14 October, 2013Issue 23.1EnvironmentHistory

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An England of the Mind

Gabriel Roberts

HoskinsW.G. Hoskins
The Making of the English Landscape
Little Toller Books, 2013
303 pages
ISBN 978-1908213105


The reissue of W.G. Hoskins’s seminal study of the English landscape provides an opportunity for readers to discover the work which did more than any other to establish the field of landscape history. Combining cartography, topography, etymology, and archival research, and drawing on extensive personal knowledge, Hoskins revealed the extent of human activity in the making of the English landscape. In doing so, he not only inspired a generation of historians, but also taught his readers to interpret the landscape as a document of its human past.

Hoskins began his career in the 1930s and became an economics lecturer at Leicester University College. He retained the position until 1941, when he was hired as a government statistician, and then returned to Leicester after the war, where, with the help of the historians Jack Simmons and F.L. Attenborough, he founded the first university department of English Local History. The book which secured his reputation came from the following phase of his career, when as a Reader in Economic History at the University of Oxford he was chosen to edit a series of English county histories. The Making of the English Landscape, first published in 1955, was intended to be the prelude to that series, but immediately surpassed it in significance.

The book describes the English landscape from the end of the Neolithic period (c.2500 BCE) until the beginning of the 20th century. The early chapters are buoyant and vivid, describing Anglo-Saxon settlement, the medieval open-field system, the development of royal hunting parks, and the rebuilding of England after the Black Death. The second half continues the story, but with a palpable modulation of tone. It describes how the drainage of the fens and wetlands, the enclosure of the common land and wastes, and the roads, canals, and railways of the Industrial Revolution created new and tormented landscapes.

The subject has changed considerably since Hoskins. Many of the general trends which he described, such as the replacement of open fields with enclosures, are now thought to have occurred more slowly than he believed and to have varied more from region to region. His guiding historical maxim that “everything is older than we think” is even truer than he imagined. The clearance of England’s ancient woodlands, which Hoskins dated to Saxon, Medieval, and Tudor times, is now thought to have begun in the Mesolithic period (c.8000 BCE), and many of the fields and settlements which Hoskins reckoned to be Saxon in origin are now thought to have been Roman creations. Landscape history has also changed in its extent. The landscapes which interested Hoskins were those in which human and natural forces blended, and which bore the reassuring evidence of millennia of human habitation. Modern urban and industrial landscapes were of a fundamentally different kind and fell outside the compass of his study. The distinction is still acknowledged to be important, but it no longer marks the subject’s edge.

The publishers of this reissue, Little Toller Books, have released it in their Nature Classics series, alongside works of memoir and fiction. They present the book without notes or comments, as there were in the 1988 reissue by Hodder and Stroughton, explaining the development of the subject since Hoskins’s time. Instead, an introduction by the novelist William Boyd confirms the literary slant of the reissue, noting Hoskins’s influence on W.H. Auden and complementing the precision of his prose. The book certainly has artistic qualities. Through a beguiling dependence on the pronoun “one”, Hoskins blurred the boundaries between remembered, current, and potential experiences of the landscape and between his own recollected experiences and experiences which his readers might attain. Here, in typical style, he describes an Ordnance Survey map:

One dwells upon the infinite variety of the place names (and yet there is a characteristic flavour for each region of England), the delicate nerve-like complexity of roads and lanes, the siting of the villages and hamlets, the romantic moated farmsteads in deep country, the churches standing alone in the fields, the patterns made by the contours or by the way the parish boundaries fit into one another.

His style was not an accident or fluke. He observes in the book’s opening sentence that “poets make the best topographers” and he writes throughout with a respect for poetic nuance. The roll call of his literary citations—Wordsworth, Defoe, Stendhal, Dickens, William Cobbett, Matthew Arnold, John Clare, George Crabbe, Eric Gill, and the highly obscure Thomas Tovey, to name but a few—reads less like that of an historian than a poet.

But to separate the book’s academic and aesthetic dimensions is a mistake. Hoskins’s pleasure in the experience of landscapes was the animating force of his researches. He explained the point in the book’s first chapter, where he conjures an image of England’s desolate places and imagines the landscape in its natural state:

There are many such timeless scenes and there is an acute and melancholy pleasure in this mental game; but it is not always as easy as this. On unpeopled moorland, beside remote estuaries at dawn, or at sea approaching an historic coast, little or nothing is alien to the natural scene. We see it precisely as the first men saw it. The imagination is liberated over the scene.

Yet such cases of liberation were rare. Where successive human lives had left their mark, a process of inquiry began, in which each feature of the present landscape was explained in terms of its human causes. This brought with it the pleasure of discovery, but only when the inquiry had ended could the imagination again be unhindered by nagging questions of how and why:

One needs to be a botanist, a physical geographer, and a naturalist, as well as an historian, to be able to feel certain that one has all the facts right before allowing the imagination to play over the small details of the scene. For unless the facts are right there is no pleasure in this imaginative game.

For Hoskins, the purpose of studying landscapes was to gain an enriched experience of them, in which their past formations were imaginatively overlain on their present state, in which the details were all accurately distinguished and nothing was disruptively unexplained.

He compared his work to that of a critic. Just as a symphony could be enjoyed on an emotional level, without consciously understanding its musical structure, a landscape could be enjoyed as a romantic scene, without attention to its details or past. But, he continued,

if instead of hearing merely a symphonic mass of sound, we are able to isolate themes as they enter, to see how harmonies are produced, perceive the manifold subtle variations on a single theme, however disguised it may be, then the total effect is immeasurably enhanced.

This criticism operated most freely in the rural landscapes which Hoskins loved. They excited his instinctive curiosity and there was nothing in their historical formation which left him feeling restive or disturbed. In the harshness of industrial landscapes, a greater mental effort was required to discover their unexpected beauties:

There is a point, as Arthur Young saw, when industrial ugliness becomes sublime. And indeed the new landscape produced some fine dramatic compositions such as the railway viaduct over the smoking town of Stockport; or the sight of Bradford at night from the moorland hills to the north; or the smoky silhouette of Nottingham on a winter evening […].

Such feelings did not come easily to Hoskins. More often, he qualified his praise for an industrial landscape by emphasising that its beauty was accidental or by commenting on the rural scene which had been lost. In his aversion to the modern world, he often strayed into sentimentality. The study of landscapes allowed him, he wrote, to “meditate upon the civilised past” and “forget for a while the noisy outward march of science”. England had reached its peak for Hoskins in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the modern age was one of decline. He fixed on the period 1570 to 1770 as the climacteric of England’s past:

Before that time life had been hard and comfortless, with little or no margin to spare beyond the necessities of living: what little there was went to the adornment and beautification of the parish church. After that time we witness the break up of the village community, the degradation of most of the rural population, and the flight into the towns. But for those 200 years—seven generations—rural England flowered.

As an historian, Hoskins should have known better. At the time when rural England flowered, most people’s lives were brutish and short. But though his enjoyment of the English landscape was bound up with na√Øve beliefs about its past, it would be churlish to dismiss him on these grounds. His sentiments, though historically ill-grounded, struck a chord with readers who shared his dismay at the urbanisation of post-war England and many of whom contributed to the burgeoning conservation movement.

There is something to be learned from this now. Though the use of historical examples to identify what the modern world lacks can often slide into mawkish nostalgia, it can also attain more valuable results, such as the discovery of a common cause. The challenge for modern readers of Hoskins who find themselves in sympathy with his views will be to distinguish those parts of his argument which rest on historical mistakes and those which can be more plausibly sustained.

Gabriel Roberts is reading for a DPhil in English at Worcester College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.