Have you ever stared out of a car or train window at a lumpy field and wondered what made it lumpy? Or walked along a footpath scored so deeply into the landscape that you felt you were almost in a tunnel? Or sat in a historical pub wondering at its age? Wherever you go in Britain there’s history woven into the landscape around you – in the shape of a field, the wall of a cottage, a standing stone or churchyard, even in the grass under your feet. With just a few pointers you can become a landscape detective, equipped to puzzle out the historical mysteries around you. You’ll know what to look for, and what it might be telling you. In some parts of the country it means you can add some six thousand or more years of history to the landscape you’re looking at.
You can even do your detective work simply looking at a map in the comfort of your own armchair! But whether in the field or online, be warned, Landscape Spotting is an addictive pastime – once you start, you’ll find yourself noticing features everywhere!
Here are a few features to look out for:
Ever walked, cycled or driven down a lane that feels like it’s sunk down into the ground? Often coming into or out of villages, with steep, banked sides and towering hedgerows, these tracks are known as Holloways.
Holloways are at least 300 years old, but many in the South West, southern Wales and Welsh borders, East Anglia and the Weald probably have their origins in prehistory. You really are walking in the footsteps of the ancestors.
The deepest Holloways in Britain are as much as 6m below the ground surface, where feet, hooves and wheels have worn down the land surface and rainwater has eroded it over centuries to create a sunken lane, or ‘hollow way’.
A deep Holloway may suggest that the place you’re heading into or out of is equally old. And if it seems like the Holloway leads to nowhere special, look again. Tracks are ‘articulating features’ – they only come into existence in order to link one place with another, which means that there must have been a place at both ends at some point (maybe now just the remains of a deserted village or hamlet, or perhaps something smaller, like a field barn, sheepfold, or junction with another route).
A few Holloways were intentionally created as land boundaries. Landowners dug a wide ditch, and threw the soil up into banks on either side. The base of the ditch was then used as a sunken track and the parallel banks formed the Holloway sides. Check your map – the Holloway may still mark a modern parish boundary.
In open country, you may still be able to trace the line of an old Holloway – look for a wide grassy furrow with shorter or paler vegetation, where the grass struggles to grow in the harder, compacted soil that was once the track.
Ridge and Furrow
If you see a grass field or hillside area in central England that has long parallel rows of wide humps in the surface, you may be looking at the remnants of a 1,000 year old pattern called Ridge and Furrow, created by medieval ploughing.
From around 800AD to the mid 1500s, most land used for farming crops wasn’t enclosed by hedges or walls. Instead, farmers were allocated strips of the communal Great Fields that surrounded their village. Each strip was ploughed individually in a clockwise pattern, and the plough threw the soil inwards, creating a well-drained flat area ready for planting – the Ridge. The soil level between each strip got lower and lower – the Furrow.
Ridge and Furrow only survives in fields that are now used for pasture, or rough land that is no longer farmed at all. This itself is a clue to the history of the time – in the 12th and 13th centuries there was enormous population pressure on agricultural land. The best, most fertile land was already under the plough, so ‘land-hungry’ farmers were forced on to steeper, rougher hillside areas and places with poor soil. Then the Black Death of 1348-50 killed half the British population. With the population decimated, there was more fertile land to go around the survivors and poorer land was abandoned, leaving the plough marks frozen in time.
If you spot flights of terraces that run horizontally across steeper hillsides, rather than up and down, these are Strip Lynchets. They were hand dug around 600 years ago to make it easier to plough, plant and harvest steep land – also the result of hungry medieval people looking for space to farm.
Narrow horizontal lines across a grassy hillside are more likely to be terracettes – natural features where soil particles slowly slip downhill underneath the grass and over time form ripples in the hillside. Some of these mini-terraces end up exploited by wild animals, livestock and walkers looking for an easy line across the landscape – and so the terracettes become more pronounced.
Stone Age tombs
The oldest visible monuments in the British landscape are Long Barrows, burial sites from the Neolithic – the Late Stone Age – around 4200BC. If you spot one of these long, lozenge-shaped earth mounds, you’ve just added more than six thousand years of human history to the landscape you’re looking at! Ones that are still visible to the naked eye are marked on OS maps.
