Books

The British Isles seen through X-ray specs

Stonehenge: man has had by far the greatest effect on the British landscape (PA)

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.

What they found was a relatively small place, with an exceptionally varied geology. Desert heat, followed by freshwater inundations, volcanic blasts, seawater invasion and tectonic shifts produced our rare combination of black basalt, sandstone, quartz and chalk.

In turn, this geological bonanza produced Britain’s wealth, and the lie of the land: the chalk downlands of Salisbury Plain and the North and South Downs; the sarsen stones and the Preseli bluestones used for Stonehenge; the copper and tin that were combined to produce the bronze of the Bronze Age. Harder bronze axes were that much better at cutting down trees – thus the accelerated deforestation of Britain.

Slowly, gradually, you begin to see the strands of the country come together, and the early roots of modern developments. Already, by the late 12th century, William Fitzstephen, St Thomas Becket’s biographer, is documenting London’s huge size – its 126 parish churches and its great variety of “actors, jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates”.

Sometimes, the sheer mass of information can be a little overwhelming. But Crane has an easy-going writing style and he breaks up the tide of geological facts with nice little snapshots of Britain frozen in time. Here he is on Cornhill, in the City of London, in the winter of AD 47-48, just after the Romans had arrived: “The hill was wooded with oak and hazel, beech and alder descending in leafless stands to a foreshore of sedge.”

Today, the City of London is lined with largely hideous steel and glass tower blocks. But it isn’t difficult to strip away all those layers – so precisely, clearly depicted by Crane – and spot Britain’s prehistoric geology beneath. This is the book that gives you X-ray specs.