|ISSN 1357-4442||Editor: Simon Denison|
Maps and signs point to the past still living in today's land, writes Richard Morris
One bright, cold April morning in my fourteenth year, I borrowed my father's old bicycle and headed south. We lived on the outskirts of Birmingham, so south meant into Worcestershire. My route abides in pencil on a Bartholomew's half-inch map: along the Pershore Road through Alvechurch and Redditch, past Headless Cross and Crabbs Cross, and Astwood Bank, where for several miles the road followed the Worcestershire-Warwickshire border. I then pedalled south-west, through Holberrow Green, Inkberrow, Abberton, Bishampton, to Throckmorton, where I stopped.
Had I continued, the next place would have been Pinvin. That is, Penda's fen. Was this the Penda, the 7th century Mercian monarch (whose name, intriguingly, is British)? I didn't know, nor then did I realise that Inkberrow was Intanbeorgas in the 8th century, meaning something like `Inta's hills'. Were these natural hillocks, or barrows renamed by the English, or mounds wherein Inta and his descendants were actually interred? Who was Inta? Come to that, who was AElfgyth, the lady whose name was bestowed on Alvechurch?
The map itself had an aesthetic that somehow represented the land - emerald green for the floor of the Vale of Severn, rising through paler tints to light browns for the Cotswold scarp and outliers like Meon Hill, around which ancient earthworks coiled. Bartholomew's painstaking lettering used lighter type for such antiquities. In a single word like `camp', or an enigmatic name like Icknield Street (nearer Birmingham we knew it as Ryknield Street) lay a universe of possibilities.
A map of any stretch of Britain will incarnate feelings, harbour legends, and bear place-names that are locally native. On childhood visits to Yorkshire I encountered Melmerby, Baldersby, Middelton Quernhow, and Aiskew - names every bit as mellifluous as the Flyford Flavell, Abbots Lench, White Ladies Aston, and Peopleton I knew from Worcestershire, yet quite different in their accent and collective euphony. Humblebee Hall might be in an MR James ghost story but stands near Worcester, just as Smearholme could have been invented by a Brontë but is an authentic Yorkshire farmstead. They could hardly be reversed.
As with names, so with structures. Along the way to Throckmorton were bridges - some steeply hunched like caterpillars; iron bridges; elegant stone bridges with cut-waters that parted the flow of brooks called Whitsun, Piddle, and Arrow. More prosaically there was the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, but even that seemed special. Like railways, canals are at ease in the landscape, and the architecture of transport can be as regionally distinctive as that of houses or the medieval parish church.
Delight in the variety of local surroundings, or a sumise about Penda evoked by an iron signpost, is lampooned by some as a sentimental yearning for an idealised past and an obstructive desire to douse Britain in preservative lacquer. The people who say this are quite talkative these days. But they are wrong.
In the first place, impermanence is landscape's condition. One can no more be `against' change than against weather. Everything I saw on that cycle ride in 1962 was itself the result of change, and my latest map of Worcestershire is very different from the one I carried then. Upon it, Inta's barrows now jostle with travel lodges, telecommunications masts, new motorways and extinct railways. A few years hence, it will be different again.
So, very possibly, will be the weather, although as with that we are becoming better at modelling future patterns, and hence equipping ourselves to make wiser choices. Among them is whether to destroy things which experience tells us are likely to be of more enduring value than the immediate purposes for which we would ruin them. A government wedded to `access' might agree that the ultimate denial of access is the loss of the things to which one wishes to have it. Likewise, it is for preachers of `choice' to explain how repetition of the same feeble designs in the built environment all over Britain adds to the quality of life. But that, too, reflects the dynamic of change, and in 50 years' time historians will be discussing what it tells them.
By then, I hope the bogus antagonism between progress and preservation will have been long settled, and that the misrepresentation of conservation as the reactionary maintenance of inert, disembodied `things' will have been corrected. `We live in a storied land', wrote Henry Betts. The land delivers an emotional charge. The stories are today's, and add to the living.
Richard Morris is the Director of the CBA
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© Council for British Archaeology, 1998