Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A stone in Woncumb

The desire to uncover and celebrate the English landscape that inspired so much poetry, music and painting in the first half of the twentieth century, also led to a flowering of academic studies. A fiftieth anniversary edition of W. G. Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape was published last year, and in his introduction Keith Thomas places the book in the context of a post-War boom in scholarly landscape studies: Jacquetta Hawkes’ A Land (1951), Pevsner’s architectural guides, launched the same year, H. C. Darby’s Domesday Geography of England (1952), O. G .S. Crawford’s Archaeology in the Field (1953) and Maurice Beresford’s Lost Villages of England (1954). Hoskins’ work began as five radio talks in 1954 which were turned into a book the following year.

One of the charms of Hoskins’ book is the way he encourages the reader to get out and discover the history of the landscape for themselves. For example, ‘armed with a copy of a Saxon charter’ and a map, anyone can uncover an Anglo-Saxon estate boundary. He describes his own search for these boundaries in Devon and Somerset, scrambling over hedges, leaping across streams and walking ‘along high airy ridges’. He also describes a discovery of Mr G. M. Young on the edge of Wiltshire’s Vale of Pewsey where a charter of 825 records the granting of land by King Egbert to the church of St Peter and St Paul. The charter says that the boundary ran up to a stone in Woncumb with a distinctive hole in it. When Mr Young looked for this boundary he found the very stone, exactly where the Saxon surveyors had recorded it. 

Here are two of my favourite passages from the book, first on the pleasures of maps:
'There are certain sheets of the 1-inch Ordnance Survey maps which one can sit down and read like a book for an hour on end, with growing pleasure and imaginative excitement. One dwells upon the infinite variety of the place-names (and yet there is a characteristic flavour for each region of England), the delicate nerve-like complexity of roads and lanes, the siting of the villages and hamlets, the romantic moated farmsteads in deep country, the churches standing alone in the fields, the patterns made by the contours or by the way the parish boundaries fit into one another. One dissects such a map mentally, piece by piece, and in doing so learns a good deal of local history, whether or not one knows the country itself.'
And here, his knowledge of place names allows him to imagine how the landscape appeared before the English settlement:
'Inland, especially in the far west and north, there still remained millions of acres of stony moorland haunted only by the animal creation, where the eagle and the raven circled undisturbed. The villages of Earnwood in Shropshire and Yarnscombe in Devon commemorate former ‘eagles’ wood’ and ‘eagles’ valley’; while far up in the West Riding of Yorkshire the limestone crags above Littondale provided eyries for these noble birds, and in due course the Old English village of Arncliffe took its name from the ‘eagles’ cliff.'

1 comment:

Plinius said...

Further to this, I see there is a site on Anglo-Saxon boundaries that looks like it would be a useful resource: Langscape: Reading the Anglo-Saxon Countryside.