The Making of the British Landscape

by Nicholas Crane, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20

For the first time in over a century, visitors can now see Stonehenge in its Stone Age, grassland setting. In 2013, the road beside the stones, the A344, was ripped out, as were the neighbouring car park and visitor facilities. Only now has the footprint of the old road completely grassed over. Today, poppies grow where lorries once thundered yards from the Heel Stone, the lone standing stone that marks the entrance way to the ancient circle.

Nicholas Crane is the master of this trick – of seeing Britain as it was thousands of years ago. The clever conceit of this book is to walk through Britain, from 10,000 BC until now, and see how it developed its current look: how it emerged from the Ice Age; how Doggerland, the land-bridge connecting Britain to the Continent, was submerged; how the layers of villages, roads and railway lines were laid down.

Crane painstakingly describes the human intervention, from the hearth of the first reindeer hunter to the glass spire of the Shard. Man has had by far the greatest effect of any animal on the look of Britain. But it is the shape of this island and its climate that have allowed man to flourish. The two most influential factors on human migration and proliferation in Britain are the sun and the south.

Twelve thousand years ago, Britain was an ice-bound, inhospitable mass of tundra. Only in around 9,700 BC did temperatures rise enough to allow humans to live here comfortably. They had been making brief forays for a million years, but they had always been more comfortable in the warm south. For the next 12 millennia, the new arrivals in Britain came almost entirely from the south. First came those early forager-hunters, then European farmers, Roman armies, Saxons, Christians, Danes and Normans – right on up to the latest arrival of Syrian immigrants.

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