Paul Johnson

Not every aspect pleases

Half a century ago I read W. G. Hoskins’s book, The Making of the English Landscape, when it first came out. It was for me an eye-opener, as it was for many people.

Not every aspect pleases
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The Making of the British Landscape

Francis Pryor

Allen Lane, pp. 848, £

Half a century ago I read W. G. Hoskins’s book, The Making of the English Landscape, when it first came out. It was for me an eye-opener, as it was for many people.

Half a century ago I read W. G. Hoskins’s book, The Making of the English Landscape, when it first came out. It was for me an eye-opener, as it was for many people. It told us of the extent to which our landscape had been made by man, not God, and taught us to look much more observantly at it. Since then, landscape history has become a major subject. So has media and political interest in what we are doing to it. In addition, another subject has come up in the shape of ‘man-made climate change’.

Francis Pryor is a conscientious scholar who has spent most of his life investigating the early history of the Fens. He has done important fieldwork, and by way of a professional hobby he has been a sheep-farmer, which has taught him a lot. His enormous book of 800 pages, which includes hundreds of black-and-white and colour photographs, maps and diagrams, is an updating and amplification of Hoskins, and by any standards a major addition to our grasp of the subject.

But for a book aimed at the general public it strikes me as insensitive. Pryor gives the impression that he moves in a self-contained world of experts who agree with each other on essentials and are not used to arguing their case. It begins: ‘Our story will start, as it will end, at a time of major climate change.’ And in the last section we read: ‘There can be very few people who do not by now accept the overwhelming evidence for global climate change.’ Note the words ‘by now’. Was the book written early last year, before the evidence of the e-mails from East Anglia and the scandals of the UN International Committee, and not least an exceptionally hard winter over the northern hemisphere? Does Pryor read opinion polls?

My impression that he leads a rather cloistered life is reinforced by his section on wind turbines, which he evidently loves, and calls ‘majestic’. They have ‘a minimal “footprint” on the ground, can readily be removed and produce renewable energy.’ He understands ‘reasonable objections from people like ornithologists’, but more general opposition he seems to find baffling. It is a mystery to him that a great many people find them hideous, their noise at close quarters insupportable and believe them to be absurdly uneconomic.

It is not indeed easy to defend, on economic grounds, a retrogression to the Windmill Age. Windmills were a huge advance in their day, as Pryor is fully aware, and made a difference to the prosperity of north-west Europe particularly. But a millennium later, technology has moved on, and just giving them a mid-20th century shape does not make them efficient. At least many of the old windmills were beautiful, as Rembrandt well knew. I can’t see David Hockney, much though he loves unusual landscapes, painting a windfarm.

Moreover, those who support their spread are the same kind of people — often the same actual people — who a generation ago brought to a halt the nuclear energy programme in this and other countries, a decision which is now being revised at enormous cost. The French, thanks entirely to General de Gaulle, who was what Jane Austen would have called ‘a sensible man’, with colossal will-power, did not fall into this particular ecological pit.

There are other aspects of Pryor’s book which make me uneasy. He appears to think that the Notting Hill carnival, much feared and detested by the local inhabitants such as myself, has ‘magic’, and he likes Gormley’s Angel of the North. He is fond of New Labour words like ‘stakeholder’, ‘transparency’ and ‘sustainable’. He thinks the 21st century will give people ‘more leisure in which to express their identity’.

He is not always accurate. He thinks Coleridge invented rock-climbing, with his famous ascent of Broad Strand on Scafell, Cumbria in 1802. I suppose if anyone invented rock-climbing it was Paccard and Balmat in 1786, and Coleridge’s reckless activities on Scafell were a descent, as anyone who has read his remarkable letter to ‘Asra’ knows. Garden ‘rooms’ are not an ‘important development in modern garden design’. They were first laid down systematically by Le Notre at Versailles in the 17th century. Pryor indeed is not at his best when he strays into artistic matters. To describe the great John Sell Cotman or even Peter De Wint as ‘perfectly competent’ strikes me as being insufferable.

All the same, there is a vast amount of nutritious matter in this book, and much food for thought. I am grateful to Pryor for introducing me to Pytheas the Greek, a merchant from the colony of Massalia (Marseilles) who was the first to circumnavigate Britain in c. 310-306 BC. Pryor provides an illuminating map of his voyage. He also tells us about the Crannogs, or artificial islands, built by or for the Iron Age elites in Scotland for defence, prestige, and, I suspect, ‘cooking picncs’ — that admirable Highland institution. Were they pestered by midges too? He and his maps and diagrams told me much I didn’t know about the Roman network of roads, and he has a useful section on Wroxeter, the fourth largest town in Roman Britain, which has been extensively investigated recently. I shall be reading Roger White’s and Philip Barker’s book on the subject, which he recommends.

Pryor is good on medieval developments, especially the role of the church and of parks, both royal and private. I didn’t know that the court received and ate an average of 607 deer carcasses a year. Or that the recently excavated Black Death mass grave pits at Smithfield held 12,400 bodies. The evidence shows that such pits were prepared before the actual arrival of the plague in England, indicating that Edward III’s government looked ahead more sharply than Gordon Brown’s.

Pryor knows a lot about urban archeology as well as the examination of ancient farmland. He is always interesting to read on buildings and their historical context. Palmerston’s forts of the 1860s, for instance, as well as Henry VIII’s, the great viaducts and mainline stations of the railway age, and the splendid town parks, with their lakes and buildings which remain a sturdy tribute to the philanthropy and foresight of the Victorians. There is no period in our own history in which Pryor does not have something interesting and new (to me, anyway) to say. He often looks behind the recieved version. Pity he doesn’t bring a similar scepticism to the statements and statistics of the Warmers.