Topographies

W.R. Mead

  • The English Heartland by Robert Beckinsale and Monica Beckinsale
    Duckworth, 434 pp, £18.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1389 8
  • The English Village by Richard Muir
    Thames and Hudson, 208 pp, £8.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 500 24106 6

The topographical tradition is probably stronger in Britain than anywhere, and during the last generation professional and amateur alike have endowed it with a new vitality. In the process, they have given succour to many of the old-established local archaeological, historical and antiquarian societies. The professional inspiration has come largely from the archaeologists, economic historians and historical geographers. Although it is the work of a professional historian, one of the most stimulating books for the amateur has been W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (1951). It has directed attention to the origins and evolution of the simple but fundamental features of which the landscape is composed, and it has stirred a new interest in the sources of information that enabled them to be explained. The range of county and regional studies that are the product of today’s topographers displays the same spirit of curiosity, the same concern with detailed observation and the same enthusiasm as those of earlier times. Where they are the work of scholars, they may be intellectual forays in their own right. And, as the professionals sharpen their wits upon each other’s opinions and theories concerning the countryside, the amateurs enjoy the new light that filters through to illuminate their understanding of old familiar scenes.

Among the professionals must be included Robert and Monica Beckinsale; among the self-confessed amateurs, Richard Muir. The Beckinsales – one native to the north Cots-wolds and the other to the Vale of the White Horse – present what is for them the English heartland. Richard Muir, nostalgic for the Nidderdale hamlet of Birtwhistle, offers his view of the evolving English village. Both books communicate the enjoyment that their authors have had in compiling them. Both employ a loose and flexible framework. Both are generously illustrated, with Muir scoring on the quality and imagination of his photographs and the Beckinsales making their mark with the originality of their maps and diagrams.

The English heartland is defined as a quadrant of land stretching from the Marlborough Downs and the Chiltern Hills in the south to the Arden Plateau and Northamptonshire Heights in the north. The heartland conveniently excludes London and Birmingham, while Oxford is somewhere near the centre of it. The Beckinsales aim to describe and explain the imprint made by successive generations upon this eminently habitable and amiable piece of country. Prehistoric settler, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Dane and Norman all found acceptable homes within it. The legacies they have bequeathed to the landscape occupy the preliminary chapters of a text that gets into its stride with a review of the great medieval residences and the lofty perpendicular churches in which the likenesses of their courtly families are modelled in alabaster and brass. While the churches remain, the Civil War (which, we are reminded, began and ended in the English heartland) reduced most of the castles to ruins – ‘tenantless save for the crannying wind’. Only a few, such as Warwick ‘the flower of fortresses’, escaped. With battlefields turned beneath the plough, the countryside entered an era of more fundamental change prompted by improved communications, as illustrated by canals and turnpikes, and by the redistribution of land through Parliamentary enclosure. Side by side with these changes, the country mansion came into its own, with landscape gardeners contributing as much to the aesthetic attraction of the ‘heartland’ as to any part of England. Horticulture was stimulated as well as agriculture, with Oxford’s botanic garden flourishing in the process. The Beckinsales must have had a considerable problem in deciding which of the country houses to include and which to omit, but they have no doubts about the rococo delights of Claydon. Two technical features – watermills and windmills – each claim a separate chapter. The value attached to millstones was sufficient for a landlord such as Merton College to import flint quartz from Paris for its mills near Wallingford. While the Mill on the Floss lies outside their territory, there is a measure of compensation in being able to link Mapledurham’s mill with Toad of Toad Hall.

It would be easy to underestimate the significance of the Victorian legacy to the ‘heartland’. With an increasing diversity of technical inventions to hand, the obliteration of old landscapes and the creation of new proceeded apace. In the rural counties of the ‘heartland’, they were associated with a new phase of country house construction – and often with a new breed of owner. An extravagance of gardens and arboreta emerged (to provide inspiration for poets and work for peasants), model villages were planned around greens which never knew a dark age ancestor, impressive farmhouses and barns as big as medieval granges were built for tenant farmers who multiplied as estate owners added acre to acre. The Victorian age also ushered in the railway, which modified an urban system which had previously expressed itself almost exclusively in terms of market towns. Such settlements as Swindon, Bletchley and Wolverton were new phenomena. The machine age, as the last chapter is entitled, grafted manufacturing suburbs to many existing towns (especially to Oxford), as well as adding the cooling towers of generating stations, the skyline masts of telecommunicational systems and the nuclear research centre of Harwell. Formal procedures that have become a part of the machine age have called for the planned expansion of certain old towns and have given to the ‘heartland’ its largest city – Milton Keynes.

