Satnav's Limited Range: Britain's Diverse Landscape Reveals Much about the People Who Live in It, Whether It Is 'Constable Country' or Hounslow. We Should All Take a Closer Look
Pryor, Francis, History Today
As an archaeologist and farmer who has finished lambing after the coldest winter I can recall, I have been in close contact with my surroundings--often having to wash them off my wellies before coming indoors. For me the landscape isn't something to be admired or appreciated during self-indulgent sessions of 'me time'. It's a part of my being. I can't escape it and I don't particularly want to, either. I've been abroad, I even lived in Canada for nine years, but it's the extraordinarily varied landscape of Britain that never fails to fire my enthusiasm. I suppose, if one wants to intellectualise one's life, landscape does provide some kind of 'sense of place', but as emotions or feelings go, that one has always struck me as inadequate. A sense of place is about as useful to me as a sip of whisky when I need a dram. Like many other people who live and work outside, the landscape I inhabit is an integral part of my identity. It is me. It is not 'a sense', or something to be sniffed at arm's length, like a rare jasmine tea.
My interest in landscape has its origins in my archaeological research into the Bronze Age Fens, but from there I needed to find out more about the medieval Fenland. That led me to examine subjects as diverse as reindeer hunters in Northamptonshire or horn-shaped aerials atop Cold War microwave relay towers. The point is that the diversity of the British landscape is simply astonishing and it would take hundreds of lifetimes just to scratch its surface. Yet it would seem that today people either take it for granted or are just oblivious to it. Is this a product of a second-rate history education system that fears 'content overload', or is it a symptom of increasing separation from our surroundings? I fear the latter, but partly blame the former.
In recent years, television and glossy magazines have offered us visions of the landscape of almost indescribable blandness. True, the word itself derives from a Dutch term describing a pleasing view and first came into widespread use in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries. But in the intervening years our ideas have moved on. I have pointed out to people, for example, that the cities and suburbs where they live are landscapes. Often they look back at me with incredulity. 'Surely,' they would say, 'landscapes are places like "Constable Country", not boring old Hounslow or Deptford? …