Chambered Tombs also date from the Late Stone Age – these have internal stone chambers where bodies – or parts of dismembered bodies – were placed by their community. Chambered tombs that have been excavated are sometimes open and you can go inside to explore. Great examples include West Kennet in Wiltshire, Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey, and the Tomb of the Eagles in Orkney (pictured)
Ancient Burial mounds
Round Barrows, sometimes called Tumuli, are the most common prehistoric monuments in the country. These circular earthen mounds are often seen in groups, and you can sometimes spot them on the crests of hills, lurking under clumps of trees, or as uncultivated lumps in farmers’ fields – because of the precious archaeology below, the land is legally protected and so can’t be ploughed. These mounds date to the Bronze Age – mostly between 2400BC and 1200BC.
Although there are no written records from Britain at this time, the archaeology suggests there was a change in religious and social practices – instead of communal tombs, people start to be buried as individuals, either cremated first or placed in a crouched position in a grave with food, jewellery and other offerings like cups of mead. Early findings from ancient DNA studies are also pointing to a change in the genetic profile too – there were certainly new people on these shores, although how much of the native population may have been displaced isn’t yet clear. Some, but not all, round barrows have been excavated by archaeologists: Others remain undisturbed. Archaeological excavation is inherently destructive (once you’ve dug it up you can’t put it back) so barrows are now only excavated if there’s a genuine research question to answer, or if they’re at risk in some way. So next time you see a Round Barrow, take a moment to imagine what, and who, may be inside it.
Graveyards, gates and trees
Graveyards are usually older than the church buildings they contain. Even though the bodies rot away, centuries of burials progressively raise the earth surface, so as a rule of thumb, the higher a graveyard is compared to the surrounding land, the older it is. It’s estimated that the average English parish churchyard contains at least 10,000 bodies. Urban cemeteries may contain more than 100,000.
Churchyards are usually rectangular, with the church positioned roughly centrally. If a churchyard is circular or oval, it suggests that you’re looking at a very early church site (from 600AD or even earlier), or a place where the church was built on an earlier pagan site. Also look for lych gates: open-sided gatehouses at the entrance of a churchyard, named after the old English for ‘corpse’ (lich). This was where the priest would meet the body at the churchyard entrance, say initial prayers, then lead the way into the church.
Many churchyards in Britain contain Yew trees (Taxus baccata), the longest-living organisms in the whole of Europe. Native Britons probably considered the yew to be a sacred tree, so when early Christians co-opted pagan sites, yew trees came with the land. Yew trees are only officially designated as ‘ancient’ when they’re around 800 years old with a girth greater than 7m (23ft), and it’s thought the oldest churchyard yews are an incredible four to five thousand years old – visit them at St Coeddi’s Church, Fortingall in Perthshire (NN 742 471), St Dygain’s Church in Llangernyw, Conwy (SH 874 674) and St Cynog’s Church, Defynnog, Powys (SN 925 279).
Yew trees ‘bleed’ red sap when cut, and are evergreen, possibly part of the reason they have long had spiritual status. Pic © Mary Ann Ochota
Dry Stone Walls
Some of the most intriguing dry stone walls you’ll see are abandoned Intake walls (or newtake walls). They can climb vertiginous slopes of rough moorland, then end abruptly, or loop back down. Many of these were a result of Enclosure Acts that were passed by Parliament between 1750 and 1850, when commons, moorlands, and open fields were allocated to private landowners.
These new landowners were keen to build walls and then lease the land to tenant farmers – even if the land wasn’t up to it. You’ll see abandoned plots of land in many upland areas including the Grampians and the Lake District. The hungry, hardworking tenant farmers are memorialised in evocative place-names: Mount Famine in the Peak District (SK 055 848), and Starvation Hill, Never Gains, Famish Acre and Mount Misery (SX 636 705) on Dartmoor.
Mary-Ann Ochota is a broadcaster and anthropologist who gained her MA in Archaeology and Anthropology from Cambridge University in 2002. She’s a familiar face on archaeology programmes including the cult show Time Team, the History Channel’s Ancient Impossible, ITV’s Britain’s Secret Treasures – for which she also wrote the tie-in book in association with the British Museum, as well as BBC specials on Silbury Hill, Stonehenge and most recently the series Britain Afloat. She has also presented documentaries for Animal Planet, Nat Geo, Channel 4 and BBC4 and writes regularly for newspapers and magazines on the outdoors and adventure, including the Daily Telegraph, Guardian, Countryfile Magazine, Geographical and Summit. She is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Hillwalking Ambassador for the British Mountaineering Council and an Ordnance Survey GetOutside Champion.
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