This is an extraordinary book, described by others as ‘ambitious’ and ‘magnificent’. It essentially tells the story of how the mark of mankind has shaped the landscape we now live in from the retreat of the ice and severing of the land bridge to continental Europe through distinctly differing epochs up to current times.
For anyone interested in the ‘physical’ history of our island (as I am) this is a treasure house of information, both in its scope and in its detail. The social forces that created barrows, henges and other major earthworks at the dawn of The human occupation of Britain are described in their distinct periods and in the context of their differing social backgrounds and functions. Sometimes speculative, but always well researched the writing is as compelling as a good novel, leading the reader on from the earliest times, through the brief Roman era, on to the dark age decline and then the revival of feudalism.
The enclosures are dealt with factually and honestly in the lead up to the impact of the green and industrial revolutions. The extensive impact of transportation through the eighteenth and nineteenth and then twentieth centuries, with the turnpikes followed by the canals, whose short lived ascendancy was eclipsed by the railways, is made clear and the ultimate overpowering of all our landscapes by the demands and effects of the internal combustion engine powerfully underlined.
Along the way we see the emergence of industry and the industrial landscape and the human degradation of the industrial cities with insanitary back to back housing as well as the work of later philanthropic employers such as Cadbury and Lever who realised that a healthy and productive workforce needed decent living conditions and communal facilities.
The book brings home the impact of the Second World War on our countryside with aerodromes and pill boxes as well as the massive destruction of our cities by bombing and missiles.
The description of the emergence of the new towns movement from the pioneering work of Ebenezer Howard at Letchworth and Welwyn and as a result of Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan with its ‘green belt’ is beautifully succinct and gives a rounded overview.
In spite of its incredibly readable narrative this book remains a valuable reference work which sets in context so much of our physical history. It feels like the book that I always wanted to read! As a addition to a list of environmentally formative books, it earns its place as a proportionate and descriptive account of what mankind has done with and to the land through history in both positive and negative ways, giving a valuable background to our current crisis.