The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 91

Issue 91

November/December 2006



New finds 30 years on from the drought of 76

Houses near Stonehenge astonish archaeologists

Roman pool may be for early Christian baptism

Logboat's last voyage launches new journey

In Brief


English landscape: lovely, isn't it? It's dead
Cider with trunk roads - Trevor Rowley casts an archaeological eye on the last century

Final proof of ancient UK contact with Sicily?
Salcombe and Dover - Bronze age wrecked cargoes in Devon and Kent

Science: evidence for ancient dairying
Neolithic farmers milked their animals in 4000BC

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


More of the age than the islands

We like our landscape: it shapes us, it defines us and it informs our sense of history and belonging. Yet it constantly changes. Trevor Rowley questions our assumptions about 20th century England.

And that will be England gone.
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There'll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
from GOING, GOING (1972)

The English landscape at the beginning of the 21st century owes more to the previous hundred years than any previous age. Much that changed was added to an older framework, but even more of what we see today is new and, what is more, owes little or nothing to what went before. The new landscape is no longer directly linked to the land on which it lies. Most of what has been built and engineered is functional and uniform. Local materials or craft traditions play little part in reshaping our environment today. The loss of distinctive local environments is the price to be paid for affluence, safety and cheap commodities. Perhaps landscape, in the historical sense of the evolving rural and urban scene, is dead.

In his autobiographical novel, Cider with Rosie (1959), Laurie Lee observes the fundamental economic and social changes which altered the countryside and the way landscape was used during the first decades of the 20th century. Writing of the Slad Valley in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds just after the first world war, Lee describes the disintegration of rural England: "Soon the village would break, dissolve, and scatter, become no more than a place for pensioners". The social, economic and religious certainties that had bound Laurie Lee's childhood were also fragmenting. The war and its immediate aftermath accelerated the change from a world of horses, wagons, dusty lanes, oil lamps, thatched roofs, cob walls, and labour-intensive farming. Locally-made tools and home-made entertainments gave way to the world of cars, lorries, motor buses, tractors, tarmacadam roads, council houses, electricity, telephones, wireless, piped water, mains drainage, standardised household articles and mass entertainment.

Close links with the land, a central feature since the origins of human existence, were broken and splintered in the 20th century. In almost every respect the average lifestyle at the end of the century was fundamentally different from that in 1900, and these differences were reflected in the altered landscape. Work, recreation, holidays and religion changed out of recognition. Many travel writers reach for and still eulogise Lee's childhood world. At a superficial level, parts of England look the same as they did a century ago, but it is tidier, cleaner, sanitised. Few of its inhabitants have any real links to the countryside they inhabit, apart from their appreciation of its tranquillity and fresh air.

In 1900 agriculture was still important; rural England was closely tied to the agricultural year and farming activities permeated village life at all levels. Within a hundred years this had all changed. Although agricultural productivity was higher than it had ever been, agriculture had become an industry, divorced from the people who inhabited the countryside. Large areas of rural England had become an inhospitable prairie – seen by millions and trodden on by hardly anyone at all. There were huge tracts of empty countryside, emptier now than they had been for thousands of years. Great swathes of giant fields were visited only two or three times a year by a mobile industrial unit that used to be the farmer and his plough. Farming became a technological business run along industrial lines, and paradoxically and criminally in a world where there was endemic famine in many third world countries, English farming was in trouble for reasons of overproduction.

By the end of the 20th century it was possible to see how complex and relentless were the forces of change that Laurie Lee saw gathering at the start. Some are well known, others less considered. Many of the key ones can be described briefly.

Cars The internal-combustion engine has created the contemporary landscape and fashioned our perception of it. Freedom and speed have restricted rather than enhanced access: roads keep traffic in narrow corridors, away from towns and villages, bringing great problems to tourist honeypots such as the Lake District and Hadrian's Wall. It may be that only drastic measures will control this monster.

Population Ninety per cent of England's population lives in urban and suburban areas. Yet the urban area of England, larger than that of Wales and Scotland, is still only 8.3% of the whole. In 1999 London and the six metropolitan counties, all with more than a million inhabitants, contained 37% of England's population, forming the core centres of a widening axial belt of towns and cities.

