Head out into the countryside almost anywhere in the UK and you’re stepping back into a landscape filled with traces of the past. The UK has been occupied by people since the last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago, and it was occupied in the preceding interglacial period as well. The truth is that all around us there are dozens of traces of former cultures to be spotted; all you need to do is know where to look for them.
Some of the traces are very obvious of course; there can be no mistaking Stonehenge. But many are much more subtle, tiny little details that belie the ancient past of an area of ground. That sunken lane you wander through, trees over topping it and thick hedgerows on either side, likely marks the ancient boundary between two huge parcels of land. An earthen berm was built at each edge of the two parcels of land to separate them, and the dip between the two became a logical walkway. Over hundreds of years as the ploughs turned at the edge of the berm, the line became a permanent feature of the landscape. Thousands of pairs of feet wandering along in the dip between the berms created a trackway along the boundary, and as time went on and the land was enclosed hedgerows developed on either side. These natural lanes were sometimes developed into proper roads and sometimes left to nature; from them we have the holloways that can be found especially in the softer, chalkier soils of the South of England.
Again, looking across a quiet valley at a field on the other side, you might spot traceable lines underlying the modern surface, where hundreds of years of annual ploughing have left a permanent mark on the land. You may look up to that rounded hill in the distance and wonder why there is a hedge running in a circle near the top, or some definite lines running around the circumference of the hill. Again, it’s probable that the hill you are looking at, even if not marked on the map as such, had an earthen bank and ditch enclosure near the summit and was a defensive point. These were a defining feature of pre-Roman Britain, and the image accompanying this post shows one of my local examples at Coed Alltfedw; in the trees it is still possible to trace details of the earthworks that surrounded this site.
Once you start to know where to look, the whole landscape looks somehow changed and much richer. Each wander out reveals new features and helps to place you in the landscape, gives you a connection to all the hundreds of generations that have walked these paths before, have looked out at the same views, seen the same fields and trees and rivers. You are no longer just walking through the twenty-first century, but are immutably transported back through time, walking through the last four or five thousand years as well.
There are quite a few books out there that go into far more detail than I can here about the way our countryside has developed. A great starting point is F.G. Hoskin’s classic The Making of the English Landscape. For a really vivid description of life in truly ancient Britain I’d recommend Frances Pryor’s book Britain B.C. Frances is one of the most influential and highly regarded archaeologists in Britain today and was for many years a key team member on Channel 4’s series Time Team. He has an excellent blog, In the Long Run, from where you can purchase many of his books.
Wherever you are in Britain I can guarantee you that the ancient lies beneath your feet and can probably still be seen no more than a few miles from your home in the fields and lanes around you. So next time you shoulder your rucksack and head out, keep your eyes peeled for those telltale lines in the landscape and see how far back in time you can go!