When he was asked to update The Making of the English Landscape by W. G. Hoskins, Christopher Taylor described it as ‘one of the greatest history books ever written’. I may not have appreciated that when I bought the original version as a modest Pelican paperback in 1975 but, like any self-absorbed teenager, I was convinced of its importance to me. It was a revelation, confirming and explaining things dimly sensed yet intensely felt, and it settled deeply into my consciousness, permanently altering the way I looked at the world.
Hoskins pioneered the study of the landscape at the University of Leicester. His book appeared in 1955, the only one of its kind. In clear and elegant prose he described how lanes and hedges, copses, farmsteads, fields and place names could tell the story of the past and explain the configuration of the present. His fascination with and evident delight in such details as Anglo-Saxon estate boundaries, ridge-and-furrow field patterns and the street plans of medieval towns spoke from the page, and the grimy quality of the dated black-and-white photographs only strengthened the spell he cast.
For a teenager growing up on Dartmoor, in the midst of layers of history on an ancient landscape, this was as gripping as a good novel: more so, perhaps, because it brought my surroundings to life. Ever since I had known any local history, I had longed to be able to step back a few centuries, to see people working the now ruinous marginal farms, watch tinners ‘streaming’ on the high moor and 18 understand the way of life of prehistoric people in their huts and granite pounds. Hoskins was a Devon man and used plenty of Devon examples in his book, which helped, but his descriptions were also intensely evocative, making it easy to picture a landscape as it once had been, and to ‘read’ what was left.
Half a century on from publication, the view is far less clear. The discipline he so successfully established has attracted many others whose work has revealed a more complex picture than the one he painted. Publications on t
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