Showing posts with label landscape study. Show all posts
Showing posts with label landscape study. Show all posts

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Exploring landscape on the web - new blog

One of the first actions when setting up this blog was to put together an evolving gazetteer of the broad, diverse and ever-expanding range of landscape related content on the web; with the intention to provide a useful resource for inspiration, information, research, new discoveries and general life-enhancement.

Having had a lot of positive feedback and suggestions for inclusion, but conscious that the page housing this information was visually uninteresting and becoming increasingly unwieldy (600+ links and growing all the time), I have now set up a separate blog to provide a longer term home for the gazetteer: Exploring landscapes (with a link from the navigation bar below the title of this blog).

I hope that you find this resource useful to discover, and then go out and explore ...

Friday, 30 May 2014

Rewilding: An Alternative View

The latest issue of Landscapes journal is now out. It includes a review article I have written entitled Rewilding: An Alternative View, a critique of the lack of understanding and appreciation of the historical, human and cultural elements of the landscape in George Monbiot’s recent work of polemic, Feral, and the wider rewilding movement in general: 

"Whilst many share Monbiot’s concerns with industrialised food production, the narrowing of land ownership and the long drift from direct engagement with the natural environment, I can’t help wondering how much empathy the rewilding movement has with the enchanted warp and weft of the landscapes of Britain (and elsewhere); something as special as, but maybe less tangible than, the endangered animal and plant life that many people understandably wish to restore to good health."

Also in this issue, articles on the subterranean military and industrial complexes below Corsham in Wiltshire, the cult of waterfalls in eighteenth century Wales, the landscapes of sustainable agriculture and a study of islandscapes. An eclectic and stimulating collection, as ever.

Landscapes is a must for anyone with an interest in a multi-disciplinary, multi-layered approach to landscape and sense of place. You can subscribe or pay per view on line here.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

We are the mountain people

This photograph was taken in the gloaming time as a clear-skied winter night was drawing in, following a perfect day on the Hatterrall ridge in the Black Mountains; walking and working on the watershed that presents a physical manifestation of the, in reality more culturally fluid and shape-shifting, border between England and Wales.

The technical quality of the image may not be the best, but it captures the light, the colours of this transitional time of day. Looking at it, I am also reminded of the magical pull that this place, this self-contained and enduringly mysterious old red sandstone massif, has had on me for the last ten years or so.

Having spent several weeks immersed in the prehistoric world recreated in Raymond Williams' People of the Black Mountains, energised by the on-going rain and wind-lashed endevours of the Black Mountains Upland Path Volunteers and with a potential landscape archaeology research project focussed on the area in the pipeline, this topographical fascination looks set to continue and deepen.   

For those of us lucky enough to find a place like this, we are indeed the mountain people:

They'll seek us in the valley

They'll seek us on the plain
They own the milk and runny honey
And they're not quite the same

And we

Live together under
Oak trees
In the dark 
We make sparks
So unique
We're the mountain people

Super Furry Animals - We Are the Mountain People

Saturday, 4 January 2014

On lynchets

Hinton, South Gloucestershire
Anyone with an interest in landscape archaeology and landscape history will know well the earthworks, mounds, ditches and ancient trackways that abound across the British Isles: the barrows, hillforts and ‘Celtic’ field systems of prehistory; the motte and bailey fortifications, ridge and furrow patterns, deserted village ‘lumps and bumps’ and holloways of the medieval period.

Sometimes hard to trace on the ground or on maps such features are brought strikingly to life through aerial photographs and, perhaps most clearly, topographical survey plans. There is something deeply aesthetically pleasing about the way the hachured symbols of the plan bring clarity, order and beauty to even the most functionally mundane relic of past human endeavour.

Once you know what to look for, identifying these features enhances time spent out in the landscape. A walk in even the seemingly most unspectacular country can yield a dried up fishpond hidden in the brambles, pillow mounds in which rabbits were once bred as much needed peasant meat or the trace of a World War II gun emplacement.

The earthwork relic that has come to fascinate me the most is the medieval strip lynchet (from the Old English hlinc - 'ridges, terraces of sloping ground'). Lynchets manifest themselves as a series or flight of stepped terraces, normally visible on now turfed hill-sides. Most prevalent in the steep-sided valleys of the South West, the Cotswolds and North Yorkshire (where they are known as 'raines') but also found in hill country across many parts of Britain, they represent the fossilised remains of ploughing; essentially the hill slope equivalent (and sometimes an extension) of the more widely known ridge and furrow patterns on level ground. Not necessarily consciously created as a feature in themselves, though some initial construction may have been required on the steepest ground, the lynchets are the result of the repeated action of the plough's mould-board turning the loosened soil outwards and downwards; over time forming a level strip or tread for cultivation with a scarp slope (a 'riser') down to the next strip below. Generally, and reflecting the practical nature of their creation, they follow the contour lines of the natural slope and are usually between 60 and 250 yards in length.   

