Fifty years ago, W.G. Hoskins opened the eyes of scholars to beauty and history in the forms of the countryside. Trevor Rowley says he would have hated what has happened since
In 1953, W.G. Hoskins and his family moved to Steeple Barton, a peaceful hamlet on the lower slopes of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds. There, amid a scatter of renovated old houses and cottages, close to an imposing, squat-towered 13th-century church, Oxford University's newly appointed reader in economic history found the tranquillity he needed to write.
Two years after Hoskins' arrival, The Making of the English Landscape was complete. It was a book that was to have a profound impact on the academic world.
The central premise was that the landscape had developed over the centuries in response to man's activities and so was redolent with clues as to what had gone before.
A well-endowed church in the Cotswolds might reflect the wealth of late-medieval wool merchants. A loop in the road for no obvious purpose could represent a detour around a former park, while a landscape of regular fields, straight roads and isolated farms may well have been the work of the enclosure commissioners who, in the 18th and 19th centuries, removed medieval open fields.
"To those who know how to read it aright the English landscape is the richest historical document we possess," Hoskins explains.
This revelation had a deep influence on a generation of historians, archaeologists and geographers. Mick Aston, professor of archaeology at Bristol University and a stalwart of Channel 4's Time Team , says: "William Hoskins was an inspiration to all of us - by putting the landscape at the forefront, he opened up a new world."
Historians put on their boots and undertook fieldwork outside the archives for the first time; archaeologists began to look at lost panoramas and communities rather than individual sites and monuments; and geographers discovered an exciting and immediately accessible new resource. The analysis of the historic landscape is now embedded in many degree courses and there are dozens of postgraduate landscape studies programmes.
All of this Hoskins articulated in his beautifully crafted book, which has remained in print for half a century. The calm of Steeple Barton had helped the quiet academic to start a quiet academic revolution.
There was, of course, a price to pay for the peaceful environment in which The Making of the English Landscape was conceived, one that Hoskins admitted was against all his principles. He had to purchase an automobile, a 1937 Standard 12, to make the 15-mile journey south to the university.
Even then it was clear that the car was transforming that part of Oxfordshire and much of England in a way that Hoskins found hard to accept.
In the concluding chapter of his seminal book, he observes sadly:
"Since the year 1914, every single change in the English landscape has either uglified it or destroyed its meaning, or both. Of all the changes in the last two generations, only the great reservoirs of water for the industrial cities of the North and Midlands have added anything to the scene that one can contemplate without pain. It is a distasteful subject but it must be faced for a few moments."
Hoskins preferred to look at those deeply ingrained elements in the countryside that predated the Industrial Revolution. In his own words: "The view from this room where I write these last pages [of my book] is small, but will serve as an epitome of the gentle unravished English landscape."
I was privileged to work on the history of the Shropshire landscape under Hoskins' direction, and he taught me the importance of looking carefully and always asking questions.
For instance, why does a medieval church stand by itself? The answer, nine times out of ten, is that it sits on the site of a deserted village and the community it once served has long since disappeared. I was able to find dozens of such "lost" settlements in Shropshire - and we now know that there are several thousand across England, some victims of the Black Death, others of early enclosure for sheep farming and still more removed from the prospects of great houses.
Hoskins instilled in me, as he did in so many others, a lifetime interest in the landscape, and I have written several books on the theme. But after being approached by a publisher in 2001 to reappraise the medieval landscape, I realised that there was a more urgent story that needed to be told. The century that had just ended had seen the biggest landscape changes ever, yet barely a word had been written about it from the Hoskins'
viewpoint, in part because of his antagonism to his own times.
When I was writing The Shropshire Landscape , Hoskins urged me and the other authors in the county series, of which he was general editor, to conclude with a chapter on the contemporary situation. I believe he did this partly because he knew that the landscape is always changing and each generation makes its own contribution - his own being no exception. But I also think that he did this in the hope that it would reveal new horrors.
The 20th century had a voracious appetite for land and many horrors were perpetrated in the name of "progress". In many places, both town and countryside changed out of all recognition, often, but not always, for the worse.
In 1900, rural England was closely tied to the agricultural year and farming activities permeated village life at all levels. But within a hundred years, everything had changed. Farming became agribusiness, divorced from the people who inhabited the countryside. Great swaths of prairie fields were visited only two or three times a year by mobile industrial units. Huge tracts were emptier than they had been for perhaps thousands of years. And farming is not even the most important activity in the countryside now - in the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, it was tourism that suffered the greatest financial loss.
But it is the internal combustion engine more than anything else that has both created and fashioned our perception of the contemporary landscape.
Ours is now a car-oriented society. For many people today, the car is as important as running water or electricity. Average daily journeys are now six times as long as they were when Hoskins wrote his book. Motorways allow rapid movement between population centres, roads connect our homes to workplaces, shopping malls and leisure centres, and everywhere there are acres of accompanying barren concrete and tarmacked car parks.
Paradoxically, freedom and speed have tended to restrict rather than to enhance access to much of the countryside. Roads, particularly motorways, are as rigid in their restrictions as railways, keeping traffic moving along narrow corridors, away from towns and villages. The vocabulary of travel is now of junctions, access roads and service stations.
By opening access to honeypot centres such as the Lake District, Stratford-upon-Avon and Stonehenge, the car has inflicted vast visitor numbers on just a few locales, with the resultant erosion in the quality of experience.
Meanwhile, our perception of a vanishing countryside and ever-expanding urban landscape have been engendered by what we can see as we journey along the motorways of the axial belt, locations that have had a magnetic attraction for industry and housing. One of the great attractions of the English landscape is its variety, a reflection of the underlying geological kaleidoscope. The rapidly changing geography was once matched by different building and roofing materials, village sizes and field shapes. But today, town centres and suburbs throughout England share common styles and fabric.
Developments pay little respect to their locales. There are no regional differences to distinguish housing estates in Newcastle from those in Exeter. The same mock-antique lighting, mass-produced pavement slabs and ubiquitous chain stores decorate the high streets. The new landscape does not borrow from the old, it swamps it. It owes almost nothing to its location, except in the case of some self-conscious gestures - a statue here or a street name there.
A report published in 2004 for the Campaign to Protect Rural England observed: "Year by year, England is becoming less varied and more and more the same. The value of diversity cannot be overstated. It is our shared record of the past. The variations help us root our lives, giving people a strong sense of place and inspiration for the future." Much of our contemporary landscape is rootless -as a society we have not understood this, let alone begun to come to terms with it.
Steeple Barton still looks much the same as it did when Hoskins lived there. But the countryside around the hamlet has changed enormously. A mile or so to the north lie Barton Gate, Middle Barton and Westcott Barton. In the 1950s, they were separate villages. Now they have more or less coalesced to create a small town, characterised by infill housing and new estates for a population made up largely of commuters and the retired.
And just a few miles to the east of the Bartons lies one of the great arterial communication routes of England today - the M40. Each day, tens of thousands of vehicles thunder along the motorway, oblivious to the surrounding countryside that has been many centuries in the making. Hoskins would have hated it.
Trevor Rowley is an emeritus fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford, and author of T he English Landscape in the Twentieth Century , which will be published by Hambledon and London in November. He helped organise a conference to mark the 50th anniversary of The Making of the English Landscape in Oxford last week, and another to be held at Leicester University, July 7-10.