Book review: ‘The Making of the British Landscape’ by Nicholas Crane

The Making of the British Landscape

This book wasn’t what I expected. Not that that’s a bad thing.

From its title, I assumed The Making of the British Landscape was going to be all about geophysics, geology and physical geography: plate tectonics, mountain-building, fault lines, erosion, glaciation, cwms, clints, grykes, drumlins, escarpments, longshore-drift, all that malarkey we did in geography. While glaciation, in particular, features prominently in the early chapters, and the impact of climate-change is a recurring theme, this book is far more about how the land was altered over thousands of years by human beings: it’s about how we made the British landscape with our tree-felling, earthworks, religious observances, settlements, farming practices, industry, transport networks, and so on.

The former archaeologist in me was pleased to see Nicholas Crane dedicate around a third of this book to British prehistory. We tend to forget the majority of our island story occurred before the Roman Conquest—some of it, indeed, as Crane describes, before Britain was even an island. But we do, as you would expect, eventually get round to the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, and everyone else, bringing us right through to the current day. It is a magnificent and highly enjoyable read.

I did have a few minor quibbles with the book. In the introduction to his bibliography, Crane explains his decision to avoid disrupting the narrative with 2,721 footnotes. Although I understand why he did this, in the early chapters in particular, I was sometimes frustrated by not being sure which statements were generally agreed views, and which were Crane’s own conjectures. Either way, judging by the extensive bibliography, it is clear that Crane has done his homework.

In the same early chapters, Crane also occasionally adopts the device of not referring to prehistoric and early historic places by their modern names. Whether this is for dramatic effect, or to avoid anachronistic labels, I found it irritating: Where the hell is he actually talking about? I kept wondering. In most cases, I could guess an answer by consulting the bibliography—but I felt I shouldn’t have to guess.

Finally, as a proud inhabitant of the region, I was disappointed by the relatively small amount of space in this book dedicated to the North of England, compared with Scotland, Wales, and (in particular) the South of England. But this is a complaint I could (and do) make about many books.

But, minor quibbles aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this ambitious and entertaining book.


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