History Written In The English Landscape

Last month I wrote 24 Reasons Why I Love Living in Britain, but the one I left off, and one of the most important and interesting is that I love living in a place where every day I walk through an historical landscape.

Two of the areas I have lived in the US are Minnesota and Oklahoma. Both are in the American Midwest; Minnesota is tucked against the western side of the Great Lakes on the Canadian border and Oklahoma is sitting on top of Texas in the South. Until about 150 years ago both were great swathes of wilderness, populated by wild animals and several tribes of Native Americans.We all know the story: the trickle of white settlers from the East turned into a flood and today very few pockets of the original Wilderness remain in those States. But it’s there—you can visit State and National Parks and see natural beauty unencumbered by health and safety handrails. Just a short drive out of many towns there are still places you can find original or nearly original, days-on-end wilderness.

The people who have lived in these States the past 150 or so years, no matter what genealogical descent, have not altered that landscape so significantly that you can’t see what it was once like. They may have fenced in the prairies and cut roads through forests, but drive through many parts of the States, especially the western half, and you’re seeing almost exactly what the Native Americans saw since the last ice age.

I loved living at the edge of an authentic, original landscape.

But now living in England I find the very absence of that original landscape is one of the most interesting things about living here. Look at a satellite image (try Google Maps) of most parts of England and you will see evidence of human influence changing the landscape. As well as the deforestation across much of England, look at the large fields, and you can see a crisscross of patterns marking where smaller fields once were, or paths and roads long grown over. Look at the area around Stonehenge for some really interesting shapes, showing burial mounds of Iron Age kings and roads and other markings created much earlier.

Unlike the American landscape where I grew up, the landscape of England is not at all what it was two or three thousand years ago, shaped and managed as it has been by humans, but it has become a living history of human life. I love ‘reading’ the evidence of thousands of years of human life all around me.

Local to me in Essex, less glamorous than Stonehenge and Iron Age kings but possibly even more interesting are the landscape markers that tell the story of how people lived day to day within walking distance of my home. One of the footpaths I walk most days takes me along a hedge-lined lane, worn deep below the level of the fields and lined with great old oaks at irregular intervals. When I first started to walk it I imagined it was so old that the path had been worn down to that level. But when my dad gave me a copy of W.G. Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape I learned that this path might have been dug as a wide ditch to be used as both a boundary and an easy path to drive livestock along, from one field to another or from farm to market. The old oaks in the hedge lining the path date the hedge to at least 300 years ago, although the hedge very likely predates the oaks. I guess that because I know several of the farms in this area are over 1000 years old—they were mentioned in the Domesday Book, a census commissioned by William the Conqueror and completed in 1086.

Like many settlements in England, my village has a small green field in the middle. In the last 150 years or so, this village green has been the site of fetes and games of cricket. But the village green dates back much further than this romantic Victorian vision, or the Domesday census. The green surrounded by houses, a church and sometimes a smithy was the trademark of many Anglo-Saxon settlements. In times of danger the livestock could be rounded up into the green, surrounded by houses, which were in turn often surrounded by a mound of dirt or a wooden fence. The names of these villages also give a hint to the origin of the settlement. A well known pretty village near me, Finchingfield, can be broken down into ‘the feld of Finc or his people’, the feld being an open piece of land in an otherwise densely forested country (Hoskins). How fascinating to walk through one’s own village and know that this exact layout, this very green all existed and was probably even busier than today, over a thousand years ago.

And of course there is human influence on the landscape dating much further back than the Anglo-Saxons. The Romans were the first great landscape changers in England with roads and towns still following original Roman designs. And as drive between two Roman towns in Essex, Chelmsford and Colchester, along the route of an original Roman road, or as I go for my daily walks, past the village green, and down the hedge-lined path, I often think about all the lives and stories played across this landscape and I feel content to be a part of those stories.

Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!

Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident.

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