Paths to the Past: Encounters with Britain's Hidden Landscapes
Francis Pryor
Allen Lane
139pp
Hardback, £16.99

The topographical diversity of Great Britain has long been a selling-point for the heritage industry. Packed into a mere 80,000 square miles is an astonishing narrative of geological upheaval: an epic history, albeit on an intimate scale, of desert, volcano, glacier and atavistic eruption. The distinct but neighbourly features of mountain and moorland, chalk down, tidal creek, ancient woodland and rolling dale are all part of a thoroughly hybrid geographical entity that reflects the varied origins of the people who live in it: a panoramic smorgasbord and melting-pot that has shaped us, the perpetually incoming populace of the United Kingdom, as much as we, over the centuries – farming, herding, cultivating, building, taming and domesticating – have in our turn shaped it.

This intimate connection between a unique physical environment and its mongrel peoples has in the last several years generated a lively output of reflective writing that straddles travel, biography, natural and cultural history and archaeology, sometimes all at the same time. Robert Macfarlane is one of the most prominent writers in this genre of 'British landscape reflection' and now the distinguished archaeologist, Francis Pryor, adds his voice to the genre. Paths to the Past is an affectionate, beguiling take on the landscapes of Britain by someone superbly qualified to look beyond the obvious and the visible to what is literally under our feet.

The book consists of 24 short chapters, each of which addresses an aspect or feature of the rural or urban topography that speaks of something significant about the lives and purpose of those who interacted with it. In revealing this intent, Pryor is able to make telling observations about the landscape itself. We learn for instance that stretches of Hadrian's Wall were painted white to render them even more visible and impressive, and that, as the author discovered while he was working with the BBC's Time Team, Branodunum in north Norfolk was no mere outlier to defend Roman Britain against the Saxons, but rather a major military installation that had a large oval training arena, or gyrus, for its cavalry regiment.

Whether examining the indentations left in the landscape after the Ice Age at Star Carr in Yorkshire, musing on the significance of the King Arthur myth at Tintagel, meditating on the possible ritual meanings of Seahenge or feeling overwhelmed by the vast chamber of the Great Orme Bronze Age copper mines, Pryor brings at all times a warm (if resolutely secular) sympathy to these topographies of the past. He is the sort of agreeable companion you would want to sit down with for a pint after a ramble at Malham Cove.

For Pryor, landscapes are here to inform but also to inspire us. They reflect who we are and testify to shifting patterns of human behaviour. The point of examining hidden landscapes – 'from Whitby Abbey to the navvy camp at Risehill in Cumbria, from Tintagel to Tottenham's Broadwater Farm' – is to arrive at a common physical inheritance helping future generations in landscape management and understanding.

Though this book skips around and is arguably too episodic, it adds up to an enjoyable, richly informative meditation on treasures that even Britain's more obscure landscapes reveal and what they might mean.

Alex Wright

 

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