Mary-Ann Ochota, the author of Hidden Histories: A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape tells us the history behind some things we might see while out exploring:
Most people have had the experience – peering out of a train or car window, walking across a field, or gazing at a hillside – of seeing something manmade and possibly ancient, but not knowing what it is they’re looking at.
Lumps and bumps that run the length of a grassy field, low circular mounds on the tops of ridgelines, straight roads that could be Roman, or higgledy-piggledy buildings of uncertain age or purpose…
But how do you puzzle it out?!
Noticing those features is the first step towards becoming a landscape detective…once you know what clues and details to look for, you can start to work out what it is you’re looking at, and what it reveals about the landscape around you.
Britain has been permanently occupied for around 10,000 years, since the end of the last Ice Age. Which means there are layers and layers of archaeological features you might spot. Here’s a swift chronology:
From around 10,000BC, Mesolithic hunter-gathers settled in Britain, coming over the land bridge that joined eastern England to the European continent. Unless you’re on an archaeological dig, chances are you won’t spot anything that’s this old…except if you look down, in a ploughed field. You may be lucky enough to spot tiny flint blades known as microliths, a distinctively Mesolithic type of stone tool.
The next archaeological period is the Neolithic – the Late Stone Age – where people were settling and farming crops and raising livestock. As landscape detectives, this is where we really start to see stuff: standing stones, dolmens and rectangular and oval burial mounds known as Long Barrows. These communal burial sites sometimes have stone chambers that you can still access. Never mind Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, you can explore the ancient tombs of the ancestors in Kent and Wiltshire!
The Bronze Age is a time of stone circles, the earliest fields, and individual burial mounds – Round Barrows – which are some of the most common archaeological features in the countryside. Many haven’t been excavated, but probably contain cremated or buried human remains from around 4,000 years ago.
The Iron Age was a time of tribal chiefs and regional powerhouses – some of the most iconic landscapes were shaped by these people, as they modified whole hillsides into earthen Hillforts.
The Kings of the Road! The Romans built around 16,000km (10,000 miles) of roads in the hundred years following the invasion in AD43. There were roads before they arrived, of course, but Roman roads were engineered in a way that was only matched again in the 17th Century.
Roman road features are most easily spotted when they’ve been preserved as footpaths and farm tracks – if they’re under modern roads, you’ll not see much…except the straightness. When you walk down Oxford Street to Marble Arch in Central London, you’re walking in Roman footsteps.
ANGLO-SAXON, VIKING & MEDIEVAL
When the Roman Empire fell apart around AD410, new settlers – Angles, Saxons, Jutes -arrived on British shores. This period used to be known as the Dark Ages, but that’s a pretty rude term for a very interesting time in history!
The most common features you’ll spot are Saxon stonework in church towers – often reusing Roman stone and brick.
Vikings first raided, then settled, in north and eastern England (and bits of Scotland, the Isle of Man and the north west). You might spot Viking crosses in old churchyards. They’ll look a bit like Victorian revival celtic crosses, except Viking ones will be taller, look much older, and have human and animal figures carved into them.
The Normans arrived in 1066. They loved control, admin and taxation. They built castles, churches and established many of the quintessentially English villages we still live in today.
In the following centuries, open field farming was popular, where ‘great fields’ were farmed by different villagers without hedges or fences between the strips. The remains of this medieval ploughing is preserved in fields which look ‘corrugated’, known as ridge and furrow.
The Plague killed around 40% of the British population between 1348 and 1350…but many of the deserted medieval settlements you can spot in the landscape (lumps and bumps around an isolated church are a big clue!) aren’t actually ‘Plague villages’. They were abandoned in the decades afterwards, when the wool trade was booming and landowners realised that sheep were more profitable than lowly peasants. So they chucked the peasants off their land.
Holloways, sunken tracks with thick hedgerows either side, are often medieval – others may even be prehistoric. The deepest are a staggering 6m below the natural land surface, worn and eroded away by the passage of feet, hooves and wheels over centuries. Some are now the route of modern roads (the deepest holloways are often into or out of ancient villages). You’ll also spot holloways as depressions in the ground, leading to now-deserted settlements.
POST-MEDIEVAL & MODERN
In the 1530s the Monasteries were dissolved by Henry VIII: large estates were broken up, and the King and private landowners reaped the spoils. . The best building materials were often taken – you’ll sometimes spot very well crafted bits of stonework reused in local houses and barns. Reuse and recycle!
The final hugely significant changes to the British landscape, overall, were the Enclosures, Improvements and Clearances of the 1700 & 1800s.
Parliamentary Acts of Enclosure across central, southern and north-eastern Britain transformed large open fields and common ground into enclosed, privately owned and privately farmed fields. The patchwork of fields with straight hedges and walls that seems so timeless, is actually a product of a political and economic upheaval not that long ago. For many country people it spelled starvation and destitution.
The application of new scientific principles to farming were known as the ‘Improvements’ – resulting in greater yields and more profitable farming methods. Land was drained, commercial forestry was planted & poor land was brought under the plough using lime and fertilisers. You may spot lime kilns, marl pits and reclaimed marshland. The results of less-successful efforts are sometimes preserved in placenames – Never Gains, Famish Acres and Mount Misery, to name a few!
Clearances across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland between 1780 and 1830 shifted thousands of people off their land and dismantled a way of life based on communal farming and tribute to a clan chief. People were forcibly resettled in marginal villages, fled to the cities, or emigrated to north America and Australia, hoping for a future. The landscapes of the Highlands remain sparsely populated – the legacy of a brutal chapter in British history. Look carefully, and you’ll spot the remains of field systems, houses and barns decaying back into the hillsides.
The 19th & 20th Centuries were a time of urban and industrial expansion. From gaps in canal banks to help horses that fell in, motorway signage, to public cemeteries large enough to fit a million corpses to deal with London’s dead, the landscape is woven with clues about how life was lived.
Once you start spotting landscape clues, I’d wager you won’t be able to stop!