The Making of the English Landscape: Marsh, Fen and Moor

There are certain sheets of the one-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 villages, 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 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.

Such an exciting map is that of the country around the Wash, particularly the country on the western and southern sides – the Lincolnshire and Norfolk Marshland. One can no more do justice to this beautiful map in a few lines than programme notes can convey the quality of a symphony. the_making_of_the_english_landscapeThe very names like Bicker Haven and Fleet Haven, now many miles inland; of Mouton Seas End and Surfleet Seas End and Seadyke Farm, all far back today from the shore-line; the so-called Roman Bank twisting across the open levels, and the chapels far out on the salt marshes – all these matters of observation set the mind working at once about the past history of this piece of country. One observes also the intricate tangle of the road and lane pattern between Boston and Wainfleet, along the western side of the Wash, in marked contrast to the great open spaces of the Fen behind where the roads are few and straight, or to the Marsh in front where they fade out altogether and give us a landscape of nothing but scores of drains running straight ahead to the mud-flats and the sea and sky beyond. The belt of tangled roads and lanes is only a mile or two wide for the greater part of its length and is thickly sprinkled with dispersed farmsteads and a few hamlets. At intervals of every few miles one finds a considerable village. And one notices one other remarkable thing – that the main road from Boston to Wainfleet is as full of bends and corners as any of the little lanes that lie on either side of it; it must be the most difficult main road in England for motorists. It runs roughly parallel, so far as anything is parallel to anything else in this irregular landscape, to what the map calls the Roman Bank and the Old Sea Bank, and roughly parallel also to a string of lanes. By now we are convinced that this piece of country, like that along the southern side of the Wash which it so much resembles, has had an exceptional history: and so indeed it has. It is a landscape of a few ancient villages and of centuries or reclamation from the marsh on one side and the fen on the other; a landscape created largely between the seventh century and the seventeenth, where many of the winding lanes represent successive frontiers in the conquest of the salt marshes from the sea.

from The Making of the English Landscape, W.G. Hoskins, 1955.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: