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The History of the Countryside: The Classic History of Britain's Landscape, Flora and Fauna Paperback – December 31, 2001
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'It would seem a mammoth task to trace the history of the British countryside, but one that the author achieves well. With more than 100 colour photographs, the book appears almost as a cross between a geography textbook and a glossy coffee-table book. Whatever it is, it's un-put-downable for anyone who has any interest in the countryside, giving a vivid overview of how and why our landscape is as it is today.' SHOOTING TIMES & COUNTRY MAGAZINE (July 2003) 'Any walk, any drive, any bike ride, anywhere in the British countryside will take you past such a wealth of history that you'd never get anywhere if you stopped to explore and appreciate all that's there. When you do stop to take a look though, you'll need a guide to explain what it is you're looking at. Oliver Rackham's marvellous book is that guide... And even if you never leave your house, THE ILLUSTRATED... is so full of fascinating anecdotes about the way our landscape has been changed' LIVING HISTORY (September 2003) 'This is a wonderful account of the English countryside and man's influence upon it over the centuries. Profusely illustrated, it explains simply, for example, why fens were created, the effects of the introduction of the rabbit and the way to coppice woods.' FAMILY HISTORY MONTHLY (September 2003) 'This is a rural detective story, a book that looks at history, ecology and consrvation in the countryside and details the many-layered story of the British landscape...and recording human intervention and activity along with natural phenomena... Illustrated with more than 100 colour plates including maps and photoraphs, this is a handy guide-cum-reference book that is also a pleasure to read' HOME & COUNTRY (WI) (October 2003) 'Repackaged and beautifully illustrated, Rackham's classic guide to the shaping of our countryside reveals the fascinating - and often shady - past of the British landscape.' COUNTRYSIDE VOICE (Autumn 2003) 'How to read the landscape around you, and walk in it with knowledge and understanding. A fascinating exploration of Britain, to read with pleasure.' CHOICE (November 2003) 'Each [chapter] is a carefully documented record of developments from the earliest times to 2000, from the original wildwood to our present patchwork countryside ... idiosyncratic and stimulating book.' COUNTRYMAN (October 2003) 'Crammed full to capacity with information about the landscape and nature, and including some splendid walks in some fo the author's favourite areas, this is a book that will please any country lover.' THIS ENGLAND (Winter 2003) 'The erudition of the author across all aspects of how history, in the form of animals, climate and man have shaped the British countryside is exceptional. It is not just the weight of fact and insight that impresses but the way these are woven together in a readable and accessible form... it is impossible to delve into these pages without discovering some fascinating fact about the countryside. A worthwhile addition to any country library.' THE FIELD (December 2003) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Dr Oliver Rackham is a botanist and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. An acknowledged authority on the British countryside, especially trees, woodlands and pasture. THE HISTORY OF THE COUNTRYSIDE won the 1986 Angel Literary Award, the Sir Peter Kent Conservation Prize and the Natural World Book of the Year Award.
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The book is not written in strict chronological order from the Ice Age to the 20th century (the book was written in 1986); Dr Rackham rather treats each different type of habitat- woodland, fields, heathland, moorland, marshes, etc.- in turn. He describes each type of habitat and then traces its development over time from prehistory to the present. In addition, there are chapters setting out his methods and the type of evidence he relies on, and dealing with Britain's native flora and fauna, especially those species which have become extinct in historical times (bears, wolves, wild boar) or which have been introduced by man (rabbits, fallow deer, pheasants, sycamore trees).
Dr Rackham lays to rest a few well-worn myths about the countryside. It is not, for example, true, as is sometimes said, that mediaeval England was a densely wooded country which a squirrel could have crossed from coast to coast without ever setting foot on the ground, before the dense woodlands were destroyed to provide timber for the Royal Navy. Certainly, prehistoric Britain was almost wholly tree-covered, but the coming of agriculture meant that most of the woods were felled. By the Middle Ages, only about 15% of the country was wooded, a higher percentage than in modern Britain but a lower one than in modern France or Germany. Much of the confusion is due to a misunderstanding of what was meant by a "forest" in mediaeval England. The term did not necessarily imply woodland- Sherwood Forest, for example, was predominantly heathland- but an area in which game, especially deer, was protected by special laws.
Nor is it true to say that the rural landscape is as much the product of deliberate human design as the urban one or, as is sometimes done by those who oppose conservationist attempts to preserve the countryside, that its current appearance is almost entirely modern, the result of the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries. Although Dr Rackham states that his is not primarily a book about conservation, it is written from a conservationist viewpoint, and he exposes the weaknesses of the arguments that the landscape is both modern and artificial. What we now think of as typical features of the countryside are often the result of a complex interplay of human and natural forces. Not all hedgerows, for example, were deliberately planted; many grew up naturally along the line of a fence, which has often disappeared, leaving the hedge as a semi-natural boundary feature.
Contrary to the "Enclosure Act Myth", many features of the landscape are very old. Dr Rackham distinguishes between two types of English lowland scenery, what he calls "Planned Countryside" and "Ancient Countryside". The former, which prevails in a band stretching from Dorset and northern Hampshire north-eastwards through the East Midlands to northern and western East Anglia, Lincolnshire and the East Riding, was the area which was once dominated by the tradition, dating back to the Middle Ages, of open-field farming. The latter, which prevails throughout the rest of lowland England, mostly in the West Midlands and the South-East, was the area where this tradition was less strong and where there was a larger number of smaller fields. It was the Planned Countryside landscape which was largely affected by the Enclosure Acts; the Ancient Countryside kept many more of its traditional features. Even today there are many differences between the two types of landscape; Ancient Countryside, for example, has more roads and public footpaths, more areas of heathland, more ponds and more ancient hedgerows. Villages in Planned Countryside tend to be larger, but fewer in number.
The book is highly informative, and contained much that was new to me. I had not, for example, appreciated that before the coming of man the dominant woodland tree in most of lowland England was neither oak, nor ash, nor beech, but small-leaved lime. Oak predominated in the upland areas of England and in much of Scotland and Wales. Nor had I realised that wild boar became extinct as long ago as the mid-thirteenth century, victims of the destruction of their woodland habitat and of reckless over-hunting. King Henry III had 300 killed for his Christmas feast in 1251, at a time when they were already on the verge of extinction.
I would have two complaints about the book. The first is that it I would have welcomed more illustrations, preferably in colour. The second is that Dr Rackham tends to concentrate on certain areas at the expense of others. England is treated in greater detail than Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and certain regions of England in greater detail than others. I would have liked to see other parts of the country get as much attention as East Anglia (doubtless singled out for special treatment because the author is a native of Norfolk and a resident of Cambridgeshire). Nevertheless, this is a valuable book that will be welcomed by all country-lovers who wish to understand the countryside as well as appreciate it.