Sunday, 7 October 2012

Oliver Rackham - 'The History of the Countryside'

For the past week or so my attention, when I have the time to read, has been turned to the rather fascinationg 'The History of the Countryside' by Oliver Rackham. Rackham is a landscape archaeologist, who writes on the subject of the history of the use of the British landscape with considerable vigour and authority, and, when he touches on the subject of conservation, not a little genuine pathos;

"There are four kinds of loss...there is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. There is the loss of freedom, of high-ways and open spaces...There is the loss of historic vegetation, most of which once gone is lost forever...I am specially concerned with the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of our civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us."

The book deals with all types of landscapes, charting historical developments through from prehistory using primarily archaelogical, rather than documentary sources. This is a brand of history I personally have a great deal of sympathy with, particularly when, as here, he does allow the documentary record its place, but balanced against known fact. Although he does not write much that is specific to the Island (instead choosing other specific areas that demonstrate certain sorts of land use to concentrate on) He places the Isle of Wight into the zone of 'Ancient Countryside', which he describes, almost poetically; "The England of hamlets, medieval farms in hollows of the hills, lonely moats and great barns in the clay-lands, pollards and ancient trees, cavernous holloways and many footpaths, fords. irregularly-shaped groves with thick hedges colourful with maple, dogwood and spindle - an intricate land of mystery and surprise., this he contrasts (in the lowland regions) with 'Planned Countryside', the result of the 18th and 19th century enclosure acts. He notes that this distinction runs throughout europe, comparing these types of landscape to the bocage and champagne of France. This idea of an intricate and disordered landscape resonates strongly with my actual experiences of the Island. I had never before, for some reason, heard of the term 'holloway' in regard to the ubiquitous landscape feature which we call 'chutes' on the Island, and it lead me to this intriguing blog post on the subject, which has certainly given me food for thought.

The book will be more important to me, I imagine, in the sections of Vectis which will deal with the history of the Island. Rackham is very clear in his methodology, and he speaks about the importance of balancing, in any discourse, the human and natural influences on the landscape thus:

"The countryside records human default as well as design, and much of it has a life of its own independent of human activity. Trees are not just things that people plant, like gateposts: a friend of mine has cut a good crop of ash trees which have arisen where his predecessor planted pines. The landscape ranges from the almost wholly the almost wholly natural."

The gradations between natural and artificial on the Island are, of course, less steep; I fancy that the mix remains fairly constant across the island, though the south coast (the 'back 'o the wight') certainly has a wilder appearance. One of the things that the book emphasises is that appearances can often be deceptive; a piece of woodland that might at first seem natural may only be capable of surviving through human intervention.

The history chapter/essay in Vectis is, apart from the much-due-a-tweak introduction, the next longest part that I actually have fully in progress. I have written (I estimate) about half of it. It shall probably appear on this blog some time in the next few weeks.

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