The history of a land is often very present in its shapes, surfaces and in remaining structures. That which is beneath the soil – remnants of builds for example, will change the vigour of plants and create a visible indicator of what went before. Ghosts of old hedges and paths, remnants of mediaeval field systems can all be in a UK landscape. There are roads and field layouts in this country that are 4000 years old, and more.
It is not an easy thing, learning to read a landscape. As an avid walker, I’ve invested a lot of time in trying to make sense of what’s around me. Old sheep tracks, wood boundaries, new woods that indicate a different history, yet have ancient forest flora on the ground… I found the shell of a cottage once that had a tale to tell. Outside the cottage walls, was a field. Inside, were plants more normally associated with woodland cover. Certainly the shade must have helped, but it inclined me to think that the cottage had been built in a wood, or a recently cleared wood, and the field had come after. When the cottage fell to ruin, the woodland plants grew and reproduced themselves. Seeds can lie dormant in the soil for a very long time.
Hedges tell stories of enclosure – if you’ve got hawthorn, blackthorn and elder it’s probably an enclosure hedge. More species suggest older planting. The enclosure act limited access to the land for ordinary people, so these hedges are remains of a key historical moment.
Paths tell of lost settlements sometimes, of working routs and livelihoods now disappeared. Woodlands hide the cuts and bumps of old quarries. On the higher ground, earthworks speak of ancient ancestry, their world hard to imagine.
The land is full of history, full of stories. Little myths and anecdotes are part of a landscape, and knowing those tales and the locations they relate to roots us in the places we occupy.
I would recommend Oliver Rackham’s work for anyone in the UK, and for fellow Gloucestershire folk, hunt out Alan Pilbeam. Wherever you are, there will be local history groups, and you may luck out and find landscape historians already working. If not, then the means to learn about reading yor own particular landscape can be found.