Hawkesbury Upton, the Cotswolds
Cold Ashton, the Cotswolds

Originally thought to be evidence of Roman or medieval vineyards (in the Pennines?), more detailed study has now clearly shown that, in most cases, they represent the communal efforts of medieval peasant farmers to bring marginal hilly ground into cultivation where the supply of good quality lower level arable land was in short supply; in the words of Richard Muir, '... it seems likely that many systems of strip lynchets exist as memorials to communities afflicted by overpopulation and landhunger'. During the early fourteenth century, and up to the onset of the Black Death in 1348, the population had seen sustained increases that were putting huge pressures on the agricultural resources then available. It is during this period that, through sheer desperation and much arduous effort, the ploughing of this tough ground would have mostly taken place. Once formed, the terraced tread would provide new fertile land on which to grow corn and other crops, as well as richer grazing for animals. Probably the most well-known example of medieval lynchets are the terraces that adorn the steep slopes of Glastonbury Tor, although no doubt there are other less utilitarian theories as to their origin in this sacred place. Of course, this is not purely a medieval or British landscape feature, as the terraced hill-sides of the uplands of South America and Asia testify. 

Dyrham, South Gloucestershire
As pressure on the land reduced due to a falling population post the Black Death, and contemporaneous with the desertion of whole settlements and other areas of cultivation, many lynchets would have returned to marginal pasture or scrub land. However, and as ever, this was not a planned and uniform development. In some areas cultivation may have continued until the processes of enclosure began to take root in the later medieval period, with such land then turned over to sheep. In other cases the formations that we see today were fossilised in the deer parks and Arcadian designed landscapes of country houses; yet another form of dispossession of the many by the few. There are a few places, like Coombe Bisset in Wiltshire, where terraced lynchets have remained in cultivation up to the present day, though this is normally on gentler slopes.

Lynchets in parkland, Milnthorpe, Lancashire

Appletreewick, Wharfedale, Yorkshire Dales
As with other topographical features there is scope for misinterpretation when examining lynchets. Natural features formed by processes of erosion, soil creep and river action can be mistaken for man-made terraces, particularly at a distance. Some lynchets can also be found that are likely to be prehistoric in origin. The best examples are in the chalk downland of Wessex and south-east England, rectangular in character and much wider (often in excess of 100 feet) than their medieval counterparts. Although less is known of the origins and use of these systems, it would seem likely that they were abandoned when settlements began to move down to the more fertile soils of the valleys and remain as traces of early organised agriculture on the dry, thin-soiled turf of the downs.   

Hinton, South Gloucestershire
For me the poignancy of strip lynchets is that, unlike the topographical reminder of elites and power embodied by say a Neolithic barrow or an Iron Age hillfort, they are examples of hard-won everyday landscape features created by working people: the very people whose toil set the template for the countryside we see today in many parts of the British Isles. They also remind us, however, of the changing character of the landscape; the seemingly timeless pastoral, sheep-cropped scene beloved of photographers of the Yorkshire Dales or the Cotswolds that was once the stage for a thousand peasant families and communities using their collective labour and ingenuity to avoid famine.

Wharfedale, Yorkshire Dales


Aston, M, 2004. Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape Archaeology and Local History. Routledge.

Baker, A and Butlin, R (Eds.), 1973. Studies of Field Systems in the British Isles. Cambridge University Press.

Cunliffe, B (Ed.), 2006. England's Landscape: The West. Harper Collins. 

Field, J, 1989. English Field Names: A Dictionary. Alan Sutton.

Hoskins, W, 1985. The Making of the English Landscape. Penguin.

Muir, R, 2004. Landscape Encyclopedia. Windgather Press.

Platt, C, 1978. Medieval England: A Social History and Archaeology from the Conquest to 1600AD. Routledge.

Raistrick, A, 1979. The Making of the English Landscape: West Riding of Yorkshire. Hodder and Stoughton.

Taylor, C, 1975. Fields in the English Landscape. Dent.

Taylor, C, 1974. Fieldwork in Medieval Archaeology. Batsford.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

A triptych of ruins, carved into the landscape

The Castle: medieval Redcastle?

"Red Castle, in Welsh Castell-coch, was a small manor at the lower end of the Hattrel Hill above Tre-wyn. I have failed to find any court rolls or details of this manor. A cottage on the mountain above Tre-wyn is called The Castle." (Bradney, A History of Monmouthshire, 1907).

Knocking around tumbledown ruins on steep and exposed hillsides in all weathers may not be everyone's idea of a good time but it works for me.

"Splendid this rampart is, though fate destroyed it
...tumbled are the towers,
Ruined the roofs, and broken the barred gate,
Frost in the plaster, all the ceilings gape,
Torn and collapsed and eaten by age..."
The Ruin (Anonymous)

In researching the landscape around Llanthony Priory over recent years I have been particularly drawn to three ruined upland farmsteads and enclosures that may, or may not, have had a common relationship with the Priory during its 400 year period of activity up to Dissolution in 1538:
  • The Castle (SO317236) - potentially the foci of the Priory's manor of Redcastle;
  • The Old Abbey (SO268337) - a distinctive system of fields near the head of the neighbouring Olchon valley;
  • The Castle (SO247327) - a postulated contemporaneous holding up valley from the Priory. 

The hypothesis that I am exploring is whether the sites were all granges, forming a key element of the agricultural infrastructure of the Priory. Granges were newly established outlying farming complexes set up by monastic houses outside of the traditional manorial system to exploit waste and other lands newly brought into economic use and worked by conversi (lay brothers). They tended to have a lasting impact on the landscape because they were “…often higher and more remote than ordinary settlements of the same period and so maintained a frontier of relatively intensive land use” (Simmons, 2001).

The Priory managed approximately 20,000 acres of land locally in the Monmouthshire/Herefordshire borderlands, including large tracts of upland moorland 'waste', known as the Honddu Slade estate. The primary documentary sources for the estates of Llanthony do not specifically identify any granges here, although they are in evidence in the Priory’s extensive Irish estates. The study of monastic granges tends to focus on the Cistercians who developed the model, which was then taken up by other orders although rarely recorded for Augustinian houses such as Llanthony. Where granges have been associated with Augustinian monasteries they have tended to be relatively close to the house, reflecting the order’s limited use of lay brethren and the need for the canons to run the farm themselves.

My aim has been to explore the physical landscape evidence, so far through some preliminary fieldwork; compare the 'patterns of the past' found here with known grange sites connected to other monastic houses, and, if my hunches seem to have any credence, revisit the documentary records.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Reading the landscape

There is a wealth of content and material relating to landscape and sense of place on line, as categorised in the gazetteer of landscape on the web on this blog. And yet, to really get under the skin of the subject the physical book (or the ebook, if you are that way inclined) remains for me the best routeway into deeper understanding and contemplation; although building up a personal library does require both space and an understanding partner.

Click here for a selection of the books and journals that I feel provide a comprehensive and diverse landscape biblio-resource.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Landscape in particular 1: Kenilworth castle

This is the first in a regular series of short-entries on places and landscapes that have long-standing resonance or meaning to me, or are new discoveries.

Kenilworth Castle (Photographer unknown)

Kenilworth castle in Warwickshire is a large, multi-period fortification with an important strategic role between the Norman and Elizabethan periods. Like many such castles it then suffered a long decline, was badly damaged in the Civil War and thus became a picturesque ruin before its modern incarnation as an English Heritage managed tourist attraction.

To me, my brother and our friends though, the castle, and the fields around it, became the playground we were lucky enough to have at the end of our road. The fact that it was an enormous ruin gave us even more scope for adventure: we had about a dozen ways to gain entry illegally, despite having free local resident entry passes, and summer evenings were the time that we would have it to ourselves to play football in, clamber over and generally 'own'; we found and explored a tunnel (actually a medieval sewer into the moat) that allowed a long crawl in the dark on hands and knees; and the lush meadows surrounding the castles that once formed the extensive moat ('the Mere') gave us even more scope for play.

At the time this all seemed very normal and it is only in retrospect that I have looked at aerial photographs and plans and seen how the places that we roamed across were all connected features in the wider historic landscape of the castle and its hinterland: that the raised ground at the far end of the Mere called 'the Pleasance' was created to house the temporary viewing platforms for the elaborate pageant put on for Queen Elizabeth I's visit; that the nearby field called 'Parliament Piece' was the site of a Parliament held by King Henry III in 1266.   

Friday, 2 March 2012

Finding a broader view

The theme of Landscapism is connecting disparate strands of landscape-related subject matter together. Happily there are examples (although not yet enough) of work that seeks to look at the bigger picture or bring together different perspectives or disciplines.

Two books that I think attempt to move into this territory particularly well are Matthew Johnson's Ideas of Landscape (2007) and Approaches to Landscape (1999) by Richard Muir. The former is an archaeologist and the latter a geographer, but both works survey and critique the varying approaches to the study of landscape both over time and in terms of the differing academic traditions of Britain, the United States and Europe. 

Landscapes is a bi-annual journal that, although its core subject matter is landscape history and archaeology, brings landscape-related writing and research of all kinds - and from around the world - together in a single, accessible publication. A fairly random selection of recent articles demonstrate the diversity of its content:
Horses, Elites and Long-distance Roads
Landscape with snow 
Brixton: Landscape of a Riot
Hohenschönhausen, Berlin – Explorations in Stasiland
Leith Hill, Surrey: Landscape, Locality and Nation in the Era of the Great War 
The English Pays: Approaches to Understanding and Characterising Landscapes and Places

Landings by Richard Skelton is a fascinating study into a particular localised landscape - in the West Pennines - that eschews the normal, often fairly pedestrian take on local history for a combination of poetry, prose and music that brings out a strong feeling for a landscape, past and present.