Front cover of book

Making sense of an historic landscape

For the countryside to avoid becoming as homogenised as the High Street we need to learn from how it evolved; according to a new book by a University of Exeter archaeologist.

Professor Stephen Rippon’s ‘Making Sense of an Historic Landscape’ is published by Oxford University Press. The book explores, why the landscape in Britain varies so much in its character and appearance, and the importance of maintaining this diversity to support people’s quality of life and sense of belonging.

It shows that deep rooted differences in the way that societies managed themselves over thousands of years ago still have a huge impact on the shape and variety of the landscape today.

The Blackdown Hills divide the South West from the rest of England and the steep ridges and high plateaus mark the border between Devon and Somerset. These hills form a major boundary in landscape character, as shown in the medieval period, when to the east of the Blackdown Hills people lived in large villages and worked communally to farm big open fields. In the Roman period they showed their wealth by building palatial villas and large country houses. In contrast, people in the South West were far less ostentatious and had a more pragmatic and conservative lifestyle. During the medieval period these communities were scattered across the countryside living in small hamlets and isolated farmsteads working independently in fields which were enclosed by great big hedge banks, and these curious hedge banks are still a classic feature of the Devon landscape today. Back in the Roman period, the South West was an equally well-populated landscape, but there were no palatial villas and very few country houses: these communities clearly had a different way of displaying their wealth and status.

'Making Sense of an Historic Landscape’ also explores regional differences in farming. In eastern and central England during the Roman and medieval periods there was an emphasis on relatively specialised farming, whereas in the South West there was greater diversification of crops-growing (wheat, barley, oats and rye) ensuring risk mitigation which has been a long lived tradition in the South West.

Professor Rippon said, “It’s becoming clear that across Britain people came up with different ways to exploit and use the landscape and environment. In previous scholarship the south and east areas of Roman Britain was regarded as being relatively uniform in its character, living in villas, villages and farmsteads. This is an over simplistic view of the past as there are very significant local variations in the character of the landscape, and these differences still affect the environment all around us today. This local distinctiveness in landscape character forms a major part of people’s sense of place and belonging.”

Mapping differences in the landscape required a three pronged approach using history, geography and archaeology; Professor Rippon examined maps, place names and buildings to provide greater understanding of the historic environment. 

Although many of our most important landscapes are designated as ‘Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, Professor Rippon’s work has shown the extent to which the landscape all around us has been hand-crafted by human communities over thousands of years: these are not natural landscapes, but an important record of past human endeavour.

Professor Rippon said, “What we enjoy about the South West today is the landscape, and its distinctiveness is thousands of years old. What we value in most landscape areas are the local differences in things like building materials, the type of field boundary, and the patterns of the fields and roads. Human behaviour varies in different places and it is important to preserve this localness and be sensitive to local identity. By improving our understanding of the historic environment all around us, we know what is important to protect and avoid a homogenisation of the countryside.”

Date: 8 August 2012