Saturday, 13 May 2023

The History of the Countryside

Fear not, gentle reader, I have not decided to paint the blog green, although after reading the latest book, it might be an idea. Not that, after reading it, modern conservationists come out much better than the rest of us.

The book is:

Reckham, O., The History of the Countryside (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1989).

This is a 2020 reprint of the above tome, and very interesting it was too. The book is nicely written, with a good deal of wry humour and lashings of criticism regarding land use ancient and modern, with a special side issue of sarcasm for contemporary land improvement.

Still, I read it partly because I live in the countryside, as we all do (even those of you rooted in urban jungles: nature is closer than you think). Partly I read it to see whether I can improve my terrain modelling. The answer to the latter is, yes, of course, I can, but perhaps not in the ways I expected.

The countryside is a great deal more dynamic than we think. The book focuses mainly on England, and much of the evidence comes from certain parts thereof, but an overriding impression given is that the countryside has been changing ever since the end of the last ice age. Even before the arrival of Mesolithic humans, who are often credited with the destruction of much of the wildwood with which the country was covered then, the landscape was changing. In fact, Rackham is sceptical as to whether Mesolithic humans were present in sufficient quantities to change very much. As he observes, it is actually quite hard to burn down a wood in this country.

One thing that does stand out, however, is grazing animals and their effects on the landscape. Ancient and medieval people very sensible kept their valuable woodland (and it was really valuable) safe from their animals by building banks with hedges on top, and employing wood wardens to keep the woods safe and the banks and hedges in repair. The important commodity was, in fact, underwood, rather than timber. Underwood was used for all sorts of purposes, such as fuel, building materials for, for example, wattle and daub walls, fences, utensils, and so on. Timber, by which is meant large trees cut into planks and similar, was less in demand. Only church roofs and similar large buildings really needed enormous logs of oak for their construction and, in spite of Englishmen worrying to the contrary, the country never did run out of oak to build sailing ships.

Much of the timber did not, in fact, come from woods. The larger trees, particularly oaks, were to be found in hedgerows and woodland pasture, or on farmland. There was plenty of that. Hedges only became without trees when modern cutting techniques arrived, as hedge cutters by hand would cut around saplings, so more hedgerow trees survived.

Hedges themselves are interesting. Some parts of the country, what Rackham describes as ‘Planned Countryside’, those parts where open strip fields were the order of the day. These fields were large, farmed in strips, and unhedged. Hedges only came to these parts of the country later, as the open fields were divided up and enclosed with fences. The fences, of course, prevented mowing in their immediate vicinity and thus hedges grew up in a few years. It is only post-World War Two that the habit of grubbing up hedges and recreating enormous fields has occurred. This has negative effects on soil, wildlife and the landscape, as we probably all know.

Anyway, another interesting point Rackham makes is to the effect that many of us paint our tree trunks wrongly. We are used to fairly brown tree trunks and branches, with maybe a bit of lichen growing on them. Actually, before the era of acid rain, tree trunks were much greener, as mosses and a wider variety of lichens grew on them. Tree trunks could be practically green.

Quite a lot of Rackham’s ire is directed at efforts to conserve the countryside. He is particularly severe on the ‘Plant a Tree in ‘73’ campaign. Most of the trees died or at least failed to flourish because no one bothered to look at which species of tree should be planted there. Oaks do not flourish everywhere in England, in spite of our national mythology.

The other thing which we should possibly note as landscape wargamers is the number of trees that were pollarded. In this, the tree was cropped, either to a stump or coppiced to just above ground level. It was then left to grow for a number of years before the process was repeated. This left tree trunks quite solid (for a pollard) with spindly growth above. Coppiced trees have what are termed crowns, roundish bits of solid tree, at ground level, and then spindly bits growing from that. The effect of both of these is to supply the rods and underwood that society needed until industrialisation came. Rackham notes that pollarded and coppiced trees live for a long time, while trees left to their own devices have a life span of a couple of centuries.

Rackham also explains that in England, ‘Forest’ does not mean what we think of as a forest – a thick load of trees. In medieval England, Forests were places where Forest Law applied. They might include a few woods, but were often more heathland, such as the New Forest. The aim of Forests was to grow venison for the tables of the King and his Lords. Apparently, if you received the gift of a haunch of venison you were really in with the in crowd.

There is, then, lots to think about in this book as a wargamer whose games often land up in England of various times. Certainly, I think my modelling of woods as woods could be improved with ditches and banks. And my hedgerows clearly need more trees. I imagine I shall lapse into lassitude and nothing will change, but there you are: a challenge to landscape wargaming.


  1. Important observations. We can easily get wrapped up in the myth of the unchanging countryside.

    1. Absolutely. And the countryside works in a certain way, which sticking trees and fields at random on a table doesn't depict.

  2. It was a really interesting book, I very much enjoyed reading it myself. "To a medieval person, a forest doesn't mean trees, it means deer" has stuck with me too.

    1. As a child I was always confused by the lack of trees in the New Forest. I dare say that Sherwood Forest would have done the same. Magna Carta had something to say about Forest Law, though.

  3. Interesting section at the end about Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall littered with the rock cairns remaining from 1940 antiglider poles (and a hidden landscape of secret radar stations etc)

    1. Yes, there is lots of interesting and somewhat surprising stuff in there, along with the fact that you cannot restore a wood once it is destroyed, and that there are surprising corners of nearly undisturbed countryside around, like Goonhilly and many churchyards....