose by half a metre. Two hundred years later, a landslide off Norway caused a 20-metre tsunami drowning the Shetland Islands, the Orkneys, the coastal dwellers of northern and eastern Britain plus 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. Crane knew this 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, Crane adds the human dimension. Caesar’s initial invasion with 800 vessels in 54 BC 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.


Crane shows that our three billion-year old geological heritage and biodiversity-rich ‘wildwoods’ created a varied land, attractive to explorers and immigrants. 11,000 miles of coast and 6,000 islands gave additional interest value to our home. The exposed coastal waters of Britain ‘snagged with tide races, ferocious capes, sandbanks, fogs and fickle winds’ challenged and allured those seeking new lands. Throughout the 12,000-year journey, Crane covers the successive drivers of change. 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.


The author 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 all find this a highly useful volume. For those who enjoy hiking, climbing, or doing anything really, in our glorious countryside this is a book that can hardly be resisted. It can be enjoyed as a ‘before’ and ‘after’ for activity outdoors.


Check to see if this title is available at your local library. Consult the online catalogue here


Otherwise, further bibliographic details are found here


592 pages in W&N

First published 2016

ISBN  978-0297856665



Nicholas Crane

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