The Making of the British Landscape:
How We Have Transformed the Land, from Prehistory to Today

Francis Pryor

Penguin 2010
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
Covering "landscape" in the broadest sense, The Making of the British Landscape is a multidisciplinary history of Britain's geography, rural and urban, from earliest human settlement down to the present, from Flag Fen to Spaghetti Junction. Pryor is a sheep-farmer and an archaeologist ("whose expertise lies in the earlier third millennium BC"), but he draws on social history, ecology, geography, urban planning, economic history, and a range of other disciplines as well. As the very first line of the preface confirms, Pryor's title looks back at Hoskins' 1955 The Making of the English Landscape. He follows that in attempting to paint a big picture on a large canvas, but he includes a lot more detail and is more hard-headed and less romantic.

The seven hundred pages of text is divided into fifteen chronological chapters (the early modern period and the nineteenth century get two chapters each, with rural and urban landscapes treated separately). The basic units of The Making of the British Landscape, however, are the sections within chapters, typically four to ten pages long, which tackle distinct topics and are largely self-contained. So chapter 11, "From Plague to Prosperity: Townscapes in Early Modern Times (1550-1800)" has sections "London: growth and expansion, through plague and fire", "Smaller towns after the Middle Ages", "Spas and resorts in the eighteenth century", "Towns and the industrial era", "Water power and the industrial landscape", "The impact of industrialization on the textile trade", "Town to country: the vernacular workshop tradition", "The impact of heavy industry on the landscape: iron", "The turnpikes: the first modern roads", and "Canals and ports".

His broader view is island-wide, but Pryor regularly narrows down to look at representative locations in some detail. Maiden Castle in Dorset is used as an example of an Iron Age hillfort, for example, and Ludlow as a typical medieval market town, while a history of planned housing estates focuses on Gateshead. His is not the old-style archaeology, however, where all the attention falls on a few high-profile sites, but reflects the modern move towards settlement studies.

There are some facts and details that stand by themselves.

"As a fire precaution many Victorian textile mills featured water tanks that fed an internal sprinkler system; these tanks were built above the roof-line and were often disguised as turrets, which became a characteristic feature of the skyline of many industrial mill towns."
But there is also much in the way of broader contexts, themes, and trends. Pryor continually emphasizes, for example, that the appearances of landscapes and structures are often important, and not just byproducts of functional use or construction — and that this is as true of megalithic sites and medieval castles as it is of modern planning or architecture.
"Where stone or brick castles and fortifications survive, they often tend to dominate the landscape because they are generally sited in the most unapproachable and spectacular locations. This is especially true of the many urban and rural castles constructed in the later eleventh century. These were plainly designed to remind people in no uncertain terms that there was now a new regime in control."

Pryor debunks some common myths, notably about changes coming in neatly classifiable "revolutions", but doesn't get hung up on debates. He is quite hard-headed when it comes to the practicalities of conservation and the realities of economics. This is most notable as he carries his account down to the present, ending with some thoughts on conserving late-twentieth century structures and some speculation in a final chapter "Sat Nav Britain" about the future of British landscapes.

Pryor makes extensive use of maps, of individual sites and local areas ("a ground plan of Old Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, at first floor level") as well as of regional and national features ("the distribution of deserted medieval villages in England"), along with a few charts and tables. There are lots of small halftones and sixteen pages of colour plates, mostly of landscapes and structures. And there are fifty pages of references and another fifty of glossary, bibliography and index, along with brief notes on "further reading" and "books to keep in the car boot".

The Making of the British Landscape avoids unnecessary detail, maintaining readability, but doesn't sacrifice accuracy or essential complexity. It is a far cry from the approach, which Pryor himself decries, of television series which present gorgeous scenery and dramatic reconstructions but make no attempt to convey structured information or explore complex ideas. For anyone curious about what they are seeing around Britain, and why and how it came to be that way, reading The Making of the British Landscape should be a great pleasure.

September 2011

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%T The Making of the British Landscape
%S How We Have Transformed the Land, from Prehistory to Today
%A Pryor, Francis
%I Penguin
%D 2010
%O paperback, notes, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780141040592
%P 812pp