Spot a Changing Landscape; LOCAL HISTORY the Days When Landscape Studies Stopped at Enclosure and Country Estates Has Long Gone as English Heritage Proves

Article excerpt


Once upon a time - and not so long ago at that - landscape history was dominated by the work of one man. The pioneering study of W Hoskins - The Making of the English Landscape - guaranteed him a place on every historian's bookshelf, and a fair few geographers' too.

No longer is that the case. Studies of the landscape have proliferated in recent years with a wealth of monographs and television programmes. We have become increasingly aware (and concerned) how our landscape has changed and is changing, and scholars are now adept at spotting Iron Age field systems, Roman villas, deserted medieval villages and lost Victorian gardens.

Many of these new insights and new research have been brought together in a new set of publications from English Heritage. The eight books - all published in 2006 - cover the history of the English landscape from Cornwall to the Scottish border, and from the Ice Age to the 21st Century.

For our region we have Della Hooke's The West Midlands, weighing in at a hefty 256 pages, and an equally hefty pounds 35.

There are two thorny questions to deal with initially. First, how does one define the West Midlands, and secondly exactly what is landscape?

Della Hooke's remit, characterised as much by what the West Midlands is not (not The East Midlands and not The West) as by what it is, encompasses a vast swathe of territory, from the Wirral peninsula to the Severn estuary, and from the Welsh border to the Trent valley.

I doubt there's as varied a range of different landscapes in the whole of England.

As for the definition of landscape, expect something equally wide-ranging. Della Hooke is just as comfortable in the world of smoke-stacks and housing estates - the industrialised heartland of Birmingham and the Black Country - as in the ancient woodland and pastures of Herefordshire and Shropshire.

The days when landscape studies stopped at enclosure and country estates has long gone.

Thus the author takes us on a grand tour, both geographical and historical, beginning with early human activity in caves more than 20,000 years ago to very recent human activity indeed, as the land around Longbridge begins to accommodate the loss of a certain car factory.

So we cover en route the creation of a western midlands by the Mercians in the anglo-Saxon period, the varied farming patterns of the High Middle Ages and (speeding up rather rapidly) the transformation of those landscapes during the last half millennium.

The second half of the book changes focus and approach, to examine buildings in a rural setting - country houses especially - and industrial processes and population growth in the heart of the region.

The final chapter - an unusual and welcome addition, this - looks at the way tourists and artists and writers have approached and reacted to the landscapes they have encountered, as well as the way the countryside is packaged and promoted by the government and its various agencies.

Landscape, as we have long been aware, is as much in the mind as on the map.

It is in this final chapter that Hooke begins to explain why landscape has begun to mean so much to us in recent times, and why it is now so much more studied than when Hoskins opened up the subject half a century ago.

Put bluntly, the English landscape has probably changed more in the last half century than in any previous age. …