Migration Since the 1960s migration from countryside to town has been largely replaced by more complex movement between the two. Between 1981–2002 rural population grew by 0.7% a year, while urban population grew by 0.1%. In 2004, plans to double rural house building were described by the Campaign to Protect Rural England as "the most reckless invasion of the rural environment staged by any government in history".

Houses Houses rose from 13.8m in 1951 to 24.6m in 2000, up 78%. Almost two-fifths of all domestic houses were built after 1965, when, for the first time, British dwellings exceeded households. From 1951–2000 owner-occupied dwellings rose from less than a third to over two thirds, with a shift towards detached housing.

Towns As people moved out of town centres, so did urban functions. Out-oftown supermarkets, shopping centres, industrial estates, science parks, garden centres and sports stadia were built all over Britain, many on greenfield sites, replacing central facilities. "Megamalls" such as the Metrocentre, Gateshead and the Trafford Centre, Manchester have vast car parks which attract visitors from long distances.

Industry Speed, scale and power distinguish 20th century landscape change. Britain's heavy industrial base disappeared. The coal industry, whose tips and winches once dominated County Durham, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and even parts of Kent and Shropshire, was closed down. In the 1960s the Black Country looked like a giant scrapyard. Waste tips were later cleared or grassed over, and plant now survives only in museums or theme parks. In the 1970s WG Hoskins half-lamented the loss of the Black Country's "tortured and tormented landscape". It is still fragmented, but with anonymous industrial parks, shopping complexes and leisure facilities in steel, plastic and glass hangars. The amazing monuments of the industrial revolution I remember from early explorations have nearly all gone, replaced by nondescript buildings in renovated streets. This owes nothing to the ground on which it sits: but it is within driving distance of large population centres.

Quarries Commercial stone quarrying goes back to Roman times, but early quarries were small and sank back into the landscape when abandoned. Now quarrying can remove whole hillsides or valley bottoms. A whole segment of the magnificent escarpment of Wenlock Edge, Shropshire has been quarried away. In the Upper Thames Valley huge stretches of sand and gravel have been excavated, promising a lake extending the length of Oxfordshire until a change of policy resulted in land restoration.

Public buildings Relatively small Victorian hospitals have been replaced by massive multi-storey out-of-town complexes. Schools, once amongst the communities they served, have been rebuilt for pupils bussed in from miles away. Other municipal services contained within the Victorian city, including prisons and cemeteries, have grown and moved out.

Energy Flying in to Heathrow Airport at night one can appreciate the full extent of Greater London, thanks to our modern dependency upon electricity. Oil and gas lighting dominated at the turn of the 19th century. From 1932–1938 wired homes rose from one third to two thirds. By 2000 residential districts, bypasses and stretches of motorway were also lit. Electricity removed any link between land and industrial power, contributing greatly to industry's footloose nature.

Overseeing all this, particularly since the second world war, have been planning policy and the regulations necessary for its implementation. As the pressures on landscape have increased, so too has the need to control and moderate them. In the interwar years, largely unplanned suburban sprawl and ribbon development along roads were identified as problems threatening immense damage to the countryside. Accordingly, town and country planning legislation was introduced in postwar Britain. Local government could now contain the perceived excesses of the "developer" and could help to create or mould balanced communities. For the first time in English history, government at national and at local level was involved in every aspect of life. The majority of the decisions concerning the making of the landscape in the 20th century were taken or acquiesced in by government or its agencies. In this respect, as in many others, the 20th century landscape is unique.

Much has been written about the role and control of planners, who can now determine not only what should and should not be allowed to be built and where, but often have a say in the colour and fabric of new buildings. Successive governments have pledgedto "cut red tape" and to decrease planners' power. Often "the planners" themselves are portrayed as the despoilers of England's green and pleasant land. It is, however, precisely because of planning control that England still has large unspoilt rural areas and roads free of the billboards that blight parts of North America. A compulsory journey on the highway between Tampa and Fort Myers on the west coast of Florida should be undertaken by anyone who complains that planning is the root of our countryside evils. The role of nationaland local government planning is in fact central to the understanding of the 20th century landscape.

It is the modern urban environment which displays the most uniformity. Today, town and city centres throughout England share common building styles and materials, as do their suburbs. What is more, new developments pay little respect to their bases. The new landscape does not borrow from the old, it swamps it. There are no regional differences to distinguish new industrial and housing estates in Newcastle from those in Exeter. The new landscape owes almost nothing to its location, except in the case of some self-conscious gestures – a statue here or a street name there.

Today hundreds of English towns share the same mock-antique lighting, mass-produced pavement slabs, anonymous housing estates and ubiquitous chain stores. The high streets have the same banks, building societies and charity shops. A report published for the cpre in 2004 observed: "Year by year England is becoming less varied and more and more the same. High streets are becoming indistinguishable from one another.We are developing nowhere places..." The report went on to say that loss of identity is now a serious cultural, environmental and economic problem. "The value of diversity cannot be overstated. It is our shared record of the past. The variations help us root our lives, giving people a strong sense of place and inspiration for the future." Landscape, along with industry and the economy, no longer has links to the land on which it sits. Much of our landscape now is rootless – as a society we have not understood this, let alone begun to come to terms with it.

When JB Priestley described his English Journey in 1934, he identified three distinct Englands. First, what he called "Old England", "the country of the cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire; guide-book and quaint highways and byways England. We all know this England, which at its best cannot be improved upon in this world".

Secondly, Priestley identified "Industrial England", the England of

coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways; of thousand of rows of little houses all alike, sham Gothic churches, square-faced chapels, Town Halls,Mechanics' Institutes, mills, foundries, warehouses, refined wateringplaces, Pier Pavilions, Family and Commercial Hotels, Literary and Philosophical Societies, back-to-back houses, detached villas with monkey-trees, Grill Rooms, railway stations, slag-heaps and "tips", dock roads, Refreshment Rooms, dosshouses, Unionist or Liberal Clubs, cindery waste ground, mill chimneys, slums, friedfish shops, public-houses with red blinds, bethels in corrugated iron, good-class drapers' and confectioners' shops, a cynically devastated countryside, sooty dismal little towns, and still sootier grim fortress-like cities.

This landscape was already in decline then. By the end of the century it was obsolete and in many areas had disappeared.

Finally, Priestley identified his third England, which he astutely observed "belonged far more to the age itself than to this particular island". This was the England "of arterial and bypass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafes". He entered London from the north on "the smooth wide road" lined with "miles of semi-detached bungalows, all with their little garages".

What Priestley was seeing was the beginning of the authentic 20th century landscape. It was halted by the second war in the 1940s but its creation accelerated and mushroomed during the last decades of the century. Old England has become cocooned and polished, while industrial England has all but disappeared, except where it has become absorbed into old England as part of "Theme-Park England". It is the third England, the England that belongs to the age, which dominates.

Landscape is the product of thousands of past different decisions and actions. The English landscape at the end of the 20th century owed a great deal of its complexion to that century. The reasons for this have much to do with the rapid technological improvements which came to affect everyone's lives, largely for the better; the economics which brought a measure of prosperity to most people; and the way in which society ran itself.

Variety remains one of the great attractions of the English landscape, a reflection of the geological kaleidoscope. This geological diversity was once reflected in building and roofing materials, village size and field shapes. Although the 20th century has done much to neutralise this variety, striking regional differences remain. Northumbria still is different from Suffolk, Dorset from Lincolnshire, partly as a factor of topography and geology, but also as a reflection of historic, social and economic forces.

Ultimately, it is futile to condemn the 20th century landscape out of hand. Much will be swept away before the end of the 21st century, more rapidly and comprehensively than in the past, but some aspects will come to be treasured and preserved. The continuum of landscape evolution will prevail; it will just be different from the generally more leisurely developments of the previous 5,000 years.

Trevor Rowley is emeritus fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford and former deputy director of the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education. He was a postgraduate student of WG Hoskins in the 1960s. The English Landscape in the Twentieth Century is reviewed on page 48.

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