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Made in Britain...with Nicholas Crane

President of the RGS and former Coast presenter, Nicholas Crane publishes his acclaimed book The Making of the British Landscape. He meets with Compass editor Jennifer Cox to discuss the lay of the land.

Jennifer Cox: What was the idea behind The Making of the British Landscape?

Nicholas Crane: It’s personal, going back to my days as a geography undergraduate and a book called The Making of the English Landscape, written in 1955 by WG Hoskins, a professor of landscape history. His book was a bible for us: he taught my generation how to read the landscape like a book. If you go for a walk or bike ride in the countryside, he taught us a right angle bend in a country road might be going around a parliamentary enclosure field, or why there might be terraces on the sides of hills, or the progression of early townscapes from burghs and boroughs to modern market towns. He opened up my eyes to enjoying travel, and subsequently I’ve spent most of my life writing about Britain.

I’d always had it in my mind to write this book. I wanted to add on Scotland and Wales, and I also wanted to go back to the end of the Ice Age, which meant adding 10,000 years to the story. And as Hoskins published his book in 1955, I wanted to add on the incredibly important era between then and today. It took many years to write and research.

In The Making of the British Landscape, each section is prefaced with you looking out across a cityscape or coastline, then almost peeling back the centuries to give vivid historical and geographical descriptions of that terrain’s conception.

It was my way of taking the modern landscape and explaining how it had evolved. I think of the book as a geographical narrative – a single storyline running through our island’s history. I wanted to write a story: a real page turner, not an academic reference book.

It works. I felt like I was watching land masses splinter and forests sprout and spread.

I’m relieved to hear that. I wrote those interludes to amuse myself. I meant to take them out when I had finished.

It’s an audacious piece of research and writing. How on earth did you manage to pull it all together?

NC: It felt like a battle to the death, writing a narrative that spanned 12,000 years. It was quite ambitious and the research has been prodigious. The whole story was held together by over 7,000 footnotes, which allowed me to navigate myself around the story and remind me of my sources. Then at the last moment I deleted all the footnotes, so the story was freestanding. I wanted to create a narrative for Britain that wasn’t latched onto kings, queens and archbishops. Instead I wanted it to latch onto our habitat – the places we live in – so we can rethink where we come from and rethink where we’re going to.

Funny you should talk about narratives and kings and queens. As I was reading The Making of the British Landscape, I kept thinking of the BBC Radio 4 series This Sceptred Isle. Your book is the geographic equivalent: a wonderful, seemingly oral narrative of our green and pleasant land.

In some ways this is an environmental narrative. And in terms of climate change, environmental change, and the challenges we’re facing now and will do in the future, to my mind this is one of the most important stories going if you live on this island.

Is the purpose of The Making of the British Landscape to celebrate the British Isles or sound a note of warning?

The warning is implicit. There are so many brilliant, hard-hitting environmental books already out there, I didn’t want to cover that ground again. My aim was to provide a means of caring about a place called Britain and its landscapes by understanding how they evolved. If you care about a place you look after it.

In your introduction, you say: “To care about a place you must know its story.” Why should we care?

There are a very large number of us living on a finite, moderately small island and the changes coming down the line – a warming planet, sea levels rising, food insecurity – mean we have to make the right choices now to safeguard future generations. That means thinking very hard indeed about, for example, how many more chemicals to put on the land to increase crop yield, the ratio of meat to vegetables we’re consuming, building on greenfield sites and building affordable housing in the right places. There are massive decisions that need to be taken very quickly if we are going to create a sustainable future.

In your book, as you trace the industrialisation of Britain, you also explore how the massive growth of communities has changed the notion of local architecture.

There’s been an extremely interesting transition in architecture, from building styles and building materials that arise from the bedrock on which they’re built. There are particular types of architecture in areas where you’ve got limestone, and another in areas where you’ve got granite. In eastern England, where there’s not so much building stone, you find more houses made of timber and plaster. Historically the architecture reflects the geology of the region. But over the last century or so, we have imported building materials and created artificial materials like concrete. The upshot is that buildings have become completely alien to the area in which they are built (Modernism being the most extreme and radical version of that). As a result, much modern architecture bears no relation to local culture or local building material, and personally I think that’s a mistake: buildings need to reflect the geographical or human culture they’re embedded in and the communities who use them.

In another chapter, you explore the notion that maps are created in the mind: that to have a sense of location, we must first create a mental map of our surroundings, based on how we relate to them.
Forget about Google Maps, the most important maps are the ones we create in our imagination, noting local landmarks or road turnings. And each of us notices something different: for one person it might be a corner shop, for another it might be a zebra crossing. Primary landmarks become the way markers by which we build a landscape in our imagination. Our mental maps are filled with the places we know and care about most and, as a result, are most open to learning about. And of course, because every landscape in Britain has been inhabited for 12,000 years continuously, every single neighbourhood has the most amazing stories. And they don’t have to be Norman castle-type stories. Where I’m sitting now used to be Camden Dairy in Victorian times, where horses and carts used to carry churns and bottles of milk. It’s a huge source of pleasure to know and build up these local stories.

Is that why ultimately we are all topophiliacs: people who invest emotion in a specific place or landmark?

Yes, and these places make us feel safe and bring us pleasure, even though other people might not even notice them. I’ve got quite a lot: a tree that catches the morning light in a certain way, the view from a bridge across a canal – private places in public spaces that mean a lot to me. I spent three years researching a book on maps at the British Library and became extremely attached to a particular seat. It sounds stupid. There were hundreds of others all identical, but this one became mine. We are predisposed to attach ourselves to specific places. It goes back to when we were hunters and foragers, when we had to become attached to places to survive.

You also write about how cultures strengthen their bonds through the sharing of stories, rituals and art associated with landmarks, like the Aborigines’ Dreamtime. Or even prehistoric man with his (or her) cave art.

Back in the Ice Age, small isolated groups would have been travelling through British landscapes on long journeys on foot along unmarked, frequently perilous, trails. A walking route is like a story, in that it has a beginning, middle and end, with various peaks and troughs along the way. It’s not hard to see how landscapes, storytelling and the survival of a tribe are all closely connected.

This is a thought-provoking, extremely informative book with a serious message. Do you worry people don’t take you seriously after years as ‘that bloke off the telly’?

There can be a bit of that. I presented the BBC series Coast for 10 years and it is still an extremely popular series. I’ve taken a break though as I wanted to concentrate on writing. Television is an excellent way to highlight issues, but making a television series is incredibly time consuming, more than you might think, so it was extremely enjoyable to be able to focus fully on writing and researching.

And also to become the new president of the Royal Geographical Society.

That is a huge privilege. I was elected last year and it’s a three-year term; I intend to make the most of every single minute. This year we are celebrating 60 years of the society’s Expeditions and Geographical Fieldwork Grants, and 40 years of Explore, the annual fieldwork and expeditions planning weekend seminar, in November. There are talks every Monday night from September to May, and exhibitions such as the work of Frank Hurley, Shackleton’s photographer, and never-seen-before material from the first expedition across the Rub al Khali by Bertram Thomas in 1930 and the second by Mark Evans in 2015. There has scarcely been a more important time for geographers and the work of the RGS.