Just over a year ago I was approached by my Editor at Penguin, Tom Penn, about the possibility of writing something a bit shorter than my previous heavyweight book (The Making of the British Landscape), on landscapes. As it happened, he couldn’t have spoken to me at a better time because I had been rethinking my approach to the British landscape. Actually, that sounds more rational, analytical, even cold-blooded than it was. The reality was rather different. I was living a very traditional life as a sheep-farmer and gardener, yet at the same time I had my other life as a writer, archaeologist and broadcaster. I won’t say that the two parts of my life were in any real tension – because they weren’t – but they were, nonetheless, very different. More to the point, I found the contrast between them very revealing.
When I wrote my big book on landscape it dominated my life for almost five years. The farming side certainly wasn’t ignored, but it was put safely to one side in secure boxes labelled ‘lambing,’ ‘market,’ ‘tupping’ and even ‘business planning’. I would enter the box, deal with the contents single-mindedly, then firmly close the lid upon exit. That’s how I coped. But over the past ten years the different aspects of my life have come together – sometimes I think into a rich, but rather chaotic porridge – and I have begun to discover how to deal with this new complexity without using so many boxes. And that’s really what the new book is all about: a landscape with fewer boxes.
My earlier approach was to view the landscape as a magnificent artefact, almost a work of art, combined with a phenomenon of geology. The emphasis was on the big economic and social factors behind innovation and change: the Enclosure Movement, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Industrial Revolution and so forth. Almost by definition, individuals didn’t get a look-in. Everything was approached from such a broad and long-term perspective. Of course this is absolutely fine if you want to understand how entire landscapes changed over the millennia – which is something that continues to fascinate me profoundly: I have always preferred the ‘long run’ of archaeology to the event-based approach of historians. But does this contrast have to be so very clear-cut? Surely it might be possible to glimpse what individuals might have been thinking or feeling at different times, out there, in the broad chronological sweep of the evolving landscape?
The more I thought about it the more I realised that I myself had glimpsed such moments of personal revelation in one or two particular places. It wasn’t a matter of identification so much as recognition: these places – and they weren’t all as spectacular as Tintagel (although that was included) – held the clues to a deeper appreciation of what might have motivated individual people in both the recent and very distant past. Then it also came to me that one reason why such places were so personally revealing was my own knowledge, experience and education. Put another way, I don’t think you will ever get more from landscape than a sense of awe, or beauty, unless you understand something about its formation, too. And that’s one of the reasons I regret the current over-emphasis on narrowly-focused political history in schools and on television. If I have to sit through one more brain-dead ‘documentary’ where the presenter dresses-up as kings and queens, I think I will drink myself into oblivion!
Landscapes were changed because people had the motivation to do the work. That motivation gives us a glimpse into the men and women behind certain projects – and it wasn’t always just money or profit that drove them. The large extra-urban (rather than suburban) houses of football stars and other squillionaires, which conceal their gold-taps and showy vulgarity behind impenetrable external security gates and fences, are the direct equivalents of many elegant Georgian houses, which were also proclaiming their owners’ wealth and status. The contrast between the two says much about the times in which they were created. The modern house might include provision for a live-in butler, nanny or house-keeper, but the Georgian mansion had to accommodate dozens, possibly even hundreds, of poorly-paid, often illiterate servants. So which age – ours or theirs – is superior? They had the good taste, we have bling, but also a more egalitarian, better educated society.
Landscapes are about maintenance, in a way that fine art is not. A picture, a sculpture or an installation is created. Then generally speaking, that’s it: it survives or perishes on a wall, or in a gallery. But landscapes continue, because they have to be inhabited, to be lived-in. And that takes an immense amount of work. In my first blog post of the year I discussed whether I would rather see an intact original – in that instance the superb Decorated Church at Heckington, Lincs – or a building that had been added-to, changed and modified over the years. On the whole, I think I prefer the modified version. I know that architectural purists, like the great Nicolaus Pevsner, would rather tombs and memorials didn’t clutter-up church interiors, but I have to say I love them. Many times I have almost been moved to tears by the sight of an elegant young man or woman sculptured reclining, or sleeping, while below, in their coffins lie the their dry bones. Monuments show these were buildings that were used by real people. That’s also why I love many Georgian Church interiors where the painted box pews recall contemporary pubs and servants’ halls in the great houses. Indeed, many chambered tombs of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, five and six thousand years ago, make references to the interiors of contemporary houses, right down to the stone dressers and niches where people stored their dried food, salt and herbs. I love the blurring of simple distinctions that one finds in the landscape: it’s so human and easy to relate to, even thousands of years later.
Rural landscapes, and this applies most particularly to Britain, are generally not planned. Of course there are exceptions, such as the Fens where I live, but even here the planning of the landscape was frequently messed up by sudden floods and bloody-minded locals. Townscapes can be more readily planned, but they very rarely follow their creator’s original designs with any precision – which is one of the reasons I love James Craig’s Edinburgh New Town so much. His plan was exemplary – even visionary, but its execution was far from perfect. Developers had to get a return on their investments back then, just as they do today. Nothing has changed. Eventually people came to their senses and the elegant simplicity of the final addition, Charlotte Square, by no less a genius than Robert Adam, remains inspirational. And is that because of its classical beauty, or was there something else? Maybe the history and motivation of the people who commissioned it? I honestly don’t know, but I am convinced that such places must be seen within their historical contexts if we are to fully appreciate what they have to tell us.
So my latest book tries to address some of these ideas using a series of landscape snapshots – I hesitate to call them case-studies because they’re not that intense or disciplined. I got the idea for the approach when recently I visited Charles Darwin’s house at Downe (with an ‘e’), in Kent. Darwin had laid out a path around the back of Down House’s garden, where he took daily walks while he was doing his greatest research, which ultimately gave rise to On the Origin of Species (1859). Darwin was something of a hypochondriac, so his daily walks were an important part of his fitness routine. But I think there was far more to those walks than just health, and when I took a walk myself along Darwin’s Sandwalk I was soon convinced I was right. It was so peaceful: wooded, yes, but not darkly. There were views across ordinary meadows of grass. Wheat fields. In the middle distance, a cricket pitch and small pavilion. All so very ordinary and English. As I followed the great man’s twists and turns, I was gradually struck by a feeling of déja-vu. I had been there before, but not in rural Kent. I knew of another path that had been laid out for precisely the same reason: not as an exercise track, but as a place to think. But in my case, it was called the Silt Path and it meandered through our wood and eventually came into the open around the edge of our hay and cowslip meadow. The Silt Path was where I did my thinking. True, I’m no Darwin, but I do know that writing and creation require personal editorial space and the objectivity to reject weak ideas for something stronger. And you get such insights best when you take solitary strolls around your thinking path.
So that explains the title: Paths to the Past. But I should make it quite clear that the individual chapters are not about set-piece walks, but places where you can pause and ponder things that matter – and sometimes with a glass of real ale at your elbow. They are paths in the spiritual, not literal, sense. You won’t need an App that counts your paces when you visit the places in my book. In fact, I’d advise you to turn the horrid thing off. Then you can listen to the sounds of the landscape: breathe deeply – and don’t ignore the smells. Remember, landscapes must be entered, and not just observed. They’re also better experienced and not merely read about. So when you’ve finished, close the book and head outside. You couldn’t have chosen a better time of year: the early spring. Enjoy it!