Both the Beckinsales and Richard Muir reflect upon what has been lost to the landscape by these processes of change. There is evidence of deserted and shrunken villages (explained through emparkment at least as much as through epidemics such as the Black Death), of common land reduced through engrossment, of estates abandoned through the demise of fortunes (‘nought remains’ of Boughton in Northamptonshire ‘but a Pegasus in a field’), of causes lost through the waning of enthusiasm (as illustrated by the imaginative projects of the Chartists recalled only by Charterville near Minster Lovell). Hedgerows and stone walls dwindle at least as much through cost of maintenance as through the intrusion of barbed wire and the rationalisation of farming methods. Sometimes settlements decline in status for political or administrative reasons, so that boroughs are aborted or their functions are shifted elsewhere. Thus Buckingham yielded to Aylesbury as a county town, though it may find a new status through its fledgling university. More recent losses in rural areas are illustrated by the reduction of services in both transport and education. Finally, there is the constant threat of development to the scenic heritage and amenity outside the more narrowly defined Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with the third London airport as the principal example.

The losses lead to lamentations, though all three authors tend to reserve their elegies for artifacts and vegetation rather than for country churchyards. Certainly the indigenous flora has suffered badly during the last two generations – above all, the elm, diminishingly immemorial, which has succumbed by the million to disease. The disappearance of branch railway lines is also mourned, with Edward Thomas providing the requiem for the Adlestrops of the English ‘heartland’.

Change and decay are not entirely matters of regret. The comfortable appearance of most present-day villages is a source of consolation. Richard Muir considers that the majority of village communities were bred in hardship and adversity, and that even in ‘the good old days’ they lurched from crisis to crisis. The leanness and meanness of life in Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise and in Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield simply add personal experience to pioneering social histories such as The Village Labourer of J. L. and Barbara Hammond. The products of the three hundred thousand smiths listed in the 1851 census, the shapely vehicles of the wagon-builders and wheelwrights that grace museums of rural life, the carved stones of a multitude of masons, the spider’s web lace displaced beside silent bobbins in such a home as that of William Cowper in Olney, betoken craft workers whose skills lifted them above the level of ordinary labourers. While examples of their handiwork remain, little is left save statistics to tell the tale of the stone-picking, the acorn-gathering, the gleaning, the undernourishment, the disease and the infant mortality that were a continuing accompaniment of village life to within living memory. Nor does Richard Muir overlook the social division symbolised by the village chapel. It recalls a shift to Nonconformity by the landless army of rural workers which is at least partially attributable to the attitude of the Anglican priesthood. The theme of poverty is presented differently, but no less effectively, by the Beckinsales in their map of mid-19th-century Poor Law Unions. The number of workhouse inmates and their proportion of the total population for the several districts of the ‘heartland’ make depressing reading.

Maps, indeed, underscore such a number of points that they become a feature distinguishing The English Heartland from the general run of topographies. Thus a parochial mosaic embracing no less than 1,100 parishes offers a simple but telling introduction to the organisation of the area and a measure of the historical density of its settlement. With this framework in mind, it is revealing to approach other distributional maps – those of the medieval castles and fortified mansions and of the monastic buildings (including their surviving structures). Totally different in distribution are the parks and gardens that were the product of 18th-century landscaping. The involvement of the Beckinsales with mills results in a map of Domesday watermills and a locational diagram of the present-day distribution of the different types of windmill, while their knowledge of local archival materials affords further cartographic illustrations. These include the changing distribution of woollen manufacture in Gloucestershire and of textile workers in Witney and Chipping Norton, shifts in the location of the old-established paper mill, and a map which indicates the remarkable intensity of glove-making as a domestic industry. Sample plans of Cotswold towns based on Ordnance Survey maps from the turn of the century underline how recent are the changes induced by the technical revolution. Oxford receives special cartographic treatment, with Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick backing it up. Is this because contemporary topographical studies are inseparable from tourism and recreation?

It would be instructive to see a map on which all of the recreational features of the English ‘heartland’ were identified: from golf clubs and race courses to boating facilities (in a notably waterless area) and hunting districts (each with its hallowed bounds), from National Trust properties and Nature Conservancy sites to safari parks and caravan encampments. Footpaths and bridle paths, clearly signposted in the ‘heartland’ counties, would also have their place. To the appreciation of each of these amenities the Beckinsale text already contributes. Not least, it dwells upon the problems for the territory inherent in an expanding leisure industry.

But as the winter descends and chimney-corner reading takes over, it will be the pleasure of the sentimental journeying described in these two books that will prevail. Readers of an historical persuasion will appreciate the documentary detail in which the Beckinsales revel, as well as the rhymsters – known and unknown – whose verse they disinter. The statistically agile will be tempted to turn to their pocket calculators, if only to estimate how many acres of mature woodland might be needed to construct even a small hamlet, given that three hundred trees were employed in the construction of a single timber-framed house. The technically-disposed can study the fittings of a working Midland watermill or the components of a cruck cottage. And the youthfully energetic may find in The English Heartland a model to repeat in other areas. They need only heed the question of the poet, ‘How many miles to Babylon?’ If Babylon be the land of the heart’s delight, the Beckinsales have an answer. They have covered nearly a million miles in the course of their lifetime travels in their home territory.