“The story of Britain is a contest between space and place, between the unknown and the known, the insecure and secure, the unconfined and confined. Space was imagined from afar; place was experienced from within.”
– Nicholas Crane
Nicolas Crane’s The Making of the British Landscape is an exceptionally well told account of a country over 12,000 years. An epic biography of place, he begins with a time when Britain was “the colourless, glacial extremity of a continuous landmass which reached east to Kamchatka and south to Table Mountain.” The country we know as Britain had yet to be born but the land which would come to be island was a frozen tundra, battered with winds which fought with ambitious vegetation, keeping it below half a metre tall. Weather ruled and land knew her place.
Early human visitors arrived after the climate changed, when the sun god shone on the land and birch and pines and grasses basked in his glory. This was a green land, colonised by trees. Different biomes came out of the ice, zones and niches of particular ecosystems and life was best where these met, the transition zones. For our ancestors, life happened where resources were and as such, the transition zones became the places that were sought out and where the first impact of humans on this land was felt.
These stones age inhabitants were a mobile group of people and in that world, waymarks were important markers of space places, of danger and “a way of deriving social reassurance from a potentially chaotic and dangerous habitat.” The waymarks, overtime, would become landmarks. The other feature to come out of a mobile population was paths and informal routes across the land, refollowed and remade with the regular passing of feet.
Particular parts of the land were used over and over and through this use, they became places, not just spaces. Britain’s earliest known house was found at one of these places, in the Carrs, dating to 9000BC. It was at the merging of different habitats and provided the people living their with open water, wetland, edgeland, scrub and woodland as well as the numerous resources unique to each zone. The house was set back from a lake which had become “woven into the traditions and beliefs of the people living around it’s shores. It became part of their society, the bonds between people and place strengthened through acts and rituals of association.”
A few millennia later, 6-4,000BC, the newly formed island had been birthed, painfully and violently. Aurochs, boar, red deer, wolves, bears, beavers, voles, moles and elk as well as a number of different bird species and a few people remained. Britain became an insular place, cut off from the rest of Europe and isolation slowed innovation and change. People in Britain remained hunters and gatherers whilst across the sea, villages were being formed. Britain was being left behind in the journey towards civilisation.
Eventually people from mainland Europe began to see Britain as an opportunity and they arrived with their permanent structures and farming lifestyles, seeing the land not as part of the nature to which they belonged, but as something there for using and exploiting. Farming requires land clearance and so the forests which had once covered the island began to disappear. Cultivated crops were sown and domesticated animals were introduced. Permanent and physical seemed to be what mattered in this new age. Burial mounds, barrows and cairns were created and place became more significant. These would grow and change, accumulate meaning and be transformed by subsequent generations. It’s worth noting that the wheel and horse had yet to arrive in Britain so all of these labours were entirely by hand or with stone tools.
As farming developed and spread, fields were laid out with boundaries and the act of farming would change the landscape. Stones revealed by ploughing were moved, hedges were grown, ditches were dug and the land was altered to one of place within and space without. Natural features were seen as resources and as such trees were cut, stone was quarried and lines were cast over the ground.
The next significant change to impact on the island was iron. By using iron tools, farmers could work more efficiently and more quickly and thus the changes to the landscape were exacerbated. As land was now seen as a commodity, and because iron made it easier to craft tools, conflicts began to break out.
Once again the climate changed and food became harder to grow and the increased population size was no longer supported by the land. Yet more conflict was inevitable and as people grew more fearful, architecture changed to reflect that. Defences were built, homes grew more protected and place became increasingly important to the people who lived there. Place was a way of defining who was with you and who was against you. For security, people lived closer together and in doing so began a long journey which would end up with urban dwellers and rural dwellers.
The Roman invasion would be the next major event to make its mark on the land, and to contribute to the evolving idea of place and the concepts we are familiar with today.
I never intended to recap the entire book – it’s over 500 pages and told in much more detail than I could ever replicate – but I did want to summarise the first 10,000 years of the story. This is because it highlights our changing relationship with the land and nature, the different ways of seeing our country and the continuing definition of place.
Place and space are not static. 12,000 years ago, Britain was not an island and it wasn’t inhabited. By 5000BC, we had begun altering the landscape, had experienced intense weather conditions and finally separated from the rest of what would become Europe. Depending on their own, personal, histories and experiences, people saw the land in different ways – some as prime real estate for farms and others as a land which offered food to be gathered from nature. How we interact with the land creates places and non-places, it leaves behind marks and stories and these are respun by different people from different times. These stories are how we understand and relate with place and without them we have a less intimate relationship. As Crane says:
“To care about a place, you must know its story”