When we moved to the country in 1996, my small children were "townies". In the first weeks of their new life, they came running to me in dismay. Our neighbour was felling hornbeam in the nearby wood. "Doesn't he know," they said sorrowfully, "that cutting down trees is wrong?" They had learnt at nursery school an environmental song (chorus, with gleeful pointing of childish fingers: "Shame! Shame! Shame on YOU...") and absorbed the unthinking belief that Nature is Good and everything man does to it Bad. Many, perhaps most, nature programmes promulgate the same view, where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.
Francis Pryor's fine and warm-hearted book bucks this depressing modern trend. Man in Pryor's view is, in general, trying only to make an honest living. And, in Britain at any rate, every prospect is actually man-made, or at least man-altered — and not necessarily for the worse, either aesthetically or environmentally. (My neighbour coppicing for firewood was certainly encouraging biodiversity, including such species as bluebells and nightingales.) For Pryor, indeed, landscape is enhanced by understanding its history; and the history of a landscape is the history of the men who shaped it.
His interest in the landscape of Britain is deeply humane. "The archaeology and history of landscape is the story of day-to day-decisions made by ordinary people. They may well have been organised by Church authorities, powerful landowners or industrialists, but it was they who did the actual work of hedge-making, ditch-digging, house-building and so forth. And when one excavates, or carries out a detailed field survey, one has to get into the minds of the people who worked on the land, if one is to understand why they adopted particular solutions to the day-to-day problems that confronted them."
Pryor knows about hedges and ditches. He is a working farmer as well as a first-rate archaeologist (the numinous Bronze Age ceremonial site at Flag Fen, near Peterborough, was his extraordinary discovery). The two trades combine beguilingly in this book. Those 18th-century agricultural improvers were, he informs us, wrong when they advocated grazing grass so close that "you could whip a mouse across it": that would expose their stock to clostridial (soil-borne) diseases. But he brings more than just professional expertise: there is the sympathy that comes from common experiences. He writes feelingly, for example, of how the poor peasant farmers in the Middle Ages must have felt when their crops were ravaged by doves from the dovecots of the local monasteries and manors — rather, he says, as his brassicas are wrecked by semi-farmed pheasants from the commercial shoot next door — though he, at least, can go to a supermarket to stave off scurvy.
Pryor's sympathies are quick and generous, and make this book an engaging read. They extend from pre-history to the present day and encompass towns, villages, suburbs, seaside resorts and industrial and military complexes. This book, indeed, is as much about townscapes as rural landscapes, as much about roads and railways as fields and hedges. All testify to "the many achievements of ordinary people". Though his sympathies, as this suggests, are chiefly with the toiling masses, they readily extend to lords and landowners too. He has, rightly, a particularly soft spot for Victorian squires.
Rare flora: A Fen ragwort plant, of which there was thought to be just one in the wild 30 years ago, at Flag Fen, near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire