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Landscape. What a word.

Froggatt Edge, Peak District, Derbyshire Froggatt Edge, Peak District, Derbyshire Photo: © CPRE

Nick Crane reflected on how we define 'landscape' in his speech at the launch of Landscapes for Everyone in Parliament on 20 January 2015. 

"Landscape. What a word.Nick Crane copyright Nigel Keene Keeneeyes Photography

Earthy, yet artificial. Infinite and specific. Historic, modern. Deeply personal and collectively shared.

Landscape is the ultimate, geographical catch-all; the supermarket trolley into which we plop every topographic goody that catches our eye: A bar of National Park, a bottle of AONB; a box of SSSIs; a multi-pack of Heritage Coasts; a bag of National Character Areas; town parks (2 for the price of 1), nature reserves, open access areas, commons . . . a couple of mountains for good measure. In they all go: Dartmoor and Cairngorm, the Broads and Cadair Idris, the Wye Valley and Orkney Islands . . . Tooting Bec Common.

Actually landscapes are nothing like the contents of a supermarket trolley. Not mine, anyway. Landscapes are not commodities. They’re not meant for consumption. They’re more like the books and manuscripts in the British library. A unique collection of irreplaceable National Treasures.

It was the historical geographer, W. G. Hoskins, who compared landscapes to a library: ‘The English landscape, ‘ he wrote, ‘to those who know how to read it aright, is the richest historical record we possess.’

He wrote those words in the mid-1950s. This is the 60th anniversary of the publication of his best-known book, The Making of the English Landscape. It’s still in print. Professor Hoskins took his students on a tour through the evolution of landscapes from the Saxons to ‘the vandals’ - the scientists, the military men and the politicians who he accused of desecrating his beloved land with ‘unmentionable devilment’. 

Avuncular, learned, he traced the history of field-bank and lane, market town and moorland. Lumps and lines in fields told of long-gone plague villages, or vanished open-field systems, or ghosted Roman camps. He explained how our river systems steered the Industrial Revolution northward, and how a modern road can actually be 2,000 years old. 

And then he got cross. The book concludes with a prolonged shriek from the massacred wildwood, about decaying country houses, urban overspill, ranch farming, bypasses, bulldozers ramming at ancient hedges, and planes that lay trails like filthy slugs ‘upon Constable’s and Gainsborough’s sky’. That was sixty years ago.

Landscape is a way of seeing1. In that respect, the word’s not lost sight of its origins, when it appears in the 16th-century to have migrated across the Channel from the Low Countries as ‘landskip’ and been adopted as a painter’s term for a picture of inland scenery2.

Yet as a concept, as an appreciation of place, we’ve used the idea of landscape for millennia. The reindeer hunters who walked past this building in 10,000 BC and left a scatter of knapped flints on a gravel terrace near Staines - or ‘Stones’ as it was originally known - surely thought in terms of landscape. They, too, knew which places mattered.

Appreciating or imagining coherent tracts of land was a potent means of controlling space; of coming to an accommodation with the wilderness, the great unknown3. The windings of a path, a scatter of stone flakes, the carbonised disc of a hearth, a totemic oak, the parting in the stream , were mapped in the mind and plotted on landscapes. Sounds and smells had their own coordinates: the spot from which a waterfall became audible was a mappable place, and so was the olfactory perimeter of a pine wood, mapped by the sweet scent of resin4.

Landscapes could be appreciated by individuals and viewed collectively through social and cultural prisms. They had no fixed scale. They described physical, measurable places and also imagined topographies. They could be repositories for belief and settings for action. A landscape was a personalised - or localised - dialect in which every feature conveyed a unique meaning. (Landscapes are the language of existence.) We’re all makers of landscapes.

Landscapes have three essential qualities:5

Firstly, by definition, they’re collections of related places; settings with vital meanings to their human ‘actors’. They’re highly complex stages for human affairs.

Secondly, landscapes record the movement of humans through both space and time, so they can exist as small places, big places. Places visited daily or rarely.

Third and last, landscapes are empowering. Both as a means of finding oneself and of creating a social world. People create landscapes, and landscapes create people.

So, landscapes are theatres of human ecology. Their diversity of character; the humanity they nurture; the wonder they evoke, and the applause they raise in every heart, are fundamental to life in the UK’s sparkling archipelago."

1Johnson, M., Ideas of Landscape, 2007, 4


3For meanings & interpretations of ‘landscape’, see:
Cresswell, T., Place, a short introduction, 2004, 10-11
Johnson, M., Ideas of Landscape, 2007, 2-4

4For ‘cognitive geographies’, see Cunliffe, 2013, 59

5Tilley, C., The Power of Rocks: Topography and Monument Construction on Bodmin Moor, World Archaeology, Vol. 28 No. 2, Sacred Geography (Oct., 1996), pp. 161-2

 See Neil Sinden's blog for more on how how different people think about landscape and Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society on the launch of Landscapes for Everyone.

People create landscapes, and landscapes create people.

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