Friday, May 19, 2006


It was in a museum somewhere, I think; quite a large museum with a major section devoted to the archaeology of the region. As a backdrop to the usual collection of artefacts – or fragments thereof – there was a lavishly presented series of pictures depicting the local landscape over the millennia. An imagined view from the same spot - a hillside overlooking a broad river valley - starting with the end of the last ice age where fur-clad hunters attacked a woolly mammoth, through a series of tableaux, to the bustle of a large present day town - and all this time, the essential shape of the land remained the same.

To begin with, it was the land that dominated. People lived on the land, but the underlying landscape remained unchanged. At first a Neolithic settlement, then an iron age fort, but if the people had gone away, after a generation or so the only sign of their presence might have been a ditch around the fort or an earth mound at its centre.

Then along came the Romans, and the land started to disappear under the first true town, for this happened to be at a strategic low headland at a point where river crossing was possible. For the first time, a man-made shape began to dominate a portion of the picture; within the town was laid down a pattern of streets and buildings, and outside of the town’s walls another pattern, where fields marked land taken over for agriculture. But beyond both of these, the landscape still remained much as it had over the preceding millennia.

As the centuries wore on, the pictures showed the town growing; the adjacent marshes were drained, more river bridges were built, dusty roads came into being and villages grew along their way – yet even as recently as a couple of centuries ago, before the days of motorised transport, concrete, and macadamised roads, the presence of the landscape could still be felt. It would still have been possible to feel a connection to the land – after all, in pre-industrial days, a sizeable proportion of the population would either have worked directly on the land or be only one or two steps removed from those who did.

In a city the size of London, it’s difficult to think in terms of landscape. Even living in a small town in London’s “Green Belt” – an area surrounding where development is strictly controlled so as to avoid urban sprawl – daily life is still lived out in giant bubbles of urban existence, joined by metal, glass and concrete containers of humanity known as roads and railways. Landscape is something remote, out there somewhere – usually a long way out there - but not here; an idea, but not a present reality. Even the overall shape is lost; the hills and valleys have become nothing more than a disconnected set of inconvenient slopes that do no more than impede progress.

And yet, and yet…

The land is still there. The rivers may have been diverted or sent underground, the forests felled long ago, the horizon dominated by rooftops, but just a few feet underneath my feet, below the surface layer of soil and the detritus of the recent centuries’ constant reoccupation, lies the very same clay that might once have vibrated to the passage of Roman feet, or shook to the mammoth's fall.

I stood on the railway platform waiting for the train this morning, trying to imagine that land under my feet, wondering what it would take to reconnect with it, wondering whether only its ghost remains, or whether it has life still – after all, it is only time which separates me from an ice-age hunter, a Neolithic farmer, a Roman soldier or an Elizabethan peasant – the land is the same land and we may all have stood in the same spot upon it.

Landscape may not be so far away as I imagined, after all.

Back to current posts