A Living Landscape

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It began, I seem to remember, with a grown-out hedge: four huge ash trees bordering a Hampshire footpath, all with the same odd kink in their trunks. The pleasure of recognition, of being able to look at them and know that those kinks were the result of a hedge-laying technique called pleaching that had been done to the young trees several generations ago, had me hooked.

The ghost of a hedge, now long gone; copses planted as cover for foxes; a huge pollard oak once used as a boundary marker; a dew pond winking like an eye in a field: these features, gleaned from Oliver Rackham’s wonderful Illustrated History of the Countryside (1994), can turn a walk into a kind of exhumation, the silent landscape giving up clues to its past at every turn. Ditches and field drains speak; woods disclose their secrets; and the land becomes legible. It’s thrilling stuff.

The Illustrated History is the sister volume to Rackham’s original work The History of the Countryside (1986) and swaps the latter’s diagrams and drawings for invaluable photographs, thus making it a more practical (if somewhat less portable) guide. Both books build on the work of W. G. Hoskins, whose post-war book The Making of the English Landscape (see SF no. 4) is rightly considered a pioneering work in the area now known as ‘landscape archaeology’ – but Rackham’s more up-to-date, illustrated book is, for me, the key to decoding the countryside I love.

My copy, gleefully discovered in a charity shop, has a red ‘Withdrawn from Stock’ stamp on the opening page, and I often wonder which library it began its life in, how many times it was borrowed, and by whom. I hope they are out there now, kicking through the spoil from badgers’ setts looking for flints or searching for oxlips in a stand of small-leaved limes, evidence of a wood over 350 years old.

The book’s chapters each deal with different types of landscape, exploring the marks history

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About the contributor

Melissa Harrison is the author of Clay, a nature novel set in a British city. She lives in London, from where she frequently escapes to explore lost holloways, spot grown-out hedges and pat ancient pollards appreciatively as she passes.

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