The Society for Landscape Studies

When The Making of the English Landscape by W G Hoskins was published in 1954, its author claimed that ‘no book exists to describe the manner in which the various landscapes of this country came to assume the shape and appearance they now have’. In fact, landscape-level study was far from new – see, for example, Cyril Fox’s The Personality of Britain (1932) – but it was split among a number of different disciplines. What Hoskins and his successors (including Oliver Rackham and Christopher Taylor) did was to bring together the insights from geography and geology, natural history and agriculture, and local history and archaeology to tell the story of the ways in which people have interacted with the natural environment over the last ten millennia.

Not every landscape that looks natural is natural. Cors Caron National Nature Reserve, in Ceredigion, is a 12,000-year-old peat bog, that was extensively dug for fuel by Cistercian monks from Strata Florida Abbey, resulting in numerous ponds and water channels (above), like a miniature Norfolk Broads.

The pendulum of intellectual fashion has swung from favouring integrative studies to an insistence on very narrow specialisms (in its extreme form, some archaeologists rejected any insights from other disciplines, and particularly objected to interpreting archaeological data through the lenses of history or literature). But we are now back in an age that encourages multidisciplinary study. Landscape history is thus enjoying a revival, and this is helped by the rise of developer-funded archaeology and by our ability to create informative distribution maps that give us a more complete view of settlement, land-use, and population-density at different periods in history.

The bare upland landscape of Snowdonia bears the marks of slate-quarrying, deforestation, and sheep-grazing. Tree-planting to promote decarbonisation will soon change the upland landscape yet again.

On the other hand, there is still a deep divide between specialists in natural and cultural heritage, with separate organisations, charities, academic institutions, and legislation for each; and it has to be admitted that the wildlife and countryside lobby has been much more successful in winning support and funding for its causes than the cultural heritage sector, so far.

The Brecon Beacons landscape is a patchwork of infields and woodland on the valley sides, rising to open upland grazing, a pattern created by farming practice over many centuries.

If there is one organisation that can do something to change that – and to emphasise the fact that most landscapes in Britain are as much the products of human activity as they are of nature’s imperatives – it is the Society for Landscape Studies. Founded in 1979, its twice-yearly Landscape History journal, its newsletters, and its field meetings and conferences bring together people from different disciplines to share their perspective on the ways in which humans have responded to the constraints and opportunities inherent in the natural landscape over time. And since Britain enjoys such variety in geology and landscape character, this is an almost inexhaustible topic.

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PHOTOS: Kate Owen
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