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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, June 30, 2005
    Lancashire landscape and Liverpool manure
    It's fifty years since W. G. Hoskins first published his masterpiece, The Making of the English Landscape. It's one of those books which when it appeared, just did not fit into any existing categories, because it broke completely new ground. Or, to be more accurate, what Hoskins did was to go over old ground - the ground we tread on daily - in a lot of detail, investigating just how it got to be the way it was. His work was the consequence of a lifetime spent walking the hills and lanes of his native Devon and the Midlands where he lectured, asking questions of them: what created those ridges and furrows, why are those fields the shape they are, are those woods 'natural' (and what does that actually mean)?

    The Making of the English Landscape crossed disciplines like no work had ever done before, very creatively linking geography, history, ecology, aesthetics, and social science. It was also a polemic - against modernism and the encroachment of major roads, housing developments and airfields - criticism which was very out of place at the time, in the ambitiously reordering post-war Britain, but nevertheless was a trigger for the conservation movements which have become so influential in the intervening years.

    Today I sat in on a Liverpool University course in which Alan Crosby took us deep into Hoskins' work. It was a fascinating day. I learned many, many things about how human beings have shaped the land, and how to begin to read the land to see the signs of what's been done on it in pre-industrial, or medieval or prehistoric times.

    Reading the land tells us a lot about the people who have lived on it and worked it, and their relationships. If you do this there will be surprises. One lovely local insight Alan shared is that the fertile soil of the East Lancashire farmlands owes its richness to the fact that it was fertilised by Liverpool manure - human and street waste brought up the Leeds-Liverpool canal to Burscough's Manure Wharf. That illustrates a link between the rural and urban, of the kind this course is helping me make in all sorts of ways.

    Interesting to reflect on Hoskins on this vast housing estate where I live. 'Overspill,' Hoskins wrote, 'is a word as beastly as the thing it describes.' But this place is not beastly to the three or four generations of many families who have made it their home; they would disagree with the polemical Hoskins on that. The investigative Hoskins, though, gives us a lot of resources for learning more about our place - and I'm looking forward to session two of this very interesting course.