A fresh look at our landscape
PUBLISHED: 09:31 16 May 2011
Archaeologist Dr Francis Pryor knows well the value of the past. His new book inspires us to appreciate our landscape in the future too. RACHEL BANHAM reports.
It took him five years to write, took him all over Britain, and was a “real labour of love”. But it was worth it. For Dr Francis Pryor’s new book, The Making of the British Landscape, tells the story of how we have transformed the land, from prehistory to today – and encourages us all to take a greater interest in our surroundings.
Francis, who is also known for his work on TV’s Time Team, has written many books, but had always wanted to write about the British landscape.
He had read the book The Making of the English Landscape by WG Hoskins and loved it. So when he was asked by Penguin to write a slightly larger scale follow-on to mark the 50th anniversary of the classic, he didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“It really was very hard work, but great fun because it took me all over the country,” he said. “I did all the photographs for it so I went everywhere.”
His new book takes a journey of Britain from “after the ages of ice” – 10,000 to 4,500 BC – right up to the present day.
Norfolk features throughout. Francis mentions Neolithic settlements around Breckland, and the excavation of an Iron Age causeway across an ancient course of the River Waveney. He also includes Holkham Hall, Norwich and King’s Lynn.
“Basically it’s the story of everybody’s backyard. It is what you see out of the window as you drive through the country,” Francis explains.
“What I want is, people when they read my book, that they’ll be able to look out of the window of a train, of a car, and say ‘Yes, I’ve got a vague idea how the landscape out there came into existence, how old it is and what it means’.”
His definition of the landscape is all encompassing. His book even includes a reference to Spaghetti Junction. “One of the things I am really keen on in this book is to get away from what you might think of as the BBC view of the world where only beautiful landscapes matter.
“I think that suburban landscapes, townscapes, arable landscapes — all the sort of non-beautiful landscapes — matter just as much as somewhere beautiful like the Lake District.”
He uses the example of Norwich station. “When you get out of Norwich station what you’re looking at are a lot of Victorian buildings. That’s because the railway got to Norwich in the 19th century. It encouraged the development of industry and the development of commerce,” he said.
“You can actually follow the development of buildings streets away from the station. That’s just as important as the development that followed the building of the cathedral and the earlier stuff.”
Francis is also very interested in the way that the Norfolk Broads formed. “One of the things that fascinates me about the Broads is that it’s an entirely artificial man-made landscape, but one which is incredibly important for wildlife and natural history.”
He added: “In a way the Broads are a metaphor for the rest of Britain. All our landscape, with the exception of a very few bits of forest in the Highlands of Scotland, the rest of our landscape is entirely man-made or altered by man. We mustn’t forget that.”
Castle Acre also fascinates him. “I love it because it’s so romantic, it’s so mysterious and so mystical. You’ve got a Roman road – Peddars Way actually is earlier than Roman, but it was adopted by the Romans,” he said.
“That should be running in a dead straight line. The road was diverted to take visitors in the Middle Ages past the priory and then up to the castle in a sort of circuitous route that was all about showing off the ruling family’s land.
“The thing that fascinates me about it is that it shows that something like a castle isn’t just about defence and mili-tary might and security, it’s also all about displaying pomp and wealth, just as somewhere like Norwich Cathedral is.”
Francis is no stranger to Norfolk, and has a sheep farm just over the Lincolnshire border. Alongside his books and TV work, he and his wife Maisie are also known for their work at Seahenge. He wrote a book called Seahenge which he describes as his way into “popular archaeology”.
“Archaeology is about imagination. It isn’t just about analysis. We have to re-imagine the past… to re-create,” he said.
■ The Making of the British Landscape is published in paperback by Penguin, priced £14.99.