Speaking Volumes: Oxfordshire

February 23, 1996

Guy M. Robinson on Frank Emery's Oxfordshire .

Before I encountered Frank Emery's Oxfordshire in the early 1970s, I was convinced that to be respectable academic geography must contain equations. If geography was not quantitative and scientific then it was nothing at all.

Emery led me back to W. G. Hoskins's The Making of the English Landscape, the precursor of a ten-county series with the same generic title, of which Emery's was the sixth. As an undergraduate I had dismissed Hoskins's book as an oversentimental and too conveniently ordered account of English landscape history. Now I started to look at landscapes afresh with new insights supplied by Hoskins et al, and I was hooked. In the library those dry-as-dust journal articles on parliamentary enclosure disappeared before visions of rectangular hedged fields and ridge and furrow that leapt from the series' pages.

The series taught me that while historical maps, estate papers, diaries and old sales notices could tell stories about the past that could be traced in the landscape, the landscape itself was a text. It could be read and interpreted in various ways, just like the old documents. And landscapes and documents could be combined in a powerful historical geography. My own perspective was to add statistics to mix a cocktail powerful enough to produce a DPhil.

Probate-inventories-meet-factor-analysis seemed a heady brew at the time, but it was really the county columns and not the statistics that made the most lasting impression. They fostered a continuing romance with the English countryside. This was very much a rural affair, for the books themselves deal relatively cursorily with industrial England. They do contain sections on the landscape of towns and on industry, road and rail, but the real focus is on England before the Industrial Revolution. The nostalgia for a countryside bereft of disfiguring factories and sprawling, dreary suburbs is a crucial component of the series' charm. So, in full compliance with the series view of the landscape, my favourites are the volumes on the more truly rural counties - Dorset, Oxfordshire and Suffolk. It is in these that the evidence of Bronze Age settlement, deserted medieval villages and landscapes of enclosure seem so fresh. The landscapes there speak directly to even the most jaded observer.

The series had two other significant attractions. First, they were written by scholars from several different disciplines - economic history, archaeology, geography. I liked the idea of the landscape being a broad enough canvas for all to share. Second, the books were intended to be read by the public and were featured prominently in the stores, not tucked away with the academia. This offered the glorious hope that one day I and other geographers could write something similar and it would be read by people from outside the academic circle.

It is more than 20 years since I first read Emery, but the impact of the series has remained strong. During a career spent largely outside England, I would periodically take down the volumes on Shropshire and Staffordshire to remind me of home. There was also an annual field trip to Weymouth during which the Dorset volume would be the Bible. Yet, rather like the Scriptures, it had to be supplemented by other guides and articles, for the county volumes were written to a formula that was always a little too sparse and sparing on the real meat of historical analysis. Perhaps it is this that now contributes to the series' rather dated feel.

The series stopped at ten. How convenient that they missed out Worcestershire, my home county. And so an 11th volume can continue to take shape in my mind's eye as it has done for more than two decades I Guy M. Robinson is professor of geography at Kingston University.

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