Speaking Volumes: W. G. Hoskins's The Making of the English Landscape

January 31, 1997

On W. G. Hoskins's The Making of the English Landscape.

One summer evening in 1975, I stood gazing at a field and felt a sudden shock of recognition. I had realised that I was looking at a deserted medieval village. The signs were exactly as described in the copy of W. G. Hoskins's The Making of the English Landscape that I had with me on our family holiday: the isolated church and farm, low mounds where houses had once stood and depressions which had been the streets. Thanks to Hoskins I could make sense of the bumps and hollows and see a village where none now stood.

The experience testified to the success of Hoskins's lesson in reading the history of the landscape. I had been introduced to his book by a teacher who wished me to take geography instead of the "three sciences" for A level. It was a shrewd move. Hoskins's philosophy of combining an emotional and intellectual response to our surroundings proved a seductive counter to the attractions of more rarefied disciplines.

His popular appeal and powers of expression are striking and led to radio and television presentations of his work. Yet scholars now qualify their acknowledgement of its pioneer status by pointing more or less tactfully to its limitations: too much landscape, too much surface, not enough digging or documents. And ever since the book was first published, in 1955, critics have noted the violence of its antimodernism, most evident in Hoskins's concluding diatribe against all changes to the landscape since 1914.

Even as a teenager, I felt some unease at the speed with which Hoskins rushed through the urban and industrial landscape. As my family had escaped the back-to-backs of industrial south Leeds to take part in the suburbanisation of nearby mining villages, I knew that the story could not end so quickly. On the bus to school one day, I sat staring out at an area of terraced housing undergoing demolition in one of the city's many slum clearances. One half-demolished house caught my attention. The party wall had been left standing, revealing someone's choice of wallpaper and the fireplace on which they had once placed their ornaments. The image remains with me, a powerful symbol of the way we divide our everyday geographies into public and private spaces.

Hoskins could see significance in a ditch, but the intimate landscape of the home did not apparently strike him as an interesting or viable field of enquiry. All we can know of the England of the open fields, he argued, is its "external face" and how its economy worked. Yet the selective nature of Hoskins's search for meaning in our surroundings is surely the expression of a bias that construed only "the public" - or, as feminist geographers have observed, the places and landscapes traditionally associated with men - as worthy of investigation.

Housing and the home became the focus of my research, approached from a feminist perspective that acknowledges the links between public and private. Yet I still value Hoskins's refusal to segregate intellect from emotion, and his captivating ability to find meaning in seemingly inconsequential elements of the landscape.

Ann Varley is lecturer in geography, University College